After a Friday evening of gallery hopping we stop by Water Grill in Carytown for a snack and a nightcap. The space that had been Karsen's seems even lovelier with a new water feature and menu, lower prices and better service. As a sibling to the Hard Shell, Europa, the Hill CafAc and deLux, Water Grill has an experienced team, a desirable setting and a needed seafood niche.
We decide to go with grease. The fried green tomatoes are perfectly breaded and crispy, accented by the curious juxtaposition of a down-home pimento cheese and more complex cilantro oil. Fried calamari, one of my restaurant litmus tests, ranks as one of Richmond's better versions; it's lightly battered to let the flavors come through, and taken to new heights with a spicy Hanover tomato-chili sauce.
Virginia buffalo oysters are a total miss. At first I wonder if the name is a play on Rocky Mountain oysters, which aren't oysters but offal. But this is merely a reference to the ubiquitous seasoning better used on chicken wings. The spice overshadows the subtlety of the oyster's natural flavors, which become merely a vehicle for hot sauce. House-cut fries with anchovy ranch are thin and crispy and rival Can Can's for Richmond's best fries in a cone. Sadly, the dessert menu is limited and only the hazelnut toffee torte appeals to us. Our evening ends on a bittersweet note of nutty gooeyness.
A week later, we return to meet friends for dinner. We find them in the intimate upstairs bar having a round of martinis from an extensive list. We love the attentive and chatty service of our bartender and linger before heading outside to the patio, maintaining that we have all year to eat in the comfy interior while the nights for al fresco dining are waning. I dive into the raw bar. The oyster platter includes a pair each of the small and mildly sweet Kumamotos, originally from Japan but cultivated in the northwestern United States; the slightly larger and brinier Blue Point; and the full-on ocean tanginess of the Chesapeake Bay variety.
Entree choices include items from land and sea. I'm lured by the surf and turf special. Blackened scallops that teased me from across the table during appetizers are served with a New York strip over fresh succotash and dense bacon-gouda potato croquettes. The scallops are good but overshadowed by the blackening. The steak is a nice cut and perfectly cooked, with nothing to distract from its flavor.
Also at our table, grouper is moist and tender but a bit on the salty side, served over a creamy risotto with juicy chunks of fresh lobster, a star of the evening. Roasted peppers are stuffed with a mixture of quinoa, asparagus and melted leeks, made even creamier by a healthy dose of Taleggio cheese. The dessert menu disappoints again, with few choices of interest and a coconut pie that underwhelms. A pastry chef would be a great addition to the kitchen.
Water Grill shows promise. Its food is best when the preparation is simple and unadulterated so that natural flavors shine. It suffers when dishes are too heavily blackened, salted or sauced. The kitchen has some balancing work to do, because the efficient and friendly front-of-house staff — and the diners — deserve it.
3411 W. Cary St.
Dinner: Monday- Thursday, 5-10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m.
Sunday, 5-9 p.m.
Brunch: Saturday-Sunday, 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Light fare, 3-5 p.m.