You'd think that with all of Santa Monica's coastline, there would be more restaurants right on the beach, places where you could enjoy local seafood and revel in the landscape of sea and sand. Not counting hotel dining rooms, the list is far too short. Even then, most are across Ocean Boulevard on the land side of the street. And with square footage prices so high, few independent restaurateurs or chefs have the means to own a restaurant on the shore.
When the Lobster opened in 1999, right by the water and the Santa Monica Pier, it was a very big deal. Allison Thurber, who had headed up the kitchen at Water Grill, was opening chef. The fact that she's allergic to lobster didn't seem to phase anyone involved. (File that fact away for your next foodie trivia contest.) And feeding the hordes who descended on the restaurant for their lobster fix was no problem for this consummate professional. The food itself got mixed reviews, but the crustaceans were always impeccably fresh and cooked with skill and attention.
Thurber moved on last year, and in November the restaurant recruited another Water Grill alum as chef. Collin Crannell was chef de cuisine during Michael Cimarusti's tenure there. Since then, he's cooked around, most recently at La Botte for the last three years, and he brings a global spin to the seafood menu at the Lobster. For Crannell, 40, the Santa Monica seafood restaurant is a big step up in terms of action. It's not Gladstone's, but close — always packed and open seven days a week. Running this kitchen is like running the commissary for a small army. And the kitchen sometimes falters.
Set beside the entrance to the Santa Monica Pier, the Lobster is a tourist magnet of the first degree. It had its beginnings in 1923 as the Lobster Shack, a tiny place just 900 square feet. The glory days were the '50s and '60s, after Mateo Castillo, a former dishwasher, became the owner. Shuttered in 1985, the shack sat empty until a group of a dozen investors, including the Roberts family behind Topanga Fish Market and Reel Inn, put together a partnership to secure the site and build a bigger, brasher seafood restaurant. The new Lobster was built on two levels cantilevered out to take in a 180-degree view of sea and sand.
It sounds very like the Brothers Grimm fairy tale "The Fisherman and His Wife," in which the greedy wife insists her husband ask an enchanted flounder to give them a cottage in place of their little shack. Not content with that, she wanted a stone palace instead, then to be king, emperor, pope, God … we all know how that ended. Not well.
The Lobster, though, is thriving in its seaside digs. Even in this difficult economy. The restaurant is the place for live Maine — or, in season, spiny — lobster consumed within shouting distance of the ocean. With its updated menu, the Lobster isn't stuck in the past. No foams or gelees or liquid nitrogen fogs here. Crannell's cooking is more about spices and casual collisions of ingredients, not all of them successful. The simpler the preparation, the better the execution. With a restaurant this busy, you can't get that fussy.
The customers arrive in waves, just like the surf outside. Hungry, boisterous, with cocktails and drinks in the bar preceding lunch or dinner. By the time guests get to the table, they want their food now. And the kitchen gives it to them. If you're of the leisurely dining persuasion, a meal here can feel rushed, as if the servers, invariably friendly and happy to see you, are intent on turning the tables as fast as possible. For many guests, the ones who write to me to complain about slow service everywhere, this would be a plus. If you prefer to take your time, say so upfront.
Let's cut to the chase: the lobster. Steamed live Maine lobster, starting at 11/2 pounds and priced by the pound (right now $24), arrives langorous and lovely on a plate with a crock of drawn butter and emerald sauteed Swiss chard. The green's bright earthiness is terrific against the sweetness of the lobster. A 21/2 pound grilled Maine lobster slathered in olive oil and herbs is perfectly cooked, even the big meaty claws. The kitchen tends to have a heavy hand, though. It's tasty, but a bit greasy.
In season, the restaurant is one of the few to offer spiny lobsters, a sublime and truly local treat. They're tricky to cook, though, and my 2-pounder ($41 per pound) one night unfortunately is overcooked. Still, the fact that Crannell is offering these local crustaceans is something to celebrate.
Of course, you can get fine oysters on the half shell, usually Kumamotos and Malpeques. A delicious bay scallop ceviche with kumquats piled into a glass comes with handsome hand-made crackers sprinkled with caraway seeds. The crackers are oddly sweet, though. Wild Mexican shrimp cocktail is excellent, with a punchy cocktail sauce. Calamari are crispy as advertised, ready and willing to be dipped in an anchovy-spiked aioli.
Tempura shrimp, though, hardly warrants the name tempura. The heavy batter is more like something you'd put on a corn dog, but you'll find yourself dragging the shrimp through a sweet chile-spiked sauce for more. Yellowfin tuna crudo lags in execution too. The poor fish is so overwhelmed with soy sauce you can't taste the fish. An excess of capers doesn't help either. And trendy Kurobuta pork belly paired with New Bedford day boat scallops could have worked if the sherry hoisin sauce hadn't been so strong.
Aside from seafood, you might want to start with the rough-hewn house-made hummus served with triangles of grilled warm pita. To make it relevant for a seafood restaurant, I guess, it's piled with rosy rock shrimp, which are more a distraction than an addition. Crab cake comes with a vibrant Thai slaw: The crab cake itself is dull with the texture of sawdust. With the appetizers, it's up, down, up, down.
If you're not having lobster, chances are you're having fish. And that has its ups and downs too. Grilled wild New Bedford striped bass is a fine piece of fish, surrounded by some squid, rock shrimp and Manila clams — all good except for the cannellini beans that are stiff as spackle where they should be loose. Pacific sole in a simple preparation of butter, lemon, capers and artichokes is too rubbery to produce the effect Dover sole had on Julia Child the first time she tasted it in France. At least in the movie, she groaned in pleasure as her husband patted her on the knee, saying, "I know, I know," soothingly.
Barramundi is overcooked too. It's a good idea to specify medium-rare when you order. For me, the tendency to overcook means the food isn't always as carefully prepared as it would be if the kitchen were in less of a hurry.
The wine list is limited, not at all the huge compendium at Water Grill or Providence, but it has some decent bottles to go with your lobster that won't break the bank, such as the Reverdy Sancerre or Martin Codax Albarino. For creamy California Chardonnays, like Flowers or Patz & Hall, the price is higher.
Be aware that the restaurant is punishingly loud, and it doesn't seem to make much difference where you sit. Going at an hour when it's less busy is an option. Or else taking one of the handful of seats at the small outdoor bar facing the palisades where M.F.K. Fisher and her family camped in the '30s.
Desserts don't make much of an impression other than that they're generally very sweet. Blackberry cobbler served warm with pecan streusel and a ball of ice cream on top is pleasant enough. A lemon pudding cake is tender and light.
Crannell has taken the Lobster in hand with an updated menu, but getting the kitchen at this busy restaurant to perform consistently is a lot harder than writing a new menu. Still, for a tourist restaurant on the beach, it's better than most. And when you can have a decent lobster looking out at the view, it's something. It just could be so much more.
Rating: One and a half stars
Location: 1602 Ocean Ave. (next to the entrance to the Santa Monica Pier), Santa Monica; (310) 458-9294; http://www.thelobster.com.
Price: Oyster and shellfish, $14.50 to $60; appetizers, $8 to $16; soup and salad, $9 to $23; lobster and shellfish, $16 to $46 and from $24 to $41 per pound; finfish and other entrees, $20 to $55; sides, $4 to $7; desserts, $9. Corkage fee, $25.
Details: Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking, $5.50 for the first three hours, $7.50 thereafter, with validation.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. Four stars: Outstanding on every level. Three stars: Excellent. Two stars: Very good. One star: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.