Santa Monica Seafood Market & Café stays true to two culinary traditions

By Richard Foss (

The subtly seasoned grilled trout on a bed of lightly sautéed spinach is the perfect low-carb lunch Photo by Richard Foss

The subtly seasoned grilled trout on a bed of lightly sautéed spinach is the perfect low-carb lunch
Photo by Richard Foss

I once stopped in at a fish market-themed restaurant for a to-go order of chowder and saw some pretty seabass in the display case. When I asked how much a pound would be, the person at the counter seemed bewildered. Did I want it there or to go, grilled or sautéed, with fries or rice pilaf? She was puzzled by the idea that I wanted to take it home to cook myself — do people do that anymore?

I recently had the opposite interaction at Santa Monica Seafood Market & Café when I asked our server about an unfamiliar fish listed on the chalkboard outside. She had no idea what it was either, because despite the vast array of seafood on the menu, this particular variety was only offered at the fish counter. The divide between the two confirms that this restaurant and market really is both, which is appropriate given that it’s an offshoot of a seafood distributor that has been in business since 1939.

The look here is bright and modern, free of lobster traps and nautical kitsch, and the dining area is comfortable and stylish. When we stopped in for lunch, our server Katie came by with menus and advice about the specials. We were impressed that when we asked about one of them and she didn’t know, she found someone who did. At many places the server would have made something up or just been vague, but here they make an effort to answer customers’ questions.

Our party of three started with soups — a fish chowder, New England clam chowder, and crab bisque. The fish chowder with potatoes, corn and onion in a seafood-tomato broth was like a mild cioppino, decent but not memorable. The tomato was the strongest flavor, and though it was not bad we liked both of the others more.

The New England clam chowder could be used as a standard by which to rate others — creamy, with just a little pepperiness, and loaded with clams. Celery and potatoes were there for flavor and body but not filler, and though I like bacon in chowder this pork-free version was just fine.

We agreed the lobster bisque was best, as it had a silky richness that was balanced by the slight sherry flavor. Traditional bisques use ground lobster shells as a thickener, but this one is cream-based and has a touch of sweetness. I could easily have eaten a large bowl with their good sourdough bread and called it a meal.

But if I had I would have missed the main courses, which were a soft shell crab salad, a mushroom-and-seafood ravioli plate, and the best piece of grilled trout that I’ve had in quite a while.

The subtly seasoned trout was served on a bed of lightly sautéed spinach and broiled tomato, and it was a perfect low-carb lunch.

The ravioli were at the other end of the spectrum, a large portion of big mushroom-filled dough packets in a rich cream sauce with shrimp, scallops, mushroom chunks and spinach. Musky fungal flavors mingled with seafood stock in the thick sauce, and it was much bolder in flavor than we expected. If you like thin, delicate sauces this may not be your favorite, but we loved it.

The only dish that lacked balance was the soft shell crab salad, and it wasn’t because of the quality of the ingredients. These were real Maryland soft shells, something of a rarity on the West Coast, and they were meaty and flavorful. Unfortunately they were served over a giant mound of greens in a sharp, vinegary dressing that overpowered the other flavors.

A little of this salad along with some other vegetable might have worked, but there was too much of the same flavor and we left about half of it. Katie indicated that this was a seasonal item that had just been added to the menu, and she would pass along our comment as they might still be tinkering with the flavor balance.

Katie also offered a free dessert because we weren’t happy with the crab, and we selected the lemon drop cheesecake. That’s not something I usually order because it’s often a sugary blob, but someone else at our table likes it and I went along. I was glad I did, because this one was unusually good, with a rich cheese flavor and tart lemon zest. It was made in-house and is well worth the calories.

Our lunch for three ran $117 with two soft drinks and one glass of wine; you’re getting top quality fish here, and the prices reflect that. We found it to be well worth the expense, because the experience was delightful.

Santa Monica Seafood has had more than 75 years of practice when it comes to serving customers, and that experience pays off for shoppers and diners alike.

Santa Monica Seafood Market & Café 1000 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica (310) 393-5244