In writing about L.A. restaurant tendencies over the last couple of years, the trend that seems the most incongruent — sitting as we are on the precipice of the great Pacific Ocean — is the proliferation of East Coast–style seafood joints. But in many ways, this boom in Atlantic-style fish houses isn't that odd. After all, our seafood traditions in America are almost exclusively Eastern-born, the result of a more robust maritime and culinary history than California can claim. What would a seafood restaurant inspired by the West Coast even look like?
In the past, when people have asked that question, I've pointed to the Hungry Cat, David Lentz's seafood restaurant with branches in Hollywood and Santa Monica Canyon. Lentz's sensibilities borrow somewhat from the East Coast tradition — he was way ahead of his time on the $25 lobster roll trend, for instance — but at its base his cooking is pure California: modern, produce-driven, unbound by any particular tradition or methodology.
Now we can add chef Andrew Kirschner to the short list of purveyors of West Coast–style seafood. If anything, his restaurant, the Santa Monica Yacht Club (known also as SMYC), is even more Californian than the Hungry Cat. There are no lobster rolls here; instead, there is lobster on toast. With burrata, of course.
It's no surprise that Kirschner would go this direction with his new restaurant. Unlike many of the chefs opening seafood-focused spots, Kirschner is a native of Southern California (Santa Monica, in fact), so his nostalgia isn't tied to some other state's version of a fish house. And up the street, on the same block, his 3-year-old restaurant Tar & Roses also is aggressively Californian, relying on fresh produce, bright flavors and creativity to carry the menu.
Tar & Roses is currently closed, due to a fire, and isn't expected to reopen until early next year; but when it does, this block of Santa Monica Boulevard will be capped at each end with two restaurants that belong wholly to this city, this ocean, this place and time.
There's a midcentury nautical vibe to SMYC, which is housed in the corner building that used to be La Botte. Where that restaurant went for an almost claustrophobic Italian wine-cellar feel, Kirschner and his partners hired Peter Tolkin Architecture to open up the space, and a good portion of it spills out onto a patio along the sidewalk. It is unrecognizable from its former self, the honeyed wood and blue bench seating imitating a lavish yacht from some 1950s Bond movie that never quite existed, although you wish it did.
There's a decidedly non–Bond-inspired cocktail list, more fruity than it probably needs to be and with some silliness such as the County Line, which is basically a gin greyhound with sriracha and ginger in it. It's as fun as it is unnecessary. The wine list is short and varied, with safe bets as well as some more exciting finds. There's a section of the list dedicated to half bottles, a welcome and rare focus that the restaurant is planning to expand in coming months.
Those familiar with Tar & Roses will recognize Kirschner's style and, in some cases, his dishes as well. A crabcake in a pool of Singaporean chili sauce was one of my favorite dishes at Tar & Roses at a meal there last year, and it fits right in on SMYC's menu. Showered in delicate pea shoots, the mellow crab meat bathed in the lightly sweet sauce makes for a vivid, purely pleasurable few bites of food. A persimmon salad, in which sweet slivers of persimmon drape over ruddy arugula leaves, is punctuated by blue cheese and pomegranate seeds. It's one of those salads that's more than the sum of its parts, almost magically delicious, and it could have come straight from the Tar & Roses kitchen, as could much of what's on the "veggies" and "meat" sections of SMYC's menu.
What's slightly different here are the more focused and creative of the fish dishes. Blackened catfish, lacquered in a fermented black-bean glaze and served atop lemongrass risotto, is straight-up bizarre in its Southern/Chinese/Italian underpinnings but somehow works. Raw rock shrimp "taquitos" are wrapped not in a crispy shell but in thinly sliced jicama — they're fresh and sweet and delicate. There are some beautiful ceviches and the like, including a striped bass that comes in half a coconut shell, bathed in coconut water with pops of cilantro and jalapeño.
That jumble of sweet lobster meat on toast with creamy burrata could be the poster dish for a new brand of West Coast seafood. It channels the sensibilities of places like Gjelina and A.O.C. but feels more rooted in our oceanside location. There's also an almost obligatory avocado toast, with uni (but of course), and while I generally feel as though uni is wasted on toast, this version is pretty tasty.
There's a whole fried snapper with soba noodles and a charred octopus dish with salsa verde. If these things seem disparate, they somehow don't come across that way.
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There is a lot that SMYC borrows from Asia, borrows from Mexico, borrows from South America. Yet it all shares a common theme of colorful, bold flavor, an aesthetic that is certainly Kirschner's but also Southern California's. It's breezy and fun and, yes, almost too fashionable, but this chef in this town can get away with overt trendiness. It's a style of seafood restaurant we, as a region, can be proud to call our own.
SANTA MONICA YACHT CLUB | Three stars | 620 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica | (310) 587-3330 | eatsmyc.com | Tue.-Sat., 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Sun., 5:30-9:30 p.m. | Plates $13-$41 | Full bar | Valet parking