Waterhouse Oyster Bar & Bistro

 

Jeff Kaufman

★★★★ [Extraordinary]

Let’s put the star story on the table first. Time was when there was no such thing as a four-star restaurant without white tablecloths. But those times are long gone. What we have at Waterhouse is a world-class chef cooking brilliantly in a cool, kick-off-your-shoes-and-party-on-the-beach-sort-of-place. Verdict: Best of kind. Four stars, if you agree, as I do, with the new international director of the Michelin red guides, Michael Ellis, who says, “People have moved to more casual dining . . . We want to concentrate on the food.” At Waterhouse that means seafood.

Connecticut’s long meandering coastline is so generously endowed with clam shacks, oyster bars and roadside stands, it’s easy to indulge when the mouth waters for fried clams, fried oysters, fried shrimp, fried calamari, fried flounder, fried cod. That’s deep-fried, aka “golden brown.” Fryolator’s the gem of the ocean, but it barely grazes the surface of what a great chef can do with the glorious fish and shellfish New England waters provide.

Chef Arturo Franco-Camacho proves the point at Waterhouse in Branford, a restaurant he opened last summer to celebrate seafood—which he loves to prepare in more ways than you or I are likely to imagine. At Waterhouse, Franco and his wife, Suzette (the team that gave us Roomba and Bespoke in New Haven), put us in a beachy mood with a stylish rendition of the clam-shack experience.  

Wood shingles, white walls and globes of light floating above polished deck floors lend a seafaring air to the dining room, where a wall hanging stars a giant octopus cavorting playfully in black-and-white.

Adjoining a taco bar opened earlier, the menu at Waterhouse is as fresh as the decor. Yes, there are nods to dishes that dazzled at Roomba and Bespoke but great artists don’t carbon-copy their masterpieces, they create new ones. Chef Franco-Camacho is doing that here. Perhaps inspired by the aquatic bounty at hand, his cooking seems lighter, brighter, more whimsical than ever. He’s having fun. And so are we. When was the last time you ate a banana-shaped potato chip seven inches long, oven-browned in a dark and light pattern like sun-dappled sand? When Franco-Camacho is in the kitchen, boredom flies out the window. He makes his own potato chips, shaping them where fancy leads, but whatever they look like, they taste like potato. One bite and the flavor hits. We see them coming, set on end, rising up to form a flamboyant arch over a turret of tuna tartare—yellowfin, beautifully fresh, layered with avocado and baptized with yuzu-soy vinaigrette.

We’re surprised to see clams casino among the offerings. A bit mundane? Not in this chef’s hands. The preparation looks familiar but the ingredients, fresh sweet clams and terrific bacon, are outstanding. There’s a bit of chorizo in the mix, too, and peppers and—what’s this subtle tang? Tomatillo. With a touch of imagination, “same old” has become a winner.

“Baby iceberg salad” is not a salad at all—it’s a deconstructed BLT, a bunless wonder, sprinkled with crumbles of a splendid cheese listed on the menu simply as “Blue.” Another salad features a delectable burrata paired with red and yellow beets, arugula, mache lettuce and candied walnuts.  

Bomster sea scallops from Stonington are treated with appropriate respect, simply caramelized and served with a swirl of cauliflower purée and a dollop of raisin-onion relish on the side.

Seafood’s the focus at Waterhouse but local farms are represented, too. Early on (after the piping-hot popovers sprinkled with Hawaiian sea salt have been devoured), we fall in love with a sybaritic chicken liver mousse with raspberry-parsley gastrique—a golden oldie revived in glamorous guise. Carpaccio, tender, pale pink slices of beef tenderloin, is luxe and lovely, with arugula, tomato, avocado, radish, Manchego cheese, lemon and truffle oil.

Heavy sauces rarely, if ever, enter the equation. Fresh, delicately sweet-flavored halibut sails in unadorned except for a dab of arugula pesto atop a corn and shiitake mushroom ragout. The colors delight, the flavors mix and mingle.

Mahi mahi, firm and moist in a wrap of Serano ham, glistens with a splash of bright red saffron-tomato sauce. Salmon is exotically alluring with a ginger coating and a side-kick of grits and shrimp. Bright green fresh peas add bling.

Desserts, are house-made, of course. Peach-and-plum crumble closely resembles a plum cake I make, and my mother used to make, with the peeled fruit pressed into the cake dough before baking. Moist, tender, fruity, and not too sweet, it’s so homey I’m surprised (and delighted) to find it in this gourmet context. If you have fond memories of pflaumenkuchen, this “crumble” will take you back.

Mocha pot de crème, on the other hand, goes mod with a lacing of salted caramel. Cheesecake made with white chocolate and topped with blueberry compote is just different enough to be refreshing. But the blockbuster of the dessert bunch is “Upside-down Lava Cake,” the darkest, richest, over-the-toppest diet wrecker on the planet. It looks like a mess on the plate. but it’s the dark side of heaven in the mouth.

The architectural layout of this interesting trio of eateries—taco bar, raw bar and restaurant, separate but connected—makes for bumpy service. The route to the kitchen is circuitous and sightlines are nonexistent, but servers do their cheerful best. Tables are a bit too small for the number of dishes that tend to accumulate and the aisles are too narrow to accommodate a wine cooler. But these are minor quibbles. Raw bar options sparkle with freshness and variety, each best of its kind.

West Coast Mihagi and East Coast Ka-tama Bay oysters, for example, retained their distinctive flavors so perfectly we could tell them apart with our eyes closed. And yes, Virginia, there are frites, Franco frites, simply superb. For food like Franco’s, I’d sit on a log.

We used to have to go to New York, San Francisco, Barcelona, Singapore for seafood creations of this caliber. Welcome, Waterhouse.
 

Waterhouse Oyster Bar & Bistro
1209 Main St., Branford, 203/208-0423, waterhouseoysterbar.com
Dinner Tuesday and Wednesday 5 to 9:30, Thursday 5 to 9, Friday and Saturday 5 to 9:30. Price range: Appetizers $5 to $15, entrées $19 to $26, desserts $8 to $10.
 

Waterhouse Oyster Bar & Bistro

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