A Los Angeles-based seafood chain has arrived in Uptown with high confidence, big ambitions and eyebrow-raising prices. Water Grill already has the swagger of a place that’s been a fixture for years, married to a menu that’s eager to impress Uptown crowds. Diners have come rushing in, but sometimes the food here gets a little overeager to please.
Water Grill certainly put a great deal of thought and money into its new space. The restaurant looks like an elaborate, wealthy fantasy of a dockside oyster shack. Exposed wooden timbers are here, as are rope netting, lobster tanks and an abundance of leather captain’s chairs. The bar is especially lavish, with a copper top, cushioned leather paneling to deflect stray knees and two shelves of liquor suspended on chains from the ceiling. Little lamps along the bar hold both old fishing reels and USB ports for phone charging.
A quick menu breakdown is in order. Water Grill has a list of seafood standards, including raw oysters, chilled crab legs, starters, sandwiches, fish and chips, simple fresh fish preparations and, at $7, probably the most expensive miso soup in Dallas. Then they have a slate of live seafood straight from the tanks, like lobster and Dungeness crab. And, finally, there’s a list of whole fish grilled and sold by weight; wild red snapper, for instance, costs $34 per pound and generally weighs in between 1.1 and 1.5 pounds.
Sourcing is a big deal for Water Grill. The restaurant group has its own distribution company, King’s Seafood Distribution, and the menu makes note of sustainability certifications for species that are overfished. Even the fish and chips brag, a little pretentiously, about the New England market from which the cod is purchased and flown in; that’s why they cost $27. It’s like a cross between a Dallas steakhouse, a San Francisco oyster house and a Portlandia sketch.
That precision in sourcing promises extra-fresh and premium-quality seafood. But flying in all the food every day is an incredibly expensive undertaking, and the restaurant will need to convince Dallas diners that the sometimes-shocking prices are worth paying. No, it’s not all markup to gouge the Uptown elites; running this restaurant takes extraordinary effort.
And, much of the time, Water Grill makes good on its promise. A grilled octopus appetizer ($19) arrives flawlessly prepared, not even a bit rubbery, with a kiss of smoke and a sharp, rustic-textured tomato sauce. “Mussels garbanzo” ($16) might be the best food on the whole menu: The mussels are faultlessly steamed and oh-so-tender, and although the menu’s promised harissa isn’t noticeable, the simple lemon-butter-parsley sauce is all these shellfish need.
A main-course preparation of Alaskan black cod ($39) may come with veggie sides austere enough to make an old-school steakhouse proud — three shishito peppers, three ultra-thin eggplant slices and nothing else — but the fish itself is perfectly cooked, fall-apart tender and delicate under the sear. Charring and a hit of red miso glaze are all the flavoring this excellent specimen needs. An outstanding cut of wild swordfish ($35) is similarly simply cooked, in a sauce of brown butter and capers. Again, the side is ungenerous: a few finger-sized slices of zucchini. Those sides would be less of an issue if the side dish menu weren’t so boring.
For those who like to work for their food, it doesn’t get much more labor-intensive than cioppino, a peasant stew at a nobleman’s price ($35) that comes with shell-on shrimp, crab legs, mussels, fish and more. For all the perfectly cooked seafood within, the best part may be the broth, which combines a shellfish base with an almost barbecue-like tang. It would be even better if the half baguette on the side, intended for sopping up that broth, weren’t toasted to near-brick status.
The “raw crudo” appetizer section is linguistically confused (“crudo” means “raw” in Italian), but mostly on-target. Sampling all three possibilities ($19) is a good choice, showcasing two slices each of raw scallops, salmon and tuna. The tuna is best, with super-tiny red beet chips for texture, while scallop crudo opts for a sweet-spicy balance between peppery togarashi spice rub and golden raisins. On the other hand, the raw salmon is served on a schmear of fig jam, which just makes it taste sweet. There’s a reason, it turns out, that nobody ever spreads jam on salmon.
The tuna crudo isn’t so different from the tuna main course, which is a salad of raw tuna slices with fennel ($38). Here, as on the appetizer, the main added flavoring is olive oil; unfortunately, there’s nothing else going on. A drop of acidity from lemon or lime juice would help convert a one-note main dish into a course that sings. The restaurant seems to know this; the menu advertises candied lemon zest, but we found just one little shaving.
But Water Grill’s biggest disappointment was the ordering system for whole fish. Waiters have shorthand lists of each fish by weight, so, for instance, my table requested a 1.5 pound whole grilled red snapper. But the waiter, apparently following policy, didn’t place our order until after we had finished eating appetizers, “so they don’t all come out at the same time.” By then, every single red snapper had sold out, as had every loup de mer and sea bass. We were left fish-less.
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Shouldn’t this be a simple fix to the ordering system? But Water Grill suffers from a number of bizarre organizational flaws; I once was seated 20 minutes after my reservation despite arriving early, and of the parking garage’s two elevators, only one connects to the restaurant. The other requires a looping, unmarked walk down the street and around a corner.
One good sign for Water Grill is that its big weakness, basic execution, should be comparatively easy to fix: tweak some recipes, fix ordering, train the sommeliers, throw out the fig jam. Conversely, its strengths — quality sourcing of fresh seafood, thoughtful preparations — are things that other establishments struggle with. Yes, there’s a sense that diners are paying for the chance to be seen among a buzzy crowd of Uptown trendsetters. But this California import may yet become a culinary destination.
Water Grill, 1920 McKinney Ave., 214-306-7111, watergrill.com. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.