I was prepared to spend a lot of money at the new Water Grill. This was, after all, the crown jewel of Sam and Jeff King's seafood-restaurant fiefdom, which includes about a dozen King's Fish Houses and the affordable Fish Camp in Sunset Beach (which, by the way, I love).
Water Grill, however, is the upmarket label of the brand, the Banana Republic to King's Fish House's the Gap and Fish Camp's Old Navy. So I expected it to be expensive. But then there's conventional wisdom about any seafood restaurant near South Coast Plaza: It's never cheap, especially when the $6 valet parking is compulsory.
This exact spot used to be Scott's, which cornered the market on pricey seafood in the area for 26 years before it shuttered in January. The building was demolished, and Water Grill carved out a space that looks as vast as the ocean itself. The place isn't so much a single dining room as it is a series of connected ecosystems, each with its own climate, flora and fauna.
If you count the multiple private rooms, the outdoor patio with the retractable roof, and the main dining area that features a copper-topped full bar and an oyster-shucking island made of concrete, Water Grill has the capacity to host 700 souls. This doesn't include the army of hostesses, servers, busboys, oyster shuckers, bartenders and uniformed cooking staff who toil inside a sprawling glass-encased kitchen. The restaurant is a small city. And to eat here on a Friday evening is to feel as if you've actually gone out for a night on the town, as though you're in the swirling center of it all.
The waiters are the kinds who are instructed to clean the tables of crumbs between courses. And upon seating, ours offered us a choice of flat or sparkling water, both of which he had ready in his hands from two sweaty glass jugs.
“Does the sparkling cost extra?” I asked, already wary of any unnecessary non-seafood-related expenses.
“Oh! No! It's free!” he said, smiling.
As I ate a crusty piece of an asiago-imbued bread roll with butter, I ordered the rest of our meal. We opted for the smallest iced-shellfish platter (called “The Grand”) for $45, the Chilean sea bass for $43, and the excellent bitter greens Caesar with whole anchovies for $10. If you're doing the math in your head, as I did that night, I was already $100 into it.
“Is that enough for the two of us?” I said to the waiter.
“Oh, yes, that's plenty,” he responded. “You've got the platter, which is a big plate of food!”
He was right. Along with half a lobster claw and tail, there were six mussels, five fat cocktail-style shrimp, some peel-and-eats, two scallops bathed in citrus pesto, a pair of raw littlenecks, four oysters, and a handful of tiny whelks that came with plastic toothpicks to coax their tiny curlicue meat from their shells.
Despite one bad clam that couldn't be swallowed and lobster meat that I already knew was going to be rubbery, it wasn't an outrageous price tag for the amount of shellfish decadence we received. A similar platter at King's Fish House, I researched later, retailed for $10 cheaper, but that's only because it subbed the lobster for crab.
That seared seabass we ate, though, can only be had at Water Grill; King's doesn't offer it. Apart from being one of the costliest entrées here, the fish was seared perfectly to a crisp outer crust and still wiggled like just-set Jell-O everywhere else. And it came with a creamy cauliflower purée and was bathed in lots of brown butter with hazelnuts thrown in for crunch. The dish was the highlight of our evening.
But what I learned after a second visit is that, along with being very expensive, Water Grill can be very inconsistent. The fritto misto—fruits of the Fryolator with zucchini, shrimp, calamari and fish—was crisp, hot and very reasonable at $16. But the baked whole sea bream, priced at $29 per pound, had the flavor and personality of a wet rag. There was a chewy but passable grilled octopus with tomato paste and feta, but a side dish of braised kale tasted as if it took a dunk in dishwater.
That second night, our waiter, who never offered the sparkling water like our first server did, tried to upsell us on the Dover sole for $45 per pound—a price that almost guarantees him a higher tip. And maybe I should've taken him up on it. With that sea bream at 1.6 pounds, I was already paying more than that; and I did, after all, come in wearing not my usual Old Navy hoodie, but my newest and most expensive Banana Republic cashmere sweater. I should've ordered more appropriately.
Water Grill, 3300 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (949) 208-7060; www.watergrill.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-midnight; Sat., 10 a.m.-midnight; Sun., 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Dinner for two, $70-$150. Full bar.