While listening to Water Grill executive chef David LeFevre break down the differences between oysters, it became clear that he’s a student of the sea. After hearing him hold court for about an hour in front of the raw bar, it probably wouldn’t have surprised many people if he suddenly sprouted a dorsal fin and started speaking in prawn. He’s knowledgeable, and thankfully, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. On September 16, LeFevre made an even more convincing argument about seafood with his kitchen skills when he prepared a family-style “Sunday Lobster Clam Bake” for a group of invited food writers. The Sunday-only bake typically runs $55 per person and based on my experience, it would be worth the price of admission given the quality of the food and the comfort of the experience.
The vaunted downtown seafood emporium is the crown jewel in the King’s Seafood Company restaurant group. Water Grill has a prime location, around the corner from the Central Library and in the shadow of downtown’s skyscrapers. The restaurant opened in 1991 and helped vault Michael Cimarusti to celebrity chef status before he opened Providence. Now LeFevre is making his own oceanic mark.
It wasn’t part of the Clam Bake, but we started at the raw bar for a sampling of shellfish, including chilled Santa Barbara spot prawns with cocktail sauce and fresh-scooped Channel Islands sea urchin, which was cool and creamy.
“No matter how many names there are, there are only five species [of oysters],” said LeFevre. “What we pride ourselves on is trying to get at least three to four species at any given time.” We tried three varieties on the half-shell: large East Coast Blackwaters with cocktail sauce, mid-sized Kumamotos with shallot mignonette and New Zealand Gigas (pictured), which were the night’s smallest, briniest oysters.
Everybody gets the same family-style main course, but the Clam Bake features appetizer and dessert options. My first choice: a salad with gobs of Black River Gorgonzola and firm slices of O’Henry peach.
Our amuse bouche was culled from Water Grill’s recently revamped lunch menu. Mini lobster rolls were served two ways on custom La Brea Bakery brioche buns with house-made bread-and-butter pickles. The superior lobster roll is clearly “Connecticut style” since the sweet meat arrives hot and is treated with drawn butter. The lesser but still good version comes cold and tossed with mayo. In both cases, the Maine lobster meat was impeccable. $29 is a lot of money to spend on the full-sized version, more than I’d spend, but it’s hard to imagine a better lobster roll in L.A. at the moment.
Our Clam Bake began in earnest with the arrival of whole steamed 1¼-pound Maine lobsters. Unfortunately, the crustacean was split down the middle and the claws were already cracked. Part of the fun is the struggle to reach the sweet, succulent lobster meat. It helped that the meat was expertly prepared and powerfully flavorful when dunked in drawn butter, and that it came with a ramekin of sweet, herb-flecked corn kernels.
The feast continued with a giant bowl of New Zealand cockles, Prince Edward Island mussels, wee Weiser Farms potatoes, carrots and char-grilled linguiça, a Portuguese pork sausage. Strangely, there were no clams. Technically, a cockle is a tiny clam, but it’s a clam the way a square is a rectangle. The “clam bake” only occasionally has clams, depending on market availability.
Last Saturday, I struggled to consume a Venetian strawberry-rhubarb cobbler with absolutely no character. Thankfully, LeFevre delivered a textbook version with strawberries that actually had flavor and a crust that was actually crisp. The topper: a scoop of rich vanilla ice cream.
LeFevre joked about his recent efforts to perfect the house-made root beer for his homemade root beer float; apparently his brew routinely exploded. Now it’s more stable.
$55 may seem like a lot of money to spend on a meal, and it is, but seafood this plentiful and high-quality is hard to come by, and the fact that the Clam Bake is served family-style helps to ensure that a potentially stuffy meal is anything but stuffy.