In Europe, many of the best restaurants are located in hotels. This has not been the tradition in the U.S., but it is gaining traction, especially in Santa Monica with its collection of luxury hotels located close to the city’s famous Farmers’ Markets.
There are a lot of advantages for a restaurant in a hotel. There is the patronage of guests, often a preferred location, shared parking and sometimes assistance with the rent.
Catch is in the iconic Casa del Mar Hotel at 1910 Ocean Way in Santa Monica. What a great location: Unparalleled view of the Pacific Ocean from every table, and close to the many activities in Downtown.
After a period of negative reviews on the Internet during most of 2012, Catch is now catching up, and on the way to becoming one of the premier seafood restaurants in the city by the sea.
In July of 2012 the kitchen was turned over to chef Sven Mede. His credentials are worthy of the position, as he has worked in a number of world class restaurants, including some time as sous-chef at Charlie Trotter’s famous restaurant in Chicago, and several Michelin-starred restaurants. As soon as he took charge, the restaurant took on a whole new atmosphere and menu.
As one would expect from the name, the emphasis is now on seafood. And the style is modern, straightforward preparations without much complexity or sauces. His signature dishes include Hawaiian big-eye tuna crudo with preserved carrots and crispy ginger, and Japanese yellowtail crudo with shaved radish, cucumber and Meyer lemon.
Then there is my favorite, the grilled Spanish octopus with smoked potatoes, paprika and olive oil. Moving away from the ever-present Japanese influence and Spanish touch, there is the typical French steamed mussels served in the traditional cast iron pot with saffron cream, garlic, basil and grilled morcilla. This is one of the favorite dishes in the south of France, but hard to find in Los Angeles. A nice selection of the common local fish is on the menu. And, I hear that bouillabaisse is on the way.
As befits a restaurant looking out over a sand beach, the restaurant is casual and not dressy. That’s a good thing because on the first Sunday of every month they serve an eat-with-your-hands, multi-course prix fixe menu of shellfish favorites. You wouldn’t want to order that in your new tux!
It’s difficult for a hotel restaurant to create an image because it is there partly to serve a wide variety of guests as well as the outside clients. For that reason there is often a wide selection of different foods on the menu. At Catch, in addition to the specialties mentioned above in the main dining room, they serve sushi (as well as small plate menus) in the adjacent lounge. A few times when I’ve been there live music was offered and there was a nice crowd really enjoying it — as I did.
I think it’s a good idea that they don’t serve sushi in the main dining room, since I can’t help but think that it’s a mistake to try to compete with all the Japanese run sushi houses in Santa Monica. Santa Monica really needs a good, high-end traditional seafood restaurant, and sushi is the wrong image.
There are a few negatives. Parking is a nightmare, and the valet is expensive. Until they offer free parking and make that known, a lot of people will still stay away.
There are several Internet-posted experiences that suggest that sometimes the service is just awful. I assume that management is working on that, as it seems to be the major negative challenge facing the reputation of the restaurant.
And, as is the case in almost every hotel restaurant, the wine list is a problem. On the one hand the selection is excellent; just about any type of wine one would want can be found on the list. But the prices are marked up to an unreasonable level forcing most couples to order by the glass. The wait-staff is not trained in wine so they are of little or no help.
There is a particularly good selection of sparkling wines, which is wonderful for a seafood restaurant with a few raw fish selections. But the cheapest Italian white wine, just to pick an example from the six on the list, is $43. The muscat is listed with the Rhones, but not identified as a sweet wine. And why are the Rhone and Spanish wines linked together?
The least expensive Loire wine is $45, from a region known for inexpensive wines. The least expensive pinot noir is $60. The Crozes Hermitage Domaine des Lises 2010, which should cost about $10 wholesale since it sells retail at $20, is listed at $75! And the Turley zinfandel, which sells (just because of the name) for $115 on the list, should cost about $32 and be listed for about $85.
According to the PR people, the central price point for the red wines is $85 and $60 for the whites. The central price point for the wines by the glass is $14. So now that they have the menu and kitchen under improvement, the next step is to start offering some good bottles of wine in the $30 to $40 range, and glasses at $8 to $12. When they get their first Michelin star they can go back to overpricing.
In spite of these drawbacks, this is an up-and-coming restaurant (in a very competitive area) and I predict continuing improvement. And for lunch or a sunset dinner overlooking the ocean, Catch can’t be beat.
If you go
Hotel Casa Del Mar
1910 Ocean Way (Pico Blvd.)
Santa Monica, Calif.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at email@example.com.