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RESTAURANTS / THE REVIEW

Must see: nu room, ocean vus, gd food

August 29, 2007|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

SUMMER is unraveling, the daylight hours shaved ever shorter. I'd just as soon kiss the long leisurely days goodbye over dinner at the beach, watching the rose-gold fade to dark from the windows of Catch, the new restaurant at Casa del Mar in Santa Monica. It's one of only a few hotel restaurants with any ocean view along this part of the coast, and the view is straight on, just steps from the sand, with palm trees crowding against the windows.

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.

Catch has inherited Oceanfront's last chef, Michael Reardon, who originally came from the hotel's sister property Hotel AndalucĂ­a in Santa Barbara. For Catch, Reardon has created a seafood-intensive menu with an emphasis on sushi, crudo and other light, imaginative dishes.

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.

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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.

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