Watermark Grill: Briny raw seafood, infused liquors highlight the menu

There’s a palpable buzz in the air with Watermark Grill at near capacity. Its the kind of energy restaurateurs tend to love and at least some diners prefer to despair. We even needed to speak up to our utterly charming and accommodating waitress. But the noise level waxes and wanes as the evening progresses. The couple with the unrestrained child leaves, to be replaced by a very large group that is, remarkably civilized. And the process is aided and abetted by some of the palliatives being concocted at the bar little changed, if at all, from its previous Reggianos incarnation.

In other words, if you are so inclined, order a Moray with cucumber dill infused gin made right at the bar. A martini variant served with a ribbon of cucumber, its both pretty, aromatic and perfect with the raw seafood that should surely follow. Other housemade infusions include vodka with cranberry or a serrano/cilantro combination and reposado tequila with vanilla. Try them either neat, on the rocks or in a number of inventive cocktails. But save some for the briny fresh clams. And we do mean briny; the topnecks, a little crunchy as is often the case with clams, are impeccably fresh and brisk a splash in the face with a cold ocean wave. Try them first with just a squirt of lemon, then move on, if you must, to cocktail sauce and the vinegary mignonette which, by the way, also works with the equally impeccable oysters. We had the Cherrystone Creek mollusks from Virginia in honor of constant SAN ANTONIO WOMAN dining companion and found them beyond reproach.

The appetizer order of crab cake, singular, was also in homage to the Virginia girl, and she pronounced it fine and flavorful. We lamented its somewhat less than generous, flat look, however, the plate being saved visually by its Pollack painting of sauces a spicy avocado mayonnaise and a roasted bell pepper vinaigrette. Also good. Though Watermark’s rendition of an appetizer surf and turf (seared tuna and beef) on a block of pink Himalayan salt is inventive and fun, it’s also a little pricey at $13.95. A better return on investment is represented by the steamed mussels in a marinara sauce with black (cured) garlic and pepper flakes. Again, the primal material was impeccable plump and succulent. But the sauce disappointed. Tomato was the major motif, the black garlic was difficult at best to detect, and the red pepper flakes seemed to have abandoned ship. (Nevertheless, we couldn’t let all the good house bread go to waste; it was consumed in enthusiastic sopping.)

The Fresh Market Fish page of the menu does change each day at Watermark. Though you aren’t told which of the fish you’re contemplating ordering is currently thought to be sustainable (for that, go to www.seafoodwatch.org), you are told where it comes from and whether it’s wild or farmed, line caught, netted or trawled. If memory serves, the black cod we ordered was Atlantic and farmed. Once you’ve picked your fish or shrimp, there’s another choice to be made: grilled, blackened, sautéd or fried. Looking to preserve the basic, fresh quality of the fish, sautéd it was. And, simply done, it arrived. Often called sablefish, black cod is especially buttery and high in omega 3 fatty acids. (Pacific sourced smoked sablefish has no equal.) Watermark’s treatment with olive oil and lemon diminished none of these qualities nor did it especially enhance them. The plating of the fillet on top of the chef’s selection of seasonal vegetables  (mixed squashes in this case) also meant that the plate was fairly monochromatic. It fairly shouted for a drizzle of pesto, wasabi mayo anything colorful. Yet the texture was perfect, the taste at once clean and lush. If its excitement you’re after, try grilling, blackening or a different fish. A little sea salt from the container on the table perked up tastes, by the way.

We expected a little more punch with the spiced, pepper rubbed and seared ahi tuna. Maybe it was the warning, politely issued, that any degree of doneness over medium rare would be cause for rejection, but the still rosy slab, while appealing texturally, didn’t smack of spice and pepper rub. We added sea salt again. And appreciated the subtle earthiness of the root vegetable puré dotted with bright green edamame on which the tuna had been bedded. Flavor junkies that we were becoming, we upped the ante a notch further with the calamari rigatoni with spicy Italian sausage. Not surprisingly, there is an Italian pasta that is shaped like fat rings of calamari, but in this case the joke is the opposite: The real thing is standing in for pasta. More squid would have been appreciated, in part because the fennel seasoned sausage tended to dominate the dish. Yet the basil inflected tomato sauce was hearty and the desire for full flavor fulfilled. We had ordered a polished Sonoma Coast pinot noir from MacMurray Ranch as a bridge between dishes, but this one could have stood up to a zinfandel.

Watermarks menu does offer dishes for the fishphobic aged beef, lamb chops and one we almost ordered, an herb stuffed rotisserie chicken. But if I were to return, I think I’d zero in on some of the more chef intensive possibilities the seared jumbo sea scallops over minted couscous, for example. I would reorder the panna cotta trio, in our case one each scented with rosemary, lemon and blood orange. (Preference to the rosemary.) Or I might sit at the raw bar in front of the oven, sample infused booze (for investigatory purposes only) and make a meal of yellowfin tuna tartar and/or roasted garlic jumbo shrimp. After the days oysters had been equally investigated.

There’s much to be said for the raw product at Watermark; the service can be fast and friendly; and the atmosphere has its tough luxe charm. These qualities alone are more than one frequently finds together in one place.

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