The local appetite for seafood hasn’t historically been ravenous, what with our long tradition of not being situated near an ocean. You tend to like what’s available. Oh, we’ve dabbled in Gulf shrimp and indulged in the occasional fried catfish dinner, but it’s probably fair to say that we’ve been slow to take seafood seriously as a cuisine. It isn’t that we’ve resisted; we just needed someone to show us the way.
Here comes Jon Bonnell to the rescue with Waters, his new seafood restaurant in the West 7th district. One of Fort Worth’s most beloved chefs, Bonnell has joined a recent wave of seafood openings around Dallas-Fort Worth that include Dallas Fish market, Driftwood in Oak Cliff and Spoon from Top Chef contestant John Tesar.
Unlike the Cajun-style places with their fried catfish and peel-and-eat shrimp, these newer seafood spots are in the fine-dining mode, following the spare, minimalist example set by Le Bernardin in New York. Plate presentation is clean, cooking is chef-driven and flavors are refined. Prices match the New York standard, with entrees running from $20 all the way up to $50; fine seafood ain’t cheap.
Waters exemplifies this fine-dining seafood trend perfectly and represents a terrific addition to Fort Worth’s restaurant scene. The menu centers on fresh seafood, simply prepared, with interesting sides like lentils and Brussels sprouts. There’s a section of oysters, both fresh on the half-shell and cooked with artful preparations. There are salads and appetizers, and a quartet of nonseafood items that includes a bone-in rib-eye as well as a vegetarian option.
The cuisine — Southwest with hints of Creole and Mexican — follows that of Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine, the chef’s popular restaurant in southwest Fort Worth. The fact that the seafood changes nightly at Waters keeps things fresh.
A couple of items have migrated over from Bonnell’s, including the oysters Texasfeller ($16), Bonnell’s spin on oysters Rockefeller. Instead of baking the oysters with spinach, this dish features the oysters fried separately, then perched on wilted spinach. They came six to an order, served in the shell and lined up on a rectangular plate. The oysters were impeccably light and crunchy, and the spinach had diced Tasso ham that gave it a salty tang. But we did feel a little sad about the disconnect between the oyster and the spinach.
The starter that exhibited the Creole influence most clearly was the spring rolls ($9) filled with crawfish and andouille sausage. They were three rather small cylinders, basically fried shells enclosing chunky bits of meat and not much else. They came with a dipping sauce flecked with whole mustard seeds. Other starters included crabcakes, fried calamari, hummus and a trio of ceviches made with shrimp, sea bass and tuna.
Among the entrees, scallops have been a semi-regular item since Waters opened. On our visit, it was $44 for two large scallops (about the size of ping-pong balls), and an absolutely smashing side of linguine and fresh vegetables. The linguine was a perfectly cooked, green-flecked tangle of noodles enhanced by long thin strips of zucchini; you almost couldn’t tell the difference between the pasta and the vegetable. Microgreens were sprinkled all over, plus still-crunchy fresh peas and tiny tomatoes, sliced in half.
The scallops were perfectly cooked: just warmed in the center until creamy and barely firm, a contrast to the crisp, dark brown edges.
Nova Scotia halibut ($42) came wrapped in prosciutto, with mashed potatoes, asparagus and a mushroom “compote” spiked with port wine. Bonnell knows how to cook fish right: This was a thick, firm fillet, snow white, that flaked readily at the prod of a fork. The prosciutto was clever: like a paper-thin shell with a slight crackle and barely a hint of flavor.
The mashed potatoes had an unusually delicate texture, achieved by passing them through a food mill until they became soft and granular. Three asparagus spears, bright green and still with some body, were propped on top. The compote flecked with slivered mushrooms made a brilliant sauce. If every seafood special at Waters is as good as the halibut and scallops, then we’re in for some good eating.
One could also make a meal by combining a couple of the side dishes from options such as succotash, sweet potato grits, jasmine rice and Kennebec steak fries. Lobster mac and cheese ($14) at first looked like a small portion in its two-handled bowl; but it proved to be a rich and filling dish. Twisted tubes of pasta were combined with sizable chunks of lobster, but the best part about this dish was the subtlety and lightness of the cheese sauce, rather than the thick, gloppy alternative you often see. Fried cactus ($8) was a very cool dish, with long flat strips of cactus coated in a crisp breading and served with a thick, fruity ancho chile sauce.
Waters replaces the old Bailey’s Prime steakhouse in the West 7th development in Fort Worth, and it has received a chic makeover with restful tones of pastel blues, greens and whites, with pale woods and stone. A clever seafood theme includes a mobile of fishing lures and weights hanging over the main dining room, and a chandelierlike installation with rows of oyster shells in the bar. They’ve kept the prominent circular wine rack in the middle of the room, notable for its especially large collection of rosé, sparkling wines and champagnes — good with seafood, for sure, and just about anything else.