Waterstone's warm staff serves up hit-and-miss food
Reviewing restaurants can be a little like judging on American Idol. You have the contestants who are downright, irredeemably awful--singers who can't carry a tune or restaurants for whom scrambling eggs proves challenging. Then there are contestants who nail every song they tackle. Their restaurant equivalents run the gamut from the humble spot that does simplicity so well it becomes extraordinary to the risk-takers who use new techniques or innovative pairings to make you gape in wonder that it all comes together.
But most restaurants (and contestants) fall somewhere in between. Such is Waterstone Bar and Grille (311 W. Madison St.,  225-7475, waterstonebarandgrille.com), which for all its likability is, to co-opt Idol's most overused phrase, a little pitchy.
Formerly the lesbian bar Coconuts Café, the site of a fatal shooting in March 2009, the business re-opened quietly as Waterstone nine months later after a near total renovation. There's no denying that the new space is attractive. With exposed brick walls, sheer draperies, and dark leather dining chairs as plump and shiny as olives, you'd be hard pressed to imagine the dining room was once a dance floor or that it still hosts live music on weekends, were it not for purple organza camouflaging a pair of large speakers. A couch and set of armchairs arranged near the front of the dining room under a sign designating it a "bottle service" area further suggests that on weekend evenings once the music begins, Waterstone becomes more bar than grille.
But prior to 9 p.m. on a Friday night, Waterstone's staff warmly hosts a full house of patrons both straight and gay, who sit at the bar, in the dining room, and at outdoor tables and order drinks and full dinners. And indeed, it's the service and the effort to remake a space with a tough history that makes you want to root for Waterstone to succeed. In order for this to happen, however, the food needs to improve.
A surer hand in the kitchen would take care that falafel is cooked through, that lamb chops maintain a pink middle and are not overwhelmed by salt. That hand would know that if a component of a certain dish--say lump crabmeat--is unavailable, another component of equal value should be substituted or the dish should be removed from the night's menu. On the night we visited, none of this happened.
This is a shame, because while Waterstone's menu offers a Continental little bit of this and that, it also reflects a welcome Mediterranean influence. And so a dipping duo ($12.50) of house-made hummus and tzatziki served with pita, dolmades, and falafel should be a hit, but instead falls short because the falafel oozes batter like a tunnel of fudge cake. Island lamb chops ($13.50), on the other hand, are overdone to dryness and unbearably salty, making the "secret island recipe" mentioned on the menu perhaps not so secret.
Throughout the menu, there is a balance of seafood and meat, sandwiches and larger plates, and some of the pairing of entrées and sides, like flank steak served with ratatouille and fried tomatoes topped with lump crabmeat, feel just right on a warm summer night. I especially wanted to try the latter, but was told it was unavailable, so instead chose to satisfy my crab jones with the seafood trio ($22) described on the menu as "sesame encrusted rare ahi tuna, fried Texas shrimp, calamari, lump crabmeat saddled with a light cilantro infused linguini." Substitute raw for rare, nix the crab, and read "saddled" as "accompanied by" and "infused" as "bland," and you'd have my meal. Later, the server explained that the kitchen was out of crabmeat--something that was not made clear when I ordered.
Still, there are some well-executed dishes at Waterstone. The softshell crab must have been whale grade ($15.50), and it navigated the deep fryer perfectly, emerging crisp but still meaty and sweet. I'm not sure that more bits of deep fried (red) tomato were the best accompaniment to the crab, but the horseradish mashed potatoes that came with it are a trend that is still welcome. Feta-infused lamb sliders ($11.50) are also a favorable twist on the current slider trend, and while the feta wasn't that noticeable, cucumber-studded tzatziki gave the patties a boost. I'd order them and the crab again.
Waterstone boasts a respectable beer and wine list, including offerings from Flying Dog on tap and two Greek wines by the glass. Service here, too, was consistently well-meaning, and our server's geniality never flagged despite the missteps in our meal. Perhaps this is why I want Waterstone to succeed--because it feels like folks are trying. Maybe we visited on an off night. Maybe the kitchen is not yet ready for primetime dining. But with a few tweaks it could be, and I hope they can pull it together.