The restaurant is at the far end of the luxe hotel's ocean liner-size lounge, up a few steps from the bar area where guests and locals congregate at dusk to quietly take in the sunset. Catch debuted in June after six months of extensive renovations to the site, the third try for the hotel. The last was Oceanfront and featured familiar California cuisine.
The room has a new energy and seems busier than it's been in years, so something is working. It may be because the restaurant is less intimidating and formal, with a casually elegant vibe instead. But it's also the food.
This menu is pitched more to what travelers and guests want to eat now. You can order just sushi, or share a couple of plates of crudo and maybe a pasta and call it quits, or settle down for a long meal with friends in front of those windows and that view. In the distance is Santa Monica Pier and the red and green lights of the Ferris wheel.
The entire feeling of the room, once one of Santa Monica's most staid, has changed. Decorated in a palette of white and pales, with white, woven-leather armchairs, pleated fabric lampshades and dark wood tables set with place mats and glass vases filled with sea urchin shells, it's contemporary beach chic all the way.
There's now a sushi bar in the middle of the restaurant, which means tables are closer together than ever. But that sushi counter is a siren call for lone diners and travelers on their own.
Three sushi chefs in flat black caps are at work behind the counter. Oddly, though, you can't really see the array of seafood on offer. It's kept in a deep trough below eye level, which means you're just going to have to trust the chef as to what is freshest. Although Catch's sushi-nigiri can't compete with that offered at the best places in town, it's decent -- nothing exciting or particularly unusual, just the basics. I wouldn't go out of my way to eat sushi here, but if I had just arrived from Paris or Sydney, I'd be happy to step in for a few bites before trundling away to sleep off my jet lag.
More unusual is Reardon's crudo. The selections change depending on what's in from the fish market. A plate of tai (spelled Thai on the menu) snapper is very appealing, dotted with slivers of papaya and squirts of lime. Shima aji (striped jackfish from Japan) is sliced to show off a flash of silvery skin against its rose-blushed flesh and comes with a fresh ginger sauce sparked with drops of mustard oil.
Order the crudo of Mano de Leon scallop to share. The giant, deep-water scallop is so rich it would be tough to finish on your own. Instead of slicing the scallop as most chefs would do, Reardon minces it, then forms it into a square patty spread with a layer of osetra caviar. A dab of wasabi sits on the side. A few bites are delicious, but after that, the richness begins to cloy.
A natural attitude
SERVICE at Catch is relaxed. I love that instead of addressing us in waiter-speak, our server one night asks in a natural tone, "Are you doing OK over here?" He doesn't offer his name for our delectation, or inform us that he'll be taking care of us this evening. That's understood.
He knows how to pour wine, and if something's taking a bit longer than expected, he alerts us that it will be just a few more minutes. What's so hard about acting like a normal person? The service alone makes Catch a standout, because it feels like adults with some experience are in charge.
Octopus salad makes an impression as a first course. Reardon cuts the tentacles very thin, almost like carpaccio, so they look like flirty, violet-edged petticoats dressed up with pine nuts, soft burnished eggplant and olives. The dressing is understated and balanced. Caesar salad does a modest turn, slightly overdressed, made with ribbons of Romaine lettuce and shaved Parmigiano. I'm sure the chef racked his brain to come up with his own twist on this salad cliché: a crispy anchovy that, on the night I tried it, had a soggy batter.
More original is his watermelon salad with hearts of palm and wild arugula. The flavors are terrific together, the watermelon crisp and sweet, the hearts of palm clean and mild, the arugula stinging. But shaved bluefin tuna in a soy vinaigrette is dominated by the dressing. You want to be able to taste the raw fish. The same goes for the beef carpaccio: It's too wet.
That carpaccio, though, must have some secret aphrodisiac properties. The couple at a table across the room feed each other bites, and then proceed to hold hands, and stare out at the view. The table next to them has been bitten by Cupid too. They've abandoned their meal entirely and are smooching it up, stopping to gaze ardently into each other's eyes. On that count alone, I'd say this hotel restaurant is a big success.
Give a foodie a menu here and I'm willing to bet that he or she will inevitably home in on the free-form ravioli as soon as the words "Sardinian sheep's-milk cheese" float off the text. And it's an entirely satisfying dish, loose bundles of pasta dough filled with milky fresh ricotta and crowned with thinly sliced fried artichokes. It could also easily do double duty as a main course.
Reardon, in fact, has a fine touch with pasta, going by the three dishes on the menu. In the main course section you find bucatini with Gulf prawns and wild broccoli. The pale pink prawns are barely cooked through, as if they'd just swum through a bath of hot water. The bucatini are perfectly al dente, and the wild broccoli has a slight bitterness that's wonderful with the shrimp and arugula. He had a very similar dish on his Oceanfront menu, and it's certainly good enough to carry over.
Oxtail ravioli have a tender, supple dough filled with soft, shredded oxtail ragù. If he'd stopped there and simply napped the pasta in a little olive oil or butter, the dish would have succeeded better. The sauce dotted with oven-roasted tomatoes adds a sharp sweet-tart element that's distracting.