Go for Lunch or Brunch—and that Sparkling Harbor View: Waterman’s Harbor in Dana Point

Local halibut with wild mushrooms and house-made “burnt bread” agnolotti.
Local halibut with wild mushrooms and house-made “burnt bread” agnolotti.

Sleek, modern, and freshly rebooted, Waterman’s Harbor is a beacon of new, wedged into a prime waterfront site on Dana Point Harbor’s salt-worn embarcadero. Open since September, the glossy space draws the same crowd of locals, tourists, and Catalina Express passengers that kept the crusty Jolly Roger alive on this footprint for 40 years. This 300-seat whale offers scenic views of the harbor’s breakwater action, a key asset the management group CDH handily exploits. The top floor, open to the sky, has retractable canvas shades that shield diners from gusty winds or coastal drizzle. Expanses of alfresco patio space deliver the setting every diner fancies.

With each visit, I find the small cadre of beef dishes such as steak tartare, the house-ground burger, and the braised short ribs hyperappealing, but I resist. I’ve enjoyed veteran chef John Cuevas’s beef options in the past, but this is a seafood restaurant with the aroma of the ocean and a soundtrack of seagulls. I know beef is on the menu only to please diners who balk at seafood. IMG_7964

Daily brunch and lunch yield the best dishes on my visits, coinciding with sparkling coastal sunshine. Smoked trout hash and egg includes charred corn and peppers, but nothing ties these respectable elements together, so the dish tastes assembled, not finessed. My crab beignet Benedict includes two fried orbs of meekly seasoned shredded crab resting on poached eggs, fresh English muffin halves, and a ladling of tomato hollandaise minus the spice that was promised on the menu.

The unlikely champion brunch dish is delicately smoked salmon, served open-face on a tender bagel, bearing vegetable cream cheese and a tumble of pickled onions, capers, and marinated tomato. It’s a terrific balance of sharp, mellow, creamy, and chewy.

Fresh oysters, usually a mix of several West Coast varieties, are reliable players and a bargain at $1 per oyster during Oyster Hour from 4 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Batter-fried fresh cod and hot, hand-cut fries are straightforward and serviceable, but I don’t taste what makes the tartar sauce “loaded,” as the menu describes. Salt and pepper would help. Clam chowder is a handsome deep bowl of supremely forgettable soup. Neither brothy nor creamy, it’s

Chocolate-hazelnut trifle with rich mousse.
Chocolate-hazelnut trifle with rich mousse.

a beige potage with little flavor, scant clams, and zero garnish, save for a bag of oyster crackers.

Hoping dinner holds more promise, I boost my optimism with an eager look at the restaurant’s website, where I see stylishly plated dishes, vibrant with color. But what arrives at my table looks mostly slapdash. An exception is the marinated King crab appetizer, with several chunks of shelled crab on a bed of cauliflower hummus, prettily composed on a long plate. Micro-greens and paper-thin green apple slices sit on top, and smears of tawny caramel sauce bracket the arrangement. It takes two bites to reveal that the crab and apples are waterlogged, and the hummus and caramel are too intense for the “marinated” crab. Website visions of the roasted Mexican prawns with rice noodles, chorizo, and kimchi dance in my head, so I order that dish. What arrives is a large bowl of coarsely cut kimchi, hiding prawns, rounds of chorizo, and pasta segments as big around as my thumb, all slick with garlic butter. In what world are these chewy, gloppy pasta chunks rice noodles?

Local halibut is so fresh it shines through its cloak of creamy Marsala sauce with wild mushrooms. House-made “burnt bread” agnolotti with filling made from charred brioche crumbs, mascarpone, and honey is an audacious pasta, but too sweet, especially with the added semi-sweet wine sauce.
Dessert is one for the win column. Admirable chocolate-hazelnut trifle layered with rich mousse is tasty enough to forgive the fridge-cold jar presentation. As it warms, the silky mousse and crunchy bits of chocolate reveal simpatico flavors that come alive in varying textures. The savvy waitress

Fresh West Coast oysters.
Fresh West Coast oysters.

who recommended it did us a favor.

It’s too bad the sustainable seafood cuisine comes up short on so many counts. Menu items that sound luscious rarely satisfy, such as the brunch’s crab beignet Benedict, which is perfunctory and underseasoned. Dishes that aim for stylish and imaginative, such as the $24 marinated king crab appetizer, fall off the culinary cliff. Even standards such as clam chowder or steamed clams and mussels miss the mark. How can this be when Cuevas is culinary director of this flagship shop?

Clearly, he’s not always cooking at Waterman’s, given he is overseeing three other venues with concepts of their own. He is an accomplished chef. The local and flown-in seafood is well-chosen and undeniably fresh. I sense his dishes at Waterman’s Harbor overshoot the demands of a pricey volume house, putting pressure on a kitchen that doesn’t share his skill or sophisticated touch. Tighter control of execution and consistency can only help this venue satisfy hordes of diners and make them eager for return visits.

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Waterman’s Harbor
34661 Golden Lantern St.
Dana Point
949-764-3474
watermandp.com

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