This is the Ocean State, after all, so by all rights every fine dining restaurant should command a dramatic waterfront view. One of the latest ones working on this campaign is Waterman Grille, and further in local tradition, it can be described as being where the Gatehouse restaurant used to be, at Richmond Square.
None of this is surprising since local restaurateur Casey Riley is behind the new entry. He started attracting attention in 1994 at the Agora, in the downtown Westin, and soon moved to helm the kitchen of the Castle Hill Inn. Now, he’s partner and culinary arts director, as the Waterman menu has it, not only there, but also at four other East Bay kitchens of the Newport Restaurant Group.
The crews sculling back and forth were nearly as plentiful as the seagulls on the sunny early evening when we dropped in. It was mid-week and tables on the light-filled waterside room would soon start filling with 5:30 reservations, we were told. But without our asking, table assignments were re-jiggered and we were seated next to a window.
Nautical maps and photographs of sailboats — nothing too dramatic — accent the easy ambience of that room with a view. There are more tables in the large bar area, and displayed wine racks signal a wine list they are proud of. A floor above that, a formal dining room has tablecloths instead of bistro-style bare wooden tables. A floor below, there’s another bar area, where plans were on display for a patio to be built this summer.
This may be a fine-dining establishment, but the menu starts out with “Daily Special Plates,” just like in diners. Those on a budget can have dinner and salad or dessert for as little as $12.95 (for Friday’s fish and chips) or $16.25 (for Hereford short ribs). Vegetarians can flock here on Mondays for the green enchiladas, for $14.95.
For light meals that are more than a salad, or to share several things, tapas-style, there are a few “Short Plates,” such as yellowfin tuna tartar with a deviled egg ($4.50) and smoked salmon ($4.95); also, a half-dozen “Share Plates,” including something they’re calling Waterman Sliders, which are three miniature Hereford cheeseburgers ($7.95), and “Mooring Calamari” ($9.95), popular at the Thames Street restaurant for its tomato glaze.
We started with the lobster and shrimp fritters ($5.25) from the short plates list. Unlike the usual New England clam cakes to which they refer, these three balls of tasty fried batter contained plenty of their active ingredients. Each was on a dollop of sweet mustard sauce and next to a small pile of greens to cool things off.
Johnnie immediately chose the Pacific halibut ($19.50) for her entrée and was soon pleased with the decision. The flaky fish was cooked just right on the wood-fired broiler, moist but delectably smoky, topped by an avocado and corn salsa. (The menu announced that sugar maple and rosemary were burning that night.) Other seafood offered includes King salmon with a tangerine gremolata and ahi tuna under a ginger and rice wine hot sauce.
Given the restaurant’s name, I also felt obliged to order something from the grill. There was the usual Statler chicken breast, and an unusual turkey steak, both under $15, and a choice of 10-ounce beef burger or 10-ounce steak Bolognese, each $12.95. But what most attracted my attention was the Colorado lamb steak ($18.95). The thick loin, medium rare as requested, was topped with a spearmint pesto and a preparation of roasted tomatoes. Both tastes worked nicely with the subtle meat.
All main dishes are a la carte, and the options from nine sides are $4 each. The mac ‘n’ cheese is made with pasta from Venda Ravioli, and the grilled asparagus is always a temptation for us. But we chose the forest mushroom fricassee, which was enhanced by thyme and a splash of cream; and “wood-fired smashed sweets,” which were sweet potatoes carrying an appreciated hint of smoke.
At the top of the menu, the “menu authors” are listed: executive chef Michael Conetta, sous chef John Giardino, and Casey Riley. Beneath the offerings is a declaration that regional, organic, and sustainable sources are supported.
Desserts? From sorbet and ice cream, through tiramisu to chocolate velvet terrine, they are all $7.50. We chose that last one, and the flourless chocolate “cake,” more like soft fudge, was delicious, especially with its black raspberry hint of Chambord. Like the rest of our experience at Waterman Grille, it was just right.