Wednesday 25 April, 2012

Catch: Too Good To Leave To Tourists

2011-06-26_21-25-50_996

From two star Michelin-rated Melisse to funky fresh Blue Plate Oysterette, dining in Santa Monica is perhaps better now than it ever has been. But with all the interesting new bistros–and even stalwarts like Drago reviving and refreshing their menus–it's more than easy for locals to overlook the hotel restaurants.

In most cases, this is no great loss. But under Executive Chef Jason Bowlin and Executive Sous Chef Sean Conway, Casa Del Mar's Catch restaurant and wine bar has reinvented itself as not only a gorgeous view room, but a semi-formal place with exceptionally inventive and satisfying dishes.

First, let me note that not only does this room offer gorgeous 180º views of the Pacific (recommending you make reservations just in time to enjoy the sunset), but it's nicely spaced tables are also lit by single lamps throwing a spot on the table, a wonderful effect allowing you to read a menu while maintaining atmosphere. Lighting is one aspect that restaurants frequently get wrong: they should take note of how Catch does it right. Also, Catch, which bills itself a "restaurant and wine bar" manages to feel like a proper dining room but with a large bar in the middle, so that it can remain as formal or as casual as the guests that evening make it.

As for the food, Bowlin and Conway are creating seasonally-inspired seafood-focused dishes that vary between refined complexity and simple rusticity. This, in my humble observation, is how the best chefs create a great menu, balancing texture, flavor and aesthetics. Their summer menu doesn't lack for variety–there are four crudos, nine charcuterie selections, three salads, ten small plates, five pastas, ten entrees, three steaks, and nine sides–but the variety manages to just avoid feeling overwhelming. Barely.

Let me just let the dishes I tried speak for themselves:

Charcuterie and chese sampling

Charcuterie and cheese sampling, including chorizo Pamplona, speck, sopresatta, spicy coppa, organic proscuitto

Crudo sampling, from left: oily, unagi-like Spanish mackerel with roasted grapes, rosemary, 25yr Balsamic; jelly-soft Albacore with breakfast radish, smoked trout caviar; firm sweet Tasmanian sea trout with Fresno chili, orange, white soy; tart,creamy hamachi with pink peppercorns, Calif. olive oil, lemon and sea salt

Crudo sampling, from left: oily, unagi-like Spanish mackerel with roasted grapes, rosemary, 25yr Balsamic; jelly-soft Albacore with breakfast radish, smoked trout caviar; firm sweet Tasmanian sea trout with Fresno chili, orange, white soy; tart,creamy hamachi with pink peppercorns, Calif. olive oil, lemon and sea salt

Pate sampling, from left: tender duck confit, with sweet & sour onions, huckleberries; delectable smoked king salmon rillette with pickled mustard seed; foie gras "PB&J" terrine on toasted brioche with strawberry-rhubarb jam

More charcuterie, from left: tender duck confit, with sweet & sour onions, huckleberries; delectable smoked king salmon rillette with pickled mustard seed; foie gras "PB&J" terrine on toasted brioche with strawberry-rhubarb jam

thick, rich corn soup with clams and Tamworth bacon.

thick, rich corn soup with clams and Tamworth bacon.

woody grilled octopus with black garbanzos, roasted tomato, garlic, chili, capers, oregano: a rustic balance of textures and flavors

woody grilled octopus with black garbanzos, roasted tomato, garlic, chili, capers, oregano: a rustic balance of textures and flavors

sweet citrusy pea tortelloni atop savory rich braised shortrib ragu with woody summer truffles

sweet citrusy pea tortelloni atop savory rich braised shortrib ragu with woody summer truffles

lousy picture of a practically perfect bouilliabaise (mussels, clams, shrimp, local snapper)

lousy picture of a practically perfect bouilliabaise (mussels, clams, shrimp, local snapper)

even worse pic of lovely, light Alaskan halibut with eggplant caponata, tomato relish and fennel salad

even worse pic of lovely, light Alaskan halibut with eggplant caponata, tomato relish and fennel salad

Not pictured: tender, hearty parmesan gnocchi with Maine lobster, basil and tomato fondue; slow roasted pork with black Tuscan kale, farro and balsamic cipollini.

From the restaurant's broad well selected list of US, French, Italian, Spanish, German, South African and Australian wines (as well as four Japanese sake selections), I enjoyed three wines with my meal:

full-bodied, fruity, mineral Feudi di San Gregorio Falanghina '09

grapefruit-peppery Pratsch Gruner-Veltliner '09

Woody, black cherry C.G. Di Arie Syrah '06

Catch offers a choose-your-own Prix Fixe, two courses plus dessert for $44, which depending on your choices, can be a fantastic deal. Many of the above dishes also appear on the restaurant's gluten-free menu. 30 of the selections are available by the glass or carafe.

Catch Restaurant and Wine Bar at Casa Del Mar

1910 Ocean Way
Santa Monica, CA 90405
(310) 581-5533

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED JULY 2011


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