Richard Foss

Waterman’s Aims High [restaurant review]

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New chef, new look show ambition at Waterman’s Restaurant, Bar and Safehouse

Chef Johnny Lopez with Waterman’s piled pulled pork sandwich. Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com)

Despite having grown up up eight blocks from the beach, I never learned to surf, as I was so nearsighted that I couldn’t see the waves that were about to swamp me. Even so, that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy watching surfers and have an appreciation for surf music and surf culture. Those things seep into your DNA if you grew up in the South Bay, so I happily visit surf-themed restaurants and bars to grab a burger and be transfixed by the videos of daredevils riding the big ones.

Among the places I’ve tried is Waterman’s in Hermosa, which opened in 2010 with pretty standard bar food. Both the menu and the décor were looking a bit tired at the beginning of the year, but they freshened up the interior and brought in talented chef Johnny Lopez to bring the kitchen into the 21st century.

The interior is the typical sports bar/surf bar mashup, and the remodel at the beginning of the year added high seating across from the bar and widened the center aisle quite a bit, which needed to be done. The only downside is that the decorative awning over the bar means that only the bottom third of the TV’s can be seen from the high seating, so if you want to watch a game you have a great view of the players’ feet. Other than that it’s comfortable, and the volume level is low for Pier Plaza. Still, the place to be is an outside table to enjoy the street life, particularly at sunset when the silhouette of the surfer statue is a photo-worthy experience.

My first meal at Waterman’s was on a Friday, when the daily special is ahi poke tacos with a draft beer. Those “tacos” weren’t quite as advertised because instead of tortillas a fried wonton skin was used, which is an interesting but impractical idea because they shatter when you bite into them and dump the filling onto the plate. The flavors were just fine, and I was interested enough to go back.

I have done that twice now, and on each trip there were high points but also problems. Things start well with tortilla chips and a zingy salsa with black beans (and you should have some water or a cooling drink handy when you try that first chip). If you have company or a humongous appetite, you might want to share an appetizer, but be aware that they’re generously sized. I highly recommend the Farmer’s Market hummus, which is richly garlicky and distinctive thanks to the kalamata olives, chopped green onions, yellow peppers, sliced cherry tomatoes and bits of feta cheese. It splits the difference between a salad and a dip in a very appealing way. The large portion is served with pieces of one toasted pita, which isn’t enough even if you are frugal with the bread. There’s enough for three or four people as a starter, so ask for a second pita. We resorted to using tortilla chips because they were what we had and our server was elsewhere.

The farmer’s market hummus. Photo by Richard Foss.

The beet salad also hit the spot, and as with the hummus there were some clever innovations. Besides plenty of multihued beets there were candied walnuts, baby arugula and purple onion, but the twist was the pineapple-infused goat cheese and the pomegranate vinaigrette. I haven’t seen beet and pineapple flavors combined this way before, and it’s a great idea. There’s a sweet and sour effect that is magnified by the pomegranate vinaigrette, and as we get into beet season I’m sure that I’ll be trying this at home.

As at any surf bar, we ordered drinks with our food, and it’s here that Waterman’s is strangely lacking. The drinks were poorly made and overpriced, and the beer list is heavy on commercial swill and light on quality brews. This isn’t something that can be explained by the area’s high rents, either. Right across the plaza at Tower 12 they offer Scrimshaw or Strand Brewing beers for the same price Waterman’s charges for a Corona light. The pricing is also out of line on the cocktails, which are not only two or three dollars more expensive than nearby places but in two out of three cases were sweet and unbalanced. They’re using decent but not exceptional ingredients but charging a premium, and they need to reconsider their strategy.

Besides the poke tacos, we have tried four main courses: the Indonesian-style shrimp curry, a fish sandwich, mushroom banh mi, and their signature burger. The burger will set you back $13, and fries are an extra $3.50, again considerably above similar establishments. It was a good burger and I liked the dab of remoulade sauce, but the fries arrived both slightly underdone and cold. When I called this to the attention of our server she brought out some fresh ones, which were a great improvement. The fish sandwich was decently made and once again there was some innovation thanks to some crisped Maui onions and a sprinkling of furikake, the Japanese seasoning based on a mix of dried fish, sesame seeds, and seaweed.

The Indonesian curry was a daring idea timidly executed, the balance of coconut milk and spice tipped in the favor of creamy sweetness. There was a little complex heat that could be perceived as I got to the bottom of the bowl, but it was still extremely mild by any standard. (In an Indonesian restaurant the already spicy stew would be accompanied by condiments to jump it up further, but those aren’t available here.) The broth contained six large shrimp, some vegetables, and rice, so the portion was filling enough for a good meal.

The mushroom banh mi went in the opposite direction and was made quite differently from the way it was described. It was supposed to have caramelized mushrooms, pickled veggies, and chili aioli, but instead the sandwich was packed with jalapenos that had not been completely deseeded. After picking about a quarter of a cup of chillies from half the sandwich my wife took a small bite and then drained most of her mai tai slushie and all of her water, because it tasted like a chili pepper sandwich with some other flavors dimly perceptible. If this had been made with chili aioli instead of heaps of raw chillies we probably would have liked it, but we sent it back and it was taken off our bill.

Waterman’s has a pleasant vibe and friendly though slow service, and a lot of people evidently enjoy the place. The restaurant still needs to work on the execution of their dishes and drinks and rethink the pricing, because even on the Hermosa pier plaza eighty bucks is rather high for dinner for two in a bar with only one drink each. Even someone like me who hasn’t been in the ocean for years can appreciate what this place could be, and if they get their act together I’ll be happy to return.

Waterman’s is at 22 Pier Ave. in Hermosa. Open 11 a.m. Mon. – Thur., 10 a.m. Sat. — Sun. Closed midnight Sun. –fWe., 1 a.m. Thur. — Sat. Pay street or lot parking nearby, wheelchair access OK but many high tables, noise level at dinner 75 Db, louder later. (310) 372-4462. Menu at watermanshb.com. ER

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