Being from the Pacific Northwest I am always on the hunt for a good raw bar. For years we had Awful Arthur’s here in Richmond. Nothing fancy, just cheap raw (and steamed) bar that only occasionally laid you low. Since they closed things have been pretty limited. The Hard Shell and Can-Can both do it well but can be a bit spendy – especially when you start including alcohol. So, you can imagine, I was quite intrigued when I heard that the Water Grill, the newest creation from Michelle Williams in Karsen’s abandoned space in Carytown, was going to have raw bar. The fact that they were advertising 1/2 price from 4 to 6 during the week sealed the deal. We were going to stop by.
Advertised hours for restaurants can be squishy at best. Many places close earlier then advertised when business is slow and the opening hours can sometimes be simply prep time for the staff (Any place that does continuous service gets extra points in my book. I’m always hunting for a place to get a quiet cocktail and something good to nosh on in the middle of the afternoon.). With this in mind I wondered what kind of reaction I would get to a 4:15 arrival on a Thursday. Sure enough, caught them off guard. The bar was strewn with piles of napkins and the staff looked more like a bunch of kids out for drinks. To give them credit they reacted fast. The bar was cleaned off and the group scattered, although conversations about staffing, schedules and in-house gossip continued in very loud tones for quite a while. Settling into the bar I asked the bartender a number of questions. As I have found at many of Michelle Williams’ places the bartender was professional and knowledgeable. A couple of things she needed to refer to one of managers and, well, as usual they ducked the questions. Something about Michelle’s restaurants. Too many managers not accomplishing very much and often spending more time being the staff’s social manager rather then managing the restaurant.
Martini in hand we started ordering. First out was a dozen clams. Each one perfect and sweet. Not a skunky one in the bunch. Rather then cocktail sauce I asked for the mignonette. Meh. It seemed to be solely sherry vinegar. No herbs or spices. I considered walking across the street to Penzy’s to pick up some of their mignonette spice packs but thought that might be considered rude. It really wasn’t bad, it just seemed lazy and not very special. A pity considering how good the clams were.
The wife decided on a half pound of spiced shrimp. The shrimp came out warm but not hot. Not sure if it was intentional for the steamed shrimp to come that way but it did make it easier to eat quickly without burning your fingers. The shrimp were larger then you usually find and very tasty. The seasonings were perfect and you could actually taste the shrimp, a nice change from so many spiced shrimp dishes that you get where it turns out the shrimp are simply a vehicle for eating mass quantities of Old Bay seasonings.
House cut french fries and homemade potato chips rounded out our order. The fries were good, a big step up from the frozen ones served at deLux, and may very well challenge Can-Can’s outstanding fries. The chips were a big surprise. Often these have such a short shelf life and are nor worth eating once they cool to room temperature. Not here, these were crispy and delicious from first chip to last. Water Grill, however, falls short on the sauce again. The ancho ranch dressing served with both tasted as if it came from a jar rather then house made and just didn’t live up to what it was served with.
Before wrapping it all up I decided to squeeze in one last dish. A little talk with the bartender and her recommendation led me to try the Steamed Mussels with Lemongrass and Curried Coconut Milk. There is nothing subtle about this dish. The coconut milk is strong. The curry is strong. The lemongrass is strong. Paired with an equally strong Tanqueray 10 martini it all worked wonderfully. The mussels, from PEI, varied wildly in size but held up to all this. For me it is one of those dishes that will bring you back to a restaurant – that the broth was perfect for sopping bread didn’t hurt either.
While the mussels ended the meal right the bill helped keep the mood right. Half prices on the raw bar items were nice, especially since they were not all that inflated to begin with. The big surprise was the martini prices. At $9 for premium top shelf martini (Tanqueray 10) Water Grill is three to five dollars cheaper then most comparable places – nice to know in these tough economic times. All in all not bad for a relatively new restaurant. Dinner may be in the cards at some point but raw bar happy hour, especially out on the patio when weather permits, will be added to my dance card.