You’ll have to fight your way through a high tide of Laguna Beach locals to find a seat at this deservedly crowded new eatery
Of this I am now certain: No good restaurant in Laguna Beach stays undiscovered for long. In this dining crucible where competition is fierce and customer expectations run high, if you’re good, crowds will precede buzz.
And Watermarc is very, very good. Helmed by chef/owner Marc Cohen, who’d previously built a solid reputation in town with his 230 Forest, his newest restaurant seems to have earned the approval of this city’s discriminating palates faster than most. It debuted a month ago, and it’s already a hit.
Had Watermarc been located anywhere else—say, Irvine—it’d need at least a year to attract more than looky-loos. But on a recent Friday night, even with reservations, my friends and I were denied entry for a good half-hour, twiddling our thumbs while on the Pacific Coast Highway sidewalk. In the meantime, we saw what seemed like every member of Laguna Beach society swigging wine and nibbling on Watermarc’s grazing plates on tables so tightly crammed that designer perfumes mixed and privileged elbows rubbed. Any giddy notions I had about breaking this story to Laguna Beach? Gone. By the time this goes to press, the restaurant won’t be news to anyone in town.
When our table was ready, we were led upstairs to a less hectic scene, elevated above the hubbub in a secret den that looked like a members-only treehouse. Insist on a table here if you can, especially near the open balcony, where the scent of Gelato Paradiso’s waffle cones will waft up from the alleyway below.
If you’re lucky, Alex will be your server. The guy did everything right: He apologized for the wait, stooped down to eye level to talk to us, looked genuinely happy to be there and volleyed every question I lobbed at him. I asked, “How long will it take for the flatbread?” Eight minutes, he said, noticing the ravenous glint in my eye. Eight minutes later, he followed through, arriving with a crisp-crusted, oblong pizza bubbling with fontina, garlic, onions, roasted pepper and piquant kalamata olives.
Our other grazing plates came shortly after. The nuggets of fried Laura Chenel goat cheese sat on sticky puddles of honey and were wedged between tart slices of green apple. Biting into the hot, crisp, thin breading released the funky, rich, cheesy ooze.
Although the Yellow Fin Tuna Two Ways was fresh and executed with sushi-bar precision, I’d skip it. It doesn’t tell you what you don’t already know about sashimi and tartare. For the cost, you could order another round of that fried cheese—or, better yet, the brandade de morue, a hot dip of salt cod and pureed potato. Slather it on the supplied, business card-size lavash rectangles, and the warm, off-white paste will soothe like an upscale tuna melt.
Another one you shouldn’t miss is the house-made seafood sausage, for which crab meat and fish mousse are piped into natural casing and served over a bowl of stewed white beans—an appetizer invested with more thought and care than is required.
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Cohen met our now-heightened expectations with his entrées. The roasted white-cedar-plank king salmon was cooked pink and perfect, topped with bitter slivers of blood orange and sitting on an actual cedar cross-section. I asked Alex about the plank, which retained some of its bark. “He sources it from a grower in Kentucky, and then soaks it overnight in star anise, garlic and other spices,” he said proudly. Wow, I thought. Now that’s commitment.
Even Cohen’s chicken breast wasn’t half-assed. It’s sauced almost too boldly with a salty, fontina-laced sage butter and encased in a thin, crispy prosciutto shell masquerading as rendered skin. And the filet mignon (Cohen’s most expensive entrée)? It’s done three ways. Each measured morsel was sinew-free, broiled exactingly and literally wore different hats: The Oscar was crowned with a chapeau of lump crab, asparagus and bearnaise; the Wellington, a puff pastry cap hiding a mushroom duxelle toupee; and the peppercorn-crusted Diane, a beehive stack of onion rings.
I do have some tips for my fellow out-of-towners who’ve yet to discover Watermarc: starches and veggies, like his generously portioned trio of roasted cauliflower, are served à la carte. There’s no bread service; it’s replaced by a water service, which means you get your choice of water with either a slice of orange in it, cucumbers and mint, or plain. And also, if you park in the structure on Glenneyre Street, between Laguna and Legion (as you should), you don’t have to feed the meter after 7 p.m.; it’s free. You Laguna Beach residents, of course, already know this.
Watermarc at 448 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 376-6272; www.watermarcrestaurant.com. Open for lunch daily, 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; intermezzo daily, 3:30-5 p.m.; dinner Sun.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. Grazing plates, $6-$12; dinner entrées, $12-$34. Full bar.