By David Nelson
Photos by Sara Norris
For Southern California seafood mogul Sam King, the world is his oyster and oysters are his world.
King, who heads a family-owned restaurant empire that includes the new Water Grill in East Village , the Gaslamp's Lou & Mickey's and a number of King's Fish House restaurants, also has a penchant for Florida stone crab claws. And spot prawns. And San Diego's very own spiny lobsters (almost all of which currently ship out of town to sushi bars in Japan and seafood restaurants in China). And just about anything that thrives in salt water and pairs perfectly with the carefully chosen vintages appearing on his comprehensive wine lists.
"It's a personal business," King said of his role as restaurateur shortly before Water Grill's March 19 opening. "You gotta enjoy it."
Enjoy it, he does - especially when showing off a densely printed, three-page lunch menu that opens with 16 varieties of East and West Coast oysters, goes on to extravagant platters of chilled shellfish and binges on prime fresh fish entrées. Daily specials may include ultra-fresh Brittany Dover Sole at $45 per pound and a somewhat less expensive New Zealand pink bream. The menu accommodates the non-piscatorial with a few deluxe steaks and what King calls "a pretty damn good burger." Actually, it's a glam bacon-cheddar burger with fries.
The original Water Grill opened in downtown Los Angeles in the late 1980s as the neighborhood began a slow renaissance that led up to the current boom. San Diego's Water Grill copies the "temple of seafood" approach, which emphasizes luxury and abundance in the same way a top-line steakhouse does. Fitting, since the building was originally formed to house the local branch of The Palm, the national steakhouse chain that shuttered its doors in January of 2014. The two-story structure was virtually rebuilt for Water Grill.
The look is rich but not formal.
"We designed [the dining room] to make you feel like you're inside a ship," says King. "This is all reclaimed lumber from around the country."
In fact, King wanted so much timber that he hired an expert to source the wood from Nebraska, West Virginia, and other places with many vintage barns and farmhouses.
While the new Sempra Energy office building nearing completion one block down J Street helped convince King to sign on to the location, he cites his lengthy experience as a San Diego restaurateur as the primary influence.
"San Diego is the seventh largest city in the country, and we think the local palate has grown tremendously in the last 15 years," he says. " Downtown has become one of the great places to live, and we hope Gaslamp will become more local in the next few years. San Diego is the city of the future."
The present seems pretty good as it is and Water Grill definitely improves the landscape. France-born chef Fabrice Poigin, whose lengthy local resume includes creating the original seafood menus for Sally's on San Diego Bay and helming the kitchen at Bertrand at Mister A's, is responsible for feeding 300 or more guests simultaneously when the restaurant's two dining rooms and two private rooms are full.
"I'm a very blessed man, because I work for some very passionate people," Poigin says. Poigin is pretty passionate himself, a fact that shows up in items as diverse as his tartar sauce that accompanies his equally good Atlantic Cod fish and chips; the huge, freshly baked Tarte Tatin with buttery, melting apples and suave caramel; and utterly unexpected side dishes like braised kale with Greek yogurt and hazelnuts. As Poigin acknowledges, at Water Grill, the a la carte sides are anything but sideshows. An adventurous list that calms down with mashed Yukon Gold potatoes gets excited with highlights like grilled broccolini with Chinese sausage, and roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon and chestnuts.
"The menu items are pretty much the same as in L.A., and we'll adapt as we go," says King. "We're hoping to sell a lot of the live crabs and spiny lobsters that you don't find at other seafood restaurants. We try to satisfy every desire for seafood. Guests can eat their way around the menu over many visits - they're not going to get bored."
615 J St., East Village