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Loup de mer ceviche is plated with the head and tail of the fish. Photo by Carin Krasner

The Changing Tide

by Lesley Balla | Angeleno magazine | August 21, 2012

Years ago, when I first went to Water Grill, I was in awe of the shellfish tower. An ice-filled platter covered with pristine oysters on the half shell, clams, mussels and Maine lobster—it was exquisite. It wasn’t something I would order every day, nor when dining solo. It was a treat.

But now, thanks to a casual redesign, lower prices and a new focus on craft beers and classic cocktails, I’d feel comfortable ordering Water Grill’s grand platter any day of the week, or even just a few oysters and a beer. There’s no reason to reserve the raw bar for special occasions. It’s obvious that the restaurant was reworked to attract more than the suits and expense-account diners. And it’s working.

The downtown restaurant was always known for its stellar, high-concept seafood, and for great chefs like David LeFevre, who went on to open M.B. Post in Manhattan Beach; and Michael Cimarusti, whose restaurant, Providence, is now an arbiter of haute seafood cuisine. But the room was staid. It felt corporate and dry. And after those chefs left, and as the dining public’s tastes changed, it was obviously time for an overhaul.

The dining room seems more open now, with a woodsy, nautical theme. The poles and giant stuffed fish on the walls make it feel like you could step outside and hop on a boat. Of course, the only water nearby is the L.A. River, and that’s not a place where you’d want to fish. Gone are the linens, now replaced by large dark wood tables—they have to be big to hold the platters of shellfish, whole grilled fish and bowls of chowder.

It does feel like it could be anywhere, and maybe that’s the point. The King cousins, who own Water Grill, also own several other restaurants around Southern California. The new concept can be replicated, and maybe it will be copied. But right now it’s an everyday place with good, simple seafood.

The neighborhood has taken to it more, too, and a mix of young urbanites are stopping in for a bite, a few oysters, maybe some chowder. Still, the suit-and-tie set remains stalwart in its patronage: politicians including Gray Davis, lawyers, traveling executives and corporate types.

Like the redesign, chef Damon Gordon keeps the menu fairly uncomplicated. But that doesn’t mean it’s not large and slightly daunting, with everything from fried seafood appetizers and shrimp Louie salad, to the raw bar, whole fish, entrées and even steaks. Luckily, the servers know every inch of it. When we inquired about the whole fish—there are several offered nightly, all priced per pound—we were told not only what fish is available, but also which is best for each preparation.

On one visit, I tried loup de mer that was grilled and served escabeche-style; on another visit, it was plated as pink sea bream ceviche. Whole fish always wows a table, no matter how it’s prepared. But the ceviche is as eye-catching as it is delicious, the flesh topped with micro greens, Fresno chile, red jalapeño slices and a ton of citrus. The body of the fish, with the head and tail placed at the ends, is laid out on the plate.

If you’ve spent any time on either coast, you’ll find something here to enjoy. Thick, golden fish and chips are deliciously doused in malt vinegar. The cioppino isn’t as tomato-heavy as most West Coast versions, but rather brothy and flavorful, full of crab claws, hunks of halibut and salmon, clams and mussels. There’s already a piece of bread in the bowl sopping up the broth, but you’ll want more.

You can’t really go wrong with most of the dishes, although the sides left little to be desired. I’m not sure why the kale needed a yogurt topping with hazelnuts. Why not just blend it in? And the Colorado Catch striped bass was so wonderfully cooked, but offset by a glut of gummy mashed potato purée. But you’re not here for the accoutrements, really. It’s all about the seafood.

There was a time when reservations were made at the Water Grill for celebrations and power lunches. But thanks to the changing tide, it’s now more about cocktails and simply prepared seafood in a casual, come-as-you-are setting. They say it’s a sign of the times. We say it’s about time.

Water Grill
544 S. Grand Ave., L.A., 213.891.0900, watergrill.com

Mon.-Thu., 11:30am-10pm;
Fri., 11:30am-11pm;
Sat., 5-11pm;
Sun., 4-10pm

Appetizers: $5-$15
Pizza: $13-$15
Pastas: $14-$17
Entrées: $25-$29
Dessert: $7

Who’s There
Everyone from politicos to local loft dwellers, with a smattering of tourists thrown in for good measure

What to Wear
Dark blue suits and ties are out; casual and stylish is in.

The Bar
If there’s one thing that shows how low-key it’s become, it’s the pitchers of beer. Mama’s Little Yella Pils goes great with anything fried.