Making Waves

Like a brochure for the good life: Waterman's pretty deck.
Amy Spangler

This summer a revolutionary concept was introduced to Galveston's West Beach: fine dining.

Now, I'm not just being a citified food snob: This is one of few things that born-on-the-islanders and snowbirds like me can agree upon. Since the closing of Randall's some years back, we've been hard-pressed to find anything but hamburgers or fried shrimp west of 81st Street. I mean, I like burgers and I like fried shrimp, but neither well enough for a daily diet.

So I welcomed the opening of Waterman at Pirate's Cove, brought to you by those same folk, Diane and Marion Duzich, who first fielded Fisherman's Wharf over on Harborside, then Fish Tales and The Spot on the Seawall. Some may complain that the Duzich approach is too Disney-esque, slick and formulaic; I, on the other hand, find great comfort in the well-oiled machine: a consistent combination of well-prepared food and well-trained waiters and waitresses. (Where in Galveston do the Duziches find these great servers? I often wonder. Do they have a secret waitstaff factory somewhere?)

Compared to Fisherman's Wharf and Fish Tales, Waterman is more dignified, less flashy: no glowing neon and metal fish sculpture baring its teeth over the front door, no twirling flesh-pink plastic fins on the rooftop. The simple sign is so understated, in fact, I wasn't sure I'd found the right place. I was perplexed. Is this two-story weathered barnlike building a restaurant or a luxury condo sales office?

Even more confusing is the way the new building hulks above the old Pirate's Cove Marina, like a gleaming supertanker looming over a ratty little tug. The old bait store is still in there, somewhere, but its former denizens are long gone. That bait store was the ultimate boys' club, and I wouldn't have gone in there on a bet. I know, from my husband's firsthand accounts, that they sat around doing what "boys" do best on the Redneck Riviera -- that is, drinking beer all afternoon, guffawing at silly dirty jokes, telling each other big lies about little fish, scratching and spittingŠ ugh.

So anyway, when George Mitchell sold his interest in Pirate's Cove to a group of Dallas developers, things began to change in a hurry. These Dallas guys had a different vision for Lake Como. (I swear that's what this little rounded inlet off Galveston Bay is called.) Maybe they knew it wasn't a pristine lake resort in the Italian Alps, but they definitely had it confused with Hilton Head. Their blueprint for improvement included mooring for really big yachts (too big to get to the Gulf through the treacherous, shifting shoals of nearby San Luis Pass, alas), a gentrified bait store that women and children needn't fear and a really nice restaurant to serve all those owners of luxury homes in the various Pirate subdivisions. That's where Waterman comes in.

The restaurant is built on the second floor, a smart precaution for this flood-prone bay. The interior has a woodsy luxury-lodge feel, with a thick Oriental carpet on the stair landing and a high-beamed ceiling. The west-facing back wall is all window, leading onto a spacious outdoor deck and a sweeping view of the bay, er, Lake Como, the Galveston Country Club and a collection of impressive homes. It's glossy, like a brochure for the saltwater good life. In the quiet, breezy evenings, pairs of ducks paddle below, and the occasional stoop-shouldered great blue heron perches solitary on a dock piling.

The Waterman's regular, permanently printed menu is just what you'd expect, no more, no less, its selection of seafood, beef and fowl very similar to that at Fisherman's Wharf. Yep, there's a fried shrimp platter ($14.95), but in its defense, it's good enough to be a Gulf Coast archetype: fresh shrimp that really are jumbo, butterflied and lightly breaded, the batter well spiked with black pepper. These shrimp are so perfectly deep-fried, crisp outside and still moist inside, that the tartar and cocktail sauces are superfluous. Even the french fries are deeply satisfying, hand-cut with brown bits of potato skin still adhering to them, steaming hot but blessedly un-greasy.

There's a smoky, dark seafood gumbo ($3.95 cup, $5.95 bowl) loaded with shrimp and oysters and flakes of white fish, admirably spicy and rich with chewy slices of smoked sausage. And one of our mulish friends who spurns seafood was mollified by the rosemary garlic chicken ($10.95). A whole chicken breast is first pan-seared to keep all the juices in, then oven-roasted with sprigs of fresh rosemary and slivers of garlic and served over a wondrously garlicky mound of fresh spinach sautéed in olive oil.

But I believe the most intriguing items appear only on the ephemeral "daily specials" menu, truly different every day. This is where to look for the more ambitious dishes that you won't find at Waterman's sibling restaurants or anywhere else on the West Bay.

It was here I first found and fell in love with a beautifully grilled fillet of Idaho trout ($19.95) topped with both red and black caviar and lightly drizzled with lemon butter, kept company by a half-dozen baked oysters on the half shell.

Another day, the tortilla-crusted wahoo ($17.95) made me unutterably happy: two thick, flaky wahoo steaks coated with crunchy, salty crumbs of tortilla chips, lightly browned and topped with hefty chunks of crabmeat and fresh pico de gallo. The whole thing was fetchingly sprinkled with needle-thin shoots of snipped chives. Side dishes at Waterman aren't just window dressing, either. A creamy mound of mashed new potatoes came with the wahoo, sporting more bits of potato skin and a few authentic lumps for good measure, and a buttery sautéed medley of fresh tomatoes and yellow squash.

I was equally pleased with a luncheon-size salad that materialized on the appetizer list two weeks ago: fresh spinach ($7.95) served warm and wilted under a tangy vinaigrette sparked with toothsome slivers of andouille sausage and Granny Smith apples. After dressing, the salad was topped with a half-dozen fried oysters in crispy cornmeal coats. I'd have been satisfied with the oysters alone, I think, but the pairing with salty, warm spinach was pure bliss.

I must admit that not all the novelties on the special list are whiz-bang successes. I tried the pecan-crusted Brie ($7.95) and thought it was, well, horrible. I'm not convinced that Brie and pecans are a match made in heaven anyway, and in this case there was something off, maybe a tad elderly, in the dry coating of pulverized nuts. The ancho-chili glaze sounds like a good idea but isn't; I liked its slightly fruity sweetness, but not beset as it was by a bitter, almost burned, aftertaste.

And why, when I know and love this restaurant family's key lime pie -- its creamy, pale filling saturated with fresh lime juice, cradled in a sweet cinnamon graham-cracker crust -- did I ever consider an oddity like the warm plantain and coconut cake ($3.95)? This turned out to be an uninspired lump of muddy brown custard substance, not cakelike at all, served nuclear-hot, a cloying overload of plantain flavor dusted with tired, dry flecks of coconut.

Maybe that's the whole point of Waterman's cheaply photocopied special menu. Who could really predict the reactions of reputedly reactionary West Beach customers? If a dish turns out to be too avant-garde for its own good, it can be cut from the lineup in minutes. Everywhere else out on this western edge of island civilization I know exactly what I'm going to get; here, you pays yer money, you takes yer chances. I don't mind the occasional gamble with such favorable odds.

And you know what? Last Friday I could have sworn I saw some of the bait shop gang drinking at the Waterman's handsome bar. They jostled awkwardly around the corner beneath the television screen, glancing around the gussied-up place with a faintly furtive air, but at least they weren't scratching or spitting.

14300 Stewart Roat at Pirate's Cove, Galveston

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