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1691 Market St.
The Draw: Arguably the most comprehensive and globally sourced seafood menu in town
The Drawback: High prices; inconsistent food temps; dishes that rely too heavily on butter and cream
Noise Level: Moderate
Don’t Miss: Black cod; sea bass; raw oysters
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I grew up in the 1970s in the Bay Area, where my family often went to our favorite seafood house, Berkeley’s now-shuttered Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto. The sizable eatery was the spot for New England clam chowder, crab Louis, and raw oysters harvested from the 90-plus-year-old eatery’s own shellfish beds. The decor was heavy on dark woods, nautical knickknacks, and nostalgia.
Stepping into LoDo’s Water Grill took me back to those family dinners of my childhood. Maritime kitsch, a bustling raw bar, and the aroma of fresh seafood greeted my dinner date and me when we arrived at the 11-month-old restaurant. Water Grill is quite a bit splashier than Spenger’s ever was, though, and that makes sense: Although it is technically family-owned, Water Grill is part of an upscale chain operated by California-based King’s Seafood Company, which was founded by Lou and Mickey King in 1945. Since then, the brothers and their sons have expanded the business to include seven outposts of Water Grill and a dozen locations of the more casual King’s Fish House across several Western states. What sets King’s apart from its competition—and what made it worthy of a review, despite being part of a chain—is the company’s seafood distribution arm, which emphasizes environmental stewardship, including sustainable sourcing and reliance on aquaculture (farmed seafood).
While coastal seafood houses often spotlight local specialties, Water Grill’s reach is decidedly global. That becomes obvious the moment you open the hefty four-page menu. Although an obligatory clam chowder appears on the list of starters, more rarefied choices such as wild Spanish octopus and bluefin tuna tartare illustrate King’s range. There are also roughly a half-dozen sushi preparations and a long list of raw bar specialties, including 15 varieties of oysters. Entrées include whole fish, such as Brittany Dover sole; pedigreed fare like Maryland soft-shell crab and farmed New Zealand king salmon; and other wild-caught options such as Pacific Bigeye tuna and Barents Sea red king crab.
During that first meal, our server, who responded to menu questions in exquisite detail, delivered warm sourdough rolls (sourced from Golden’s Grateful Bread) with whipped butter. The bread’s tang was a reminder of the San Francisco sourdough I ate as a kid, but I had to save room for a starter of properly browned, moist, pan-roasted halibut cheeks. The lovely preparation was undermined by a cool serving temperature and a creamy brown-butter-lemon sauce served beneath the fish that was more cloyingly rich than complementary. The sauce had braised fennel that provided some relief, but more citrus would have helped. A second starter, the hamachi nachos, was more gratifying and spotlighted delicately smoked Japanese yellowtail served over yucca chips with Asian pear and Marcona almond adornments.
The Grand iced shellfish platter, which can be devoured as a shared appetizer or main course, was a mixed bag. The oysters, particularly the Fanny Bays, were the stars. The Peruvian Bay scallops, thoughtfully partnered with pistachio and citrus pesto, were also excellent. Less impressive were the too-salty lobster tail; slightly overcooked Mexican shrimp; and mussels and Long Island littleneck clams, which lacked flavor. The inconsistency and blandness couldn’t be remedied even by all the condiments, which included cocktail sauce, horseradish, and mignonette-style dips zinged with ingredients like habanero. In the future, I would instead order a dozen oysters curated by the waitstaff.
For my entrée, I selected the cioppino, a Bay Area–born, Italian-American fisherman’s stew. Sadly, it also suffered from a temperature problem. The lukewarmness was a real shame, because the seafood, which included tender salmon and well-textured Dungeness crab, was delicious. The slightly acidic, mildly spicy, tomato-infused wine sauce squared with my recollection of authentic San Francisco preparations and lent itself well to a dunk with bread. The sea bass, which my dinner date declared a winner, was accompanied by butternut squash gnocchi and had a perfectly subtle sear.
On a return visit for lunch, I started with an amped-up take on New England clam chowder swimming with both shell-on and morsels of clams. The thick soup was—sigh—tepid and had a far-too-creamy texture that resembled a white sauce more than a chowder. Redemption arrived in the form of the black cod. Perhaps taking inspiration from chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s famed miso-marinated recipe, the Asian-influenced, flawlessly cooked course was served atop soba noodles with green onions, fish broth, and garlic chips.
Achieving flawlessness (or close to it) is something Water Grill needs to work on. At prices that range from $33 for fish and chips to $99 for three stone crab claws, incorrect food temperatures, overbearing sauces, and viscous chowder should never be everyday issues. It’s possible to have a satisfying meal here, but if Water Grill wants seafood lovers to remember it fondly years from now, it needs to rectify those missteps now.
Long-standing tradition dictates that seafood is best enjoyed with lighter wines that won’t overpower delicate flavors, but there are many varieties to choose from. Whether you want bubbly or a dessert wine, we tapped Denver-based sommelier Maia Parish to help you pick the right grape to pair with your fruits of the ocean.
Parish recommends pairing lighter- and flakier-textured catches such as salmon or cod with a medium-bodied South African Chenin blanc. When it comes to heavier-fleshed picks like halibut or swordfish, try a floral and fruity Italian prosecco rosé, whose bubbles harmonize with oilier fish.
For lobster, shrimp, and oysters, bubbles such as Crémant (a French Champagne alternative) are the best all-around shellfish wines, thanks to their balanced mix of acidity and carbonation. For sweet-and-salty crawfish, Parish proposes the vivacious Blanc La La La from Colorado’s Carboy Winery. The sparkling Grüner Veltliner earned a spot in the 2022 Governor’s Cup Collection, the state’s annual winemaking competition.
For the Japanese specialty, Parish suggests a white Furmint, which is produced with grapes from a region in Hungary known for making both splendid dessert wines and dry whites. The bracing acidity and sharp, tart flavors are a nice accompaniment to raw seafood and fiery dishes. Alternatively, go for an Italian Vermentino, a light- to medium-bodied bottle with a dry and fresh profile that is perfect with “anything fishy, herby, or citrusy,” she says.