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DAVID NELSON ON RESTAURANTS

Mexican, Japanese Overtones Accent Menu : El Crab Catcher Quintessential San Diego

February 11, 1988|DAVID NELSON

Some local restaurants were disappointed about patronage during Super Bowl week as the locals, apparently fearing crowds, stayed home. But other established tourist eateries, which rely for much of their trade on national word of mouth, found business to be brisk.

One that prospered, according to employees, during the Super Bowl hoopla was La Jolla's enduring El Crab Catcher. For nearly 8 years it has been packing 'em in with a somewhat Hawaiian atmosphere and a seafood-oriented menu accented with Mexican and Japanese overtones. In other words, the place is a slice of quintessential San Diego, and visitors seem to find it typical of the life style enjoyed by the laid-back natives.

A recent visit to this restaurant served as a quick refresher course in how certain elements unique to San Diego can make a place especially popular with both visitors and locals. There is the view, of course, and El Crab Catcher's wide wedge of La Jolla Cove, caught through broad, high windows, is hard to top. The mood, which is polite but unfussy, must seem attractive to Easterners accustomed to the brisk formality of New York and Chicago restaurants.

Menu Selections

The menu includes everything from crab enchiladas to scallops dijonaise, and in its sum is for better or worse indigenous to these parts; what it represents may one day be recognized as an example of American regional cuisine. As a specific plus, El Crab Catcher enjoys the services of chef Richard Savitch, who knows his way around a kitchen; Savitch may not exactly be challenged by the set menu, but he at least sees that it is executed with some care.

This menu announces its intentions right at the beginning with such appetizers as shrimp cocktail, nachos, steamed clams and sashimi, an inventory of starters that would allow a party of four Philadelphians to be simultaneously conservative, daring, traditional and broad-minded.

These days, the term pu pu tray sounds more silly than exotic, although this restaurant's version actually assembles a quite respectable collection of Japanese and Chinese--and by inference, if not fact, Polynesian--tidbits. Best among them are the light, very fresh-tasting egg rolls stuffed with quantities of tiny bay shrimp; the least interesting are the examples of "tempura" fried vegetables, in this case morsels encased in a heavy batter. The plate also includes bites of teriyaki beef and crisp, seafood-stuffed won tons.

The main entree list--there is a subsidiary, less expensive "light supper" list that offers such dishes as crab quiche and carne asada--looks primarily to seafood. The selection might be termed eclectic but is in any case a good one, and it ranges from a teriyaki broiled fish made with whatever finned creature the kitchen happens to choose, to mahi-mahi sprinkled with toasted almonds and coconut (the menu suggests this is a Hawaiian treatment, and it may be) and an entire, steamed Dungeness crab.

Among other possibilities are sauced, crab-stuffed fish; broiled, bacon-wrapped shrimp served with salsa, and the day's "gourmet specialty," as the menu calls it, which recently was a fusty-sounding treatment of Norwegian salmon that appeared to traverse the boundaries this restaurant has drawn for itself.

Dinners include the choice of the soup of the day or one of several salads. A recent cream of mushroom seemed inspired mostly by the fact that food processors can puree absolutely anything, including an abundance of mushrooms, at the flick of a switch. Among the salad choices are mixed green, spinach, and the increasingly common Caesar (this used to be pretty much the exclusive property of formal, top-price eateries); the Caesar seemed relatively well assembled but suffered from the fact that good Romaine is difficult to get.

Both entrees sampled were fairly simple preparations, and both came off respectably. A quick saute of large shrimp, arranged over fresh pasta and drizzled with the garlic butter in which they had been heated, was a good variation on the locally beloved "shrimp scampi."

The catch of the day, a generously cut steak of fresh, local swordfish, acquired a slight crust while it reposed on the grill, and this gave a pleasant texture to the fish. The grill cook managed to keep the swordfish moist, however, which is not an easy trick; for extra moisture, a spoonful of herb butter melted slowly over the serving and added a good flavor to each bite.

EL CRAB CATCHER

1298 Prospect St. (in the Coast Walk center), La Jolla

454-9587

Lunch and dinner daily.

Credit cards accepted.

Dinner for two, including a glass of house wine each, tax and tip, about $30 to $70.

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