By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
There is an industry of specialty decorators who make new restaurants look ancient – they deploy used brick, weathered wood, and fixtures harvested from teardowns to simulate the patina of age. Some new places even brag about important things that happened on that spot, conveniently failing to mention that something else was there at the time.
Catch Restaurant in Santa Monica doesn’t have to make up anything – it’s located in a space that has been a grand hotel, seedy dive, drug rehab center, headquarters of a criminal cult, and is now a grand hotel again, the Hotel Casa Del Mar. If these walls could talk, they would have stories – though given the restored grandeur of the place, they would probably just preen and say, “My, don’t I look lovely today.”
The room with high ceilings is an art deco wonder, while the menu is an interesting fusion of modern and classic items. You can get a classic steak with cabernet sauce or simple grilled Scottish salmon – but why do that when more interesting dishes are offered?
We started with baby artichokes braised in chicken broth, then breaded and flash-fried. The outer leaves of artichokes are often fibrous and unpalatable, but this cooking method made them crisp and tasty, while the hearts were deliciously soft – it’s a perfect way of serving them.
We also had bigeye tuna crudo, the Italian variant of sushi based on a traditional fishermen’s snack from Naples. Italians augment the flavors of raw fish with olive oil and Mediterranean vegetables rather than vinegar and wasabi, in this case quick-fried ginger shreds, mandarin oranges, pickled carrots, and Asian pear. I’m pretty sure Neapolitan sailors dined on a much simpler version of this dish, but what was served here was stunning, both visually and in terms of flavor. My companion is not a fan of sushi but took to this immediately, proclaiming it the best dish involving raw fish he had ever tasted.
He had a glass of wine to start and appreciated the professionalism of our server, Jeremy, who proffered a taste of a Gruner Veltliner and a Chalk Hill Sauvignon Blanc. The latter was judged to be a better companion with dinner, and we received a generous pour. I tried a house specialty pre-Prohibition style Brooklyn cocktail. Pre-Prohibition cocktails were designed to show off the flavors of good liquor, rather than to hide it like the sweet and fruity things that became fashionable later. The barrel-aged mix of whiskies, vermouth, liqueur, and bitters was an admirable slow-sipping drink, and for something with a high alcohol level it was a surprisingly good companion to the food.
We mused over meat dishes such as Colorado beef filet, smoked kurobuta pork, or braised short ribs, but decided to stay with the seafood that is the specialty here. I had a grilled sampler platter, my companion had mustard-marinated black cod, and we shared a side of cauliflower and spinach gratin.
The cod in mild mustard had a buttery flavor and was delicious just as it was; the red wine steak sauce that was served on the side was unnecessary. My seafood sampler included rockfish, a large scallop, two medium shrimp, a baby squid, and two slices of Spanish chorizo. The chorizo was a great touch, a spicy palate cleanser to enjoy between bites of simply grilled and mildly seasoned seafood, and I’m going to start grilling some when I serve fish at home.
Both dishes came with a modest but tasty array of grilled vegetables, but we were glad we also ordered the gratin. The flavors were more straightforward than many I’ve had in which the vegetables were just an excuse to eat toasted cheese with breadcrumbs. Here, the natural flavors of the spinach and cauliflower were allowed to shine.
We might have called it an evening, but dessert beckoned so we selected a chocolate espresso tart and a strawberry-rhubarb crème brulee with lime sugar. Both were made in-house and were stellar – the dense tart had subtle hints of salted caramel, while the brulee used the tart lime sugar with commendable moderation so it was a hint of flavor alongside the creamy custard and fruity rhubarb. The tart was perfect with a Sazerac, another 19th century cocktail that is terrific alongside bittersweet chocolate.
Our meal for two with three drinks was $210 – not an everyday bill, but appropriate for a superb dinner in an art deco ballroom with an ocean view. People pay more for less at sterile modern places nearby. If you want a special occasion to be truly special in food, service, and surroundings, this is the place.
Catch is in the Hotel Casa Del Mar at 1910 Ocean Way in Santa Monica, where Pico Boulevard meets the beach. Open daily 7 a.m. – 10 p.m. except 3 to 5:30 p.m. Serves weekend brunch. Full bar, corkage $25, valet parking. 310-581-7714.