There's a dish being served right now at Waterman's Harbor in Dana Point that may be the best fried fish in all of OC. The entire creature–a whole black bass with its skin and tail intact, its head propped upright, mouth agape–is flash-fried under a barely there batter. Even though it's presented whole, the fish is also nearly all deboned, with the flesh butterflied and the spine collapsed flat from the load of artichoke hearts, tiny potatoes and white beans it carries on top.
Now this, I thought, is the way to serve a fish. Dramatic? Yes. But also respectful of nature–because if you're going to eat an animal, you mustn't be afraid to look it in the face. The Chinese–who regard whole-fish dishes as symbols of abundance and prosperity–would call it normal. But in American seafood restaurants where you can't often tell the fish filets from bars of soap, this was something even more progressive than the spread of bone marrow as appetizers.
When I took a fork to it, the salty skin crackled audibly. The snowy flesh beneath melted. Everything about it was a pleasure to eat. And when I say "everything," I mean "everything." At the point most people would stop and consider it finished, I nibbled the tips off the tail and used my fingers to scrape whatever I could from the cranial cavity. Then I ate the crispy fins.
It was about the time I spat out a few of its leftover bones that I overheard the conversation from a party seated right behind me.
"This whole black bass sounds good," one of the men said as he looked at the menu.
"But that's the whole fish," the wife warned. "I don't want to see the head."
My heart sank. I thought about saying something. But had they seen my greasy lips and the fish bits lodged under my fingernails, it would've discouraged them even more. So I said nothing. Truth was, they were in good hands no matter what they ordered here.
The chef is none other than John Cuevas, a James Beard Award nominee who used to cook at the Crow Bar and Kitchen and was once the executive chef for Muse at Montage Beverly Hills. And as that black bass dish reiterates, Cuevas is the kitchen whiz he's always been, producing exciting seafood that would've been unthinkable when Waterman's was a Jolly Roger.
Yet it's still possible to get the usual dockside fare of clam chowder, even fish and chips, both house-made. But Cuevas' true treasures go beyond what you can get at any place with a crusty sailor as its mascot. His crab beignets–greaseless, deep-fried balls of pure crabmeat encased in a crunchy cocoon of batter–is an indictment of soggy crab cakes. For a crudo, he bevel-cuts yellowfin tuna, applies a sluicing of seasoned soy sauce, then garnishes the results with jalapeños, crinkled shishitos, crushed almonds and halved Muscat grapes bursting juice–a dish that's actually hotter, fruitier and better than the great version I had recently at Hamamori.
If not for these appetizers, then take the jars he fills with ceviche and poke. Avoid the raw oysters, though, as they're something Cuevas doesn't seem to have any control over. Also, feel sorry for the restaurant's lone oyster shucker, who looks understandably sullen since he has been relegated to a separate, glass-enclosed room by the entrance as though on a time-out. In the half-dozen he shucked for me–some culled from the waters of Canada and Washington–I encountered a few errant shell fragments and two stinkers I had to send back.
When it comes to entrées, it's Cuevas' composed dishes you want, not the à la carte fish filets, with which you have to pay extra for sides. Try his grilled shrimp, for which he uses both Korean kimchi and chorizo in the same dish. Or his braised short rib: a hunk of falling-apart meat he embeds in grits and surrounds with collard greens and a braised onion. The dish is the kind of satisfying meal that sinks deep into your gut as if it's the anchor the Catalina Express ferry drops when it docks next to the restaurant.
Apart from Cuevas' beautiful food, Waterman's Harbor is also located in a beautiful spot. Most of the seating is outside on a series of disconnected patios and balconies. Some tables on the second floor have a crow's-nest view of the scenery. But anywhere you sit, you'll see boats put-putting by, seagulls dive-bombing and passengers disembarking from the Catalina Express. And if you happen to be tucking into the whole black bass while seated near the gangplank, be sure to point at the fish with your greasy fingers. Then give 'em a thumbs-up so everyone will get the point.
Waterman's Harbor, 34661 St. of the Golden Lantern, Dana Point, (949) 764-3474; watermandp.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 4-10 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-3 p.m. & 4-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $50-$80, food only. Full bar.