Many years ago I had a smart young development exec at my film production company. Janna King, who kept telling me that her family "was in the restaurant business." But I paid little attention. It was only some years later that I realized she was referring to the powerful King Bros. clan of seafood warriors. Sam, Jeff and all, owners of a leading chain of upscale seafood restaurants around Southern California. I have been reviewing with raves their Water Grill downtown since it opened 24 years ago. This wondrous place has spawned several top chefs who have gone on to success in local restaurants. Michael Cimarusti went on to found Providence with wife Crissi (and recently they joined with partners to open the new, casual seafood shack, Connie and Ted.) David LeFevre was here for a long while before going to Manhattan Beach for MB Post. Last year they closed the downtown spot for a renovation and, $1.5 million later, it reopened to acclaim as a more casual, less expensive venue. The Kings owned the venerable Ocean Avenue Seafood overlooking the ocean, but as I have noted elsewhere it slowly lost its glitter and glamour and was closed some time ago. Now they have revitalized that location with a truly wonderful new version of their WATER GRILL (1401 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica, corner of Ocean and Santa Monica Blvd. (310) 394-5669), and as my lovely companion remarked when we first dined there, "The new Water Grill is like Manhattan's Le Bernardin on steroids." In other words, it is a superb seafood restaurant but with a scope and size beyond anything we have yet seen hereabouts. (There is an excellent spot nearby, Blue Plate Oysterette, but no comparison... that one is so tiny you usually have to wait outside for a counter seat.) The new Water Grill sports an antique nautical theme, dark walls and subway tiles, sort of like New York's Oyster Bar.
Obviously the word is out about this exciting new place 'cause every time we have been here it has been packed -- noisy, fun, a great buzz and a sense of adventure. I make every effort to do early dinners here since I enjoy watching the sun set over the Pacific through the big picture windows looking out at the ocean. Yes, this is magical. I asked the V.P. of operations, Heath Bumgardner, what percentage of patrons were tourists and what were regulars; he said it was about 50-50. It's large, about 250 seats, but the space is adequate enough to feature lots of back booths as well as unreserved seats at the raw bar on the left, a massive drinking bar on the right with the usual TV screens, and an open kitchen at the rear where some two dozen cooks are turning out an enormous amount of cooked seafood.
I spent some time on each visit looking at the display of whole fish nestled on beds of ice next to the kitchen and examining a blackboard listing the daily catch available for cooking in any of several ways. Last night it featured Farmed European Sea Bass (Loup de Mer) at $27 per pound, New Zealand Pink Bream at $28 per pound, Farmed Greek Black Bream at $32 per pound and my choice for our dinner this night, a Brittany (France) Dover Sole at a rather costly-but-worthwhile $44 per pound. We had a table of four healthy eaters and the sole was one of three whole fish we ordered: it was $61.60 for 1.4 lbs, while the Whole Pink Bream was $39.20 for 1.4 lbs, while the Whole Loup de Mer was $40.60 for the same size prepared Escabeche style ($3 extra). My brother Stan, just relocated here from the South of France, commented that our Deluxe Iced Shellfish Platter (at $75) was far less than the equivalent raw tiered sampler served in Paris. The smaller Grand is $39. (a bargain, actually) and the King is $145, but it will feed six to eight. The Deluxe featured 3 oysters of three kinds each (East and West Coast), 4 cherrystone clams, 4 Peruvian bay scallops, 12 wild jumbo Mexican white shrimp, 10 Whales Cove mussels, a ½ Maine hard-shell lobster, a 1.3 lb. Santa Barbara crab. The largest platter even features a whole Channel Island Red sea urchin, a shellfish which is my particular passion. (It sells separately for $14.50, and you carve open the top to extract the golden caviar-of-the-sea gonads.)
My other two guests at last night's dinner were Teresa Chiang, the Chinese actress, and her son Nic Bee, who is a fierce raw fish/sashimi addict. So the Crudo Sampler at $19 was a given: Wild Alaskan Halibut ($14 separately), Farmed Kona Kamapachi ($13) and Wild Columbia River King Salmon ($13). I reserved the Uni Toast ($12) for myself, served on toasted brioche. Never enough uni for me. (I told my guests that I regularly order sea urchin from a San Diego website, Catalina Offshore, which delivers it via $10 FedEx the next day for about $12 a tray with a 5-tray minimum, a terrific buy.)
Crudo sampler features three fish....wild salmon, yellowtail and halibut.
I always sample the Crab Cakes at a new restaurant, and these were legendary Maryland Blue Crab patties ($16), while my brother tasted Wild Spanish Octopus ($16) for the first time. On other recent visits I have enjoyed a bowl of New England Clam Chowder ($9) and an appetizer which only I seem to like: Tuna Poke ($17), which Executive Chef Damon Gordon told me was actually fish from the Marshall Island in the South Pacific. The charming, laconic Englishman laughed as he said that he has learned in his two years at King's that they don't hesitate to import the finest seafood from the far reaches of the world. Damon worked at Mix in New York and Miami's Delano Hotel before that. He told me that Chef Alain Ducasse was his mentor when young.)
Sam King is the pigtailed jovial co-owner of the restaurant chain.
I must note that the wait staff here is so thoroughly professional that I have never had one server who did not know the intimate details of the menu inside out....our charming server last night, Susan, told me about the Fritto Misto ($16), a mixed fried seafood selection, and mentioned the Fish Taco appetizer ($10) made with Atlantic cod. The energetic General Manager, Robert Benson, saw me eyeing the huge Alaskan King Crab in the rippling Seafood tank and a few minutes later he broght out for our inspection a massive 6 ½ lb. wild crab still lashing and kicking on a platter...and told us that the Wild Barents Sea (Alaska) Red King Crab sold for $45 a pound, so this specimen would sell for abut $250/..but it would dress down to about four pounds of crab meat, serving six or seven people easily. "We sell four or five of them a night," he told me. Earlier I had been talking to pig-tailed, ever-active owner Sam King about the cost of lobsters hereabout, with Connie and Ted charging $25 a pound for their crustaceans, and Sam laughed and said that happened to be the same price he was charging... and I must have one of their steamed monsters next visit.
There are always several whole fish on ice from all over the world.
They feature about fifteen different varieties of oysters, ranging from $29 to $35 a dozen, equally divided between the coasts. A few salads and sandwiches at lunch and dinner, and I heartily recommend their Shrimp Louie Salad made with wild Mexican white sjrimp, as well as a Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwich made with wild Maryland soft sellbravs ($22). The New England Lobster Roll ($27) is a bit pricey at $27, but the pile of fries are part of the price. For non-sefoode aters, there is aBacon Cheddar Cheeseburger ($17) and a Mary;s Organic Chicken ($27) grilled over charcoal. The 8 oz. Filet Mignon ($37) and the One Pound Prime Ribeye ($44) are also available, but why would you come to a great seafood place to eat meat?
The chef told me that the most popular dish by far is the Chilean Sea Bass ($38), and we both knowingly laughed at the true name of this fish, i.e. Patagonian dogfish. I have been trying to order the rare Wild Alaskan Sablefish ($36) but it has been unavailable of late. (Yes, that is also known as Black Cod, and I love the same silky fatty mouthfeel it offers as the Chilean variety. A large variety of other seafood offerings: from jumbo soft shell blue crabs to swordfish, from Columbia River wild king salmon to big-eye tuna, and Eastern sea scallops and California yellowtail...all her ein abundance. Did I mention they have a terrific Cioppino ($32), the soup replete with Dungeness crab, jumbo shrimps, fresh fish, in a spicy shellfish broth. Another favorite of mine is the Live Santa Barbara Spot Prawns ($46 a pound), charcoal-grilled and served with homemade cole slaw and garlic herb butter.
The King Bros have always served fabulous desserts at all their restaurants, so we have sampled some truly delicious ones here (all $9). Nic raved last nigth about the Caramel Bread Pudding and I noted the sprinkling of red sea salt atop. My long-time favorite is the Key Lime Pie, while my brother was caught in enjoying the Coconut Panna Cotta and the Banana Chocolate Sundae.
I won't go into a long description of the wine and beer offerings (20 of the latter) ..needless to say, they have a huge selection of wines from all over the world, rather fairly priced, ,but I was delighted to have a bottle of my favorite Justin Pinot. (Yes, I will drink reds with fish if it is the right reds.) Otherwise, a white French Burgandy will do. The Water Grill is open every day from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., with midnight on Friday and Saturday.
I am a big fan of professionalism in whatever you do, and over the years the Kings -- Sam, Jeff and their staff of dedicated associates -- have exhibited such a true sense of that I can only again tip my hat to them for never wavering in making things 'a little better.' Here in Santa Monica they have given birth to a wonderful New York-style seafood restaurant that matches any in the world. It is, indeed, the Catch of the Day!
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