Something in the Waters
Jon Bonnell’s long-awaited seafood venture reveals why the chef is so beloved in his hometown.
The handle on the door is a bronze octopus tentacle. A silvery metal shark’s fin hovers over a plate-glass window on the facade. The whimsy continues as you walk into the contemporary building’s soaring interior, where oyster shells fill several wire columns, sculptures of sharks’ jaws adorn one wall, and glittering metal strips float overhead like a school of minnows. You get only one guess at the following question: What type of food does this restaurant serve?
Open since the end of March, Waters is the biggest fish to surface so far in Fort Worth’s lively West 7th development. If you’re from out of town, you will be forgiven for not knowing that until recently, the whole area just east of the museum district was a no-man’s-land famous for scruffy, well-loved places like Fred’s Texas Cafe (“Great Food & Cold Ass Beer”). But a rapid explosion of dining, drinking, and entertainment destinations in the past couple of years has changed all that. On any given night, the entire neighborhood is bustling, and Waters is filled with the well-heeled fans of proprietor Jon Bonnell. They’re the ones who arrived early and are now waving to one another across the room and peering at new arrivals through narrowed eyelids. The popular local chef, who also owns the highly regarded Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine, took twelve years to open this second major venture, and as his devotees pore over the menu, you can almost hear them collectively thinking, “Well, it’s about time!”
Waters is an inviting place, spacious and smartly tailored, with an ample bar and a main room filled with tables and comfy banquettes that are arrayed along the windows. Your first temptation once you settle in is to order from the cold bar, which displays a changing lineup of oysters on the half shell. Its glass-fronted ice bins were designed by Bonnell himself, and when we wandered over to have a look, we found labels that sounded like a culinary peep show: Naked Cowboys from Long Island Sound, East Beach Blondes from Rhode Island, and Belons from Maine.
Our fickle interest satisfied, we decided we were in the mood for something else and instead ordered a trio of tart, citrusy ceviches, marinated in the light Peruvian style. The ahi tuna version with finely chopped jícama had an appealing tropical sweetness; we followed that with striped bass in red-chile sauce and finished with the sharper-edged shrimp with red onion and cucumber. Happy with our choice of appetizer, we continued in the same vein, splitting a fabulous order of huge chilled Texas and Louisiana wild-caught shrimp served with several house-made cocktail sauces.
It’s tempting, on a hot summer day, to have nothing but raw and cold dishes, but you don’t know a restaurant until you see what the kitchen is capable of. With that in mind, I jumped over to the gumbo, which is a signature dish at Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine. Based on a medium-dark roux pumped up with tasso ham, the seafood-and-sausage combination is emphatic in taste and filled with little pink crawfish, shrimp, and house-made andouille. My palate primed for intense flavors, I scanned the menu for something equally hearty and found it in both the spunky, pecan-wood-grilled Texas oysters (pictured) and in the grilled kingklip, a firm-fleshed inhabitant of the waters off New Zealand, paired with a deep-russet guajillo chile sauce. While the edges were disappointingly overdone, the center of the filet was perfectly cooked.
One of the great things about seafood restaurants is that you can convince yourself you’ve been virtuous and justify a truly naughty dessert. We had three. Our hopes for the white-chocolate-filled sopaipillas were dashed when they tasted suspiciously as if they had not been fried to order, a cardinal sin. But the other two—the dark-chocolate ganache tart on a whisper-thin crust and the lush Nanny’s Lemon Icebox Cheesecake—made us happy we hadn’t stopped at just one.
All too often, modern restaurants leave me with whiplash, as ambitious young chefs attempt to go in fifty directions at once. But as we lingered over coffee, I realized why Bonnell has acquired such a following in his hometown: he knows the city inside out. The menu at Waters doesn’t try to startle; it reassures. “I know what Fort Worth wants,” Bonnell told me a few days later. He grew up eating Tex-Mex and Southwestern-inspired food, then fell in love with Louisiana after cooking for six months at Mister B’s Bistro, in the French Quarter. (“Once you’ve lived in New Orleans,” he said, “it’s in your blood forever.”) Those influences now shape his cooking style. As we talked, I told him I had a theory I wanted to run by him: Would he describe his menu as the love child of Mexico and Louisiana? I hadn’t even finished the question before he was saying, “Absolutely.” Yes, Bonnell takes excursions—he’s quite fond of the occasional Asian-influenced seafood dish—but he always comes back to the fundamentals. To quote the old Texas saying, he dances with the one that brung him. waterstexas.com