Waterside Restaurant
and Wine Bar

3500 S. Harbor Blvd., #1

As far as local chefs to watch in 2014 goes, you’d be smart to keep an eye on Chef Eric Cancino’s work at the new Waterside Restaurant and Wine Bar in Channel Islands Harbor. Until September, Cancino held the title of sous chef at Oxnard’s swanky kosher-Mediterranean restaurant, Tierra Sur. Since then he’s been commanding the kitchen in the harbor side space vacated by Hollywood Beach Wine Company, and he’s taking on the new role with a great deal of ambition.

Cancino’s cuisine is original, worldly and modern, with smart and stimulating flavor combinations that stop short of becoming intellectual. The menu is also insistently seasonal and local, going so far as to attribute produce sources to local growers like McGrath Family Farms. Despite some lingering growing pains, what are emerging are a menu and a venue that could potentially gain repute as a top local destination for exploring food and wine pairing.

Atmospherically, the Waterside dining room feels like a wine bar you’ve been in before — red wine-colored woods, abundant earth tones, the sounds of jazz musicians playing over lubricated conversation. Sitting on the patio for a sunny Sunday brunch has a more unique effect though, with the Topa Topa Mountains rising in the distance over the gleaming expanse of white boats in the harbor. Having a blood-orange mimosa in hand for this makes you feel that you’re in the right place at the right time.

With regards to the food, the Mediterranean thread throughout the menu is strong, as at Tierra Sur, and though you might find an occasional component shared with that restaurant, there’s more willingness here to veer off into a Latin, French or even Moroccan direction.

Maybe you’ve enjoyed braised beef cheeks when ordering cabeza tacos from a taqueria, but the Waterside kitchen turned this off-cut into pure luxury. Braised expertly, there wasn’t a hint of gristly fat that hadn’t fully dissolved. This small plate balanced comforting and racy flavors to great effect, with the beef and wild mushrooms over a bed of mashed rutabaga and a drizzle of sweet and zingy Pommery mustard gastrique.

The rack of lamb was also an eclectic balancing act. A subtle cocoa and chipotle rub coated the four French lamb chops, which were served over buttery grits. An unforgettable brown sauce featured huitlacoche (a deliciously earthy fungus that can infect corn before harvest) sautéed with wild mushrooms, making for rich, rich flavor that was punctuated with brightness from chopped stems of red chard and piquant whole leaves of fresh marjoram.

Were the lamb not yanked off the menu, this could’ve become a favorite dish. But this isn’t a restaurant where you’ll be able to have a “favorite dish.” You might enjoy something twice but it will be gone before a third visit. Like one great preparation of chicken breast, which had a crunchy almond-chili-honey glaze with a generous hit of spices that evoked Morocco. Chicken breast now carries a “Mediterranean relish.” Just weeks before it had a pomegranate glaze.

On one hand, change at this tempo might be exciting for some. On the other hand, by the time this article was submitted half the items paid-for and evaluated vanished from the menu. Maybe the restless menu is a byproduct of Cancino’s devotion to using the freshest of what he can get his hands on locally in any given week, but it’d be nice to find a happy medium where the menu isn’t essentially a specials selection,which there’s also a board for. The only constants have been a couple of salads, carnitas ravioli and duck confit tacos, which sell out.

As far as the wine bar component, the atmosphere is fitting but the wine selections are uneven. There are nuggets throughout the complete list, and Eberle’s 2011 Cabernet for $40 proves a low mark-up, too. The by-the-glass selection, however, has a few too many wines you’re used to seeing for eight bucks a bottle at Vons, like Norton Malbec (which would be better suited for braising the beef cheeks).

Luckily, you can probably be guided toward something you’ll enjoy if you ask. After requesting something with more grip to match lamb than Clayhouse’s 2011 Syrah has, our server grabbed a glass and poured a taste of Louis Martini’s 2011 Sonoma Cabernet. Grabbing a glass and pouring a taste appeared to be standard practice in response to “How’s the …?”

Service, like the food, is quite good overall. But for a place striving toward fine dining, some need for tightening up remains. Our dinner server put in the wrong meal, sending us duck instead of lamb. Despite an elegant French presentation, with the duck breast fanned over fingerling potatoes and thin green beans, we sent it back because the orange glaze didn’t adhere at all. During a brunch visit, a neighboring table also had their order bungled. Meanwhile, our steak and eggs came out without any promised romesco sauce.

When you’re happy with the flavors in the end, it’s easy to forgive little slips along the way. But it will be fun to see if 2014 will be the year when Waterside becomes something truly great.