I'll just offer a backwards compliment and say right off the bat that the Water Grill is much better than the location's previous tenant, Karsen's. This neutral-toned, sleek and sophisticated establishment is brought to you by the Richmond Restaurant Group, the mini-gastronomic empire run by Michelle Williams and Jared Golden, and it has all the right elements to be successful. Karsen's might have been attractive, but the Water Grill seems like a stage for some home décor catalog.
There is a magnificent and commanding water feature — hence the name — right as you enter the door. Water cascades down a striking wall-mounted fountain featuring the eatery's stylized and modern logo. It's beautiful, big and impressive, but it's also somewhat cold and remote. Karsen's did the initial and extensive renovation, turning adjoining properties into a spacious two-story restaurant that seats 128 and offers a romantic fireplace upstairs. A commanding outdoor patio facing Cary Street creates a superb venue for outdoor dining. Artwork is tastefully discreet, booths are cushy and lighting is low and flattering. Somehow, however, I can't get overly excited about this place.
The theme of the menu is seafood, something the kitchen should be very good at as The Hard Shell (the parent group's flagship dining spot) has been one of the area's most consistent and popular seafood restaurants since 1994. There is a nice selection of raw-bar items as well as some predictable first courses such as fried calamari and a delicious and impressive crab cocktail served in a sea-salt-rimmed martini glass with both drawn butter and a lemon vinaigrette.
Vegetarians will be pleased with selections such as edamame hummus served with cucumber raita and thin, crispy flatbread as an appetizer, as well as three meatless entrées on the printed menu. Similarly, carnivores will be happy with the wide assortment of choices, including three different steaks. Though the peppercorn-encrusted New York strip was a substantial 14-ounce portion, my date and I found the flavor and texture unremarkable, though the portobello-red wine reduction splashed on top was to die for and could have rescued the lackluster beef had there been more of it.
All the "from the water" bases are covered — from seared tuna to perfectly respectable crab cakes served with a refreshing corn and arugula salad to decadent butter-poached lobster tails. On a recent visit, my dish of roughly a dozen fried oysters drizzled with apple-and-bacon crème fraîche and served with sautéed collards atop creamy mashed potatoes was excellent.
Service, though, was inconsistent. Our waiter on an initial midweek visit was more than a little awkward and didn't know the menu well. Using the excuse of being new more than once is a pet peeve of mine, so after the fourth or fifth shrug of the shoulders, he had diminished my otherwise lovely experience. Thankfully, a super-perky brunette with an impish smile waited on me on a subsequent visit, replacing of her own accord a bowl of crab bisque that was lacking enough of the key ingredient and earning brownie points.
All of the desserts are made in-house, and a coconut-cream pie with vanilla custard, whipped cream, a lavish amount of shaved coconut and a graham-cracker crust was surprisingly dreamy. A miniature chocolate-ganache tart served with it was the perfect foil for this fluffy finale.
The negatives weren't that bad, and, let's face it, two visits is hardly fair to pass ultimate judgment on anything, but something just isn't resonating with me about Carytown's latest "it" spot. As hard as I try, I just can't fall in love with the Water Grill. I think it's because there are too many other options in a similar price-point with way more personality. The Water Grill is like a Pottery Barn spread — everything matches a little too well. For me, the Water Grill feels staged, safe and lacking in soul.
3411 W. Cary St., 353-3411 Prices Appetizers $4 to $12. Entrées $12 to $38. Desserts $6 to $7.50. Hours Monday to Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday brunch, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., with light fare until 5 p.m.; Sunday dinner from 5 to 10 p.m.