Waterman’s Harbor, Dana Point (photos by Leonard Ortiz, OC Register)
“Harold! Come look at this place,” yells a woman whose wind-sculpted hair and well-worn boat shoes suggest she’s just spent the day at sea.
She has just walked into Waterman’s Harbor, a new gastropub in Dana Point, where I’m perched at the bar eating oysters and enjoying a pink margarita that’s not nearly as girly as it sounds. The woman is calling toward her apparent husband, who lags 10 steps behind and is just now coming through the front door.
“Look at this place, Harold. Can you believe it?” she says, still using her sailing voice, which briefly overpowers a classic tune by The Eagles that’s playing on the stereo. “This is the nicest restaurant in the harbor.”
Harold looks around, suspiciously. “Those oysters look good” he says, pointing to my plate.
“They’re excellent,” I say, holding up an empty kumamoto shell, but I don’t think he hears me. His wife has already disappeared up the stairs, and he has re-engaged his slow pursuit. Upstairs is another, livelier bar with a wrap-around dining deck.
The windows all around are pushed open, giving the entire space a breezy outdoor vibe. Yachts and fishing boats putter delicately through the harbor, deftly maneuvering around a busload of tourists who have paddled into the channel in a dozen colorful plastic kayaks. I glance toward the dock and notice Harold and his wife crawling into an old wooden dinghy.
Waterman’s Harbor opened in September in the old Jolly Roger building, next to the landing point of the Catalina ferry. Chef John Cuevas helms the kitchen. Cuevas previously cooked at The Crow Bar gastropub and the Crow Burger Kitchen in Newport Beach. Before that, he was the top chef at The Loft at the Montage in Laguna.
Clearly, the neighborhood was clamoring for something like this. The restaurant opens daily at four o’clock sharp, yet on one occasion when I show up for a 4:15 reservation — the only table available on short notice — the dining room is almost full already. Another night when I pay my tab and get up to leave, I look at my watch and realize it’s already after 10 p.m. The buzz around the bar still feels like happy hour. All the other restaurants on Dana Harbor went dark long ago, having peaked and waned by 7 p.m.
As is fitting for a restaurant on the harbor, Waterman’s specializes in seafood. And that’s where you’ll want to focus. The oysters are terrific, but what I like even better is the shrimp cocktail. “Just so you know,” says the waitress when I order this, “It’s not a traditional shrimp cocktail.”
The flavor reminds me of Acapulco-style ceviche, but even more it reminds me of those little jars of shrimp cocktail that you can buy at the grocery store, filled with a thin, slightly sweet tomato sauce and dozens of tiny shrimp so small they might actually be sea monkeys, if you’re old enough to remember what sea monkeys are. And they are delicious.
In another ceviche, scallops and halibut are splashed with coconut water and flecked with charred citrus and chilies. Mesquite-smoked albacore “salad” turns out to be a fancy version of deli-style tunafish, albeit much better than what that term suggests, tinted orange from tomato aioli. I wasn’t expecting tunafish, so this isn’t my favorite appetizer, but everyone else at the table loves it.
I noticed a photo on the restaurant’s Instagram feed of an artfully presented tuna Niçoise salad, so on one of my visits when I see Niçoise on the menu, I order it. But the recipe has changed. Instead of the work of art I saw in that photo, my version is an unattractive spoonful of Hawaiian-style tuna tartare buried beneath a handful of mixed greens. The downgrade is both visual and linguistic, but the tuna is actually quite good.
Clams and mussels are beautiful, mingled together and steamed in a white wine broth, which creates a nice dipping sauce for the accompanying focaccia. Crab beignets come four to an order. They are like doughnut holes from the sea, served piping hot and virtually greaseless. Lobster rolls, meanwhile, come three to an order, and although petite, they are deliciously top-heavy.
Everyone turns to look when the swordfish “au poivre” arrives. It’s a stunning hunk of fish the size of a baseball, resting in a fragrant sherry butter sauce with caramelized mushrooms and creamed onions.
A whole black bass causes heads to turn, too, with its tail curled on one end, its eyeballs glaring at me from the other. Don’t order this if you’re in a hurry because you’ll want to savor it slowly, meticulously, cautiously. Every bite turns up a little bone.
My favorite dish is the roasted Mexican prawns with rice noodles, but pay close attention to the fine print. Although the prawns are from Mexico, hence the name of the dish, there’s nothing Mexican about the preparation. The dominate impact comes from kimchi. And the noodles aren’t merely noodles: These are big, fat, chewy dumplings, each one the size of a wine cork. They recoil between the teeth like oversized gummy bears, oozing spicy Korean chili sauce. It’s a riotous mouthful of flavor and activity.
A much safer bet might be the fish and chips, which are exactly what you hope they will be. The crust on the cod is thin and crackly. The fries are made from scratch and double-fried.
Seafood restaurants are often great places to find a good burger, and the beef here is ground in-house and formed into a generous patty, which gets layered with caramelized onions, smoked bacon, and a sunny-side-up egg.
After several visits, the only real downer comes from the beef short ribs. They are so dry, I literally have to wash them down with a glass of water. But even before I sample them, I can see the silent disappointment on the face of a guest at my table, who tries his best not to look sad as he pushes it around on his plate, surviving on the wonderful smoked grits underneath.
Fortunately, my meals here have never ended on a sour note. A jar filled with lemon curd and toasted meringue is irresistibly sweet. A triple-chocolate parfait is rich and thick, more like fudge than mousse, layered with cookie crumbs on the bottom and crunchy coco nibs on top. But even better than that is the chocolate bread pudding, which is drizzled with salted caramel and topped with vanilla ice cream, then garnished with a hunk of buttery praline. As bread puddings go, this is now the one to beat.
Rating: 2 1/2 stars
Where: Dana Point Harbor, 34661 Golden Lantern Street, Dana Point
Hours: Daily, 4 – 10 p.m.
Don’t miss: Shrimp cocktail, halibut/scallop ceviche, swordfish au poivre, prawns with rice noodles, chocolate bread pudding.
Best place to sit: Downstairs booths overlooking the ferry dock, or the upstairs outer ledge.
About the noise: Festive but very comfortable
County health inspection: Initial report not yet available online.
Cost: Appetizers, $10 – $20; entrees, $20 – $36; desserts, $10.
What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
1 = fair, with some noteworthy qualities
2 = good, solid, above average
3 = excellent, memorable, well above norm
4 = world class, extraordinary in every detail
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service.
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.