To explain Catch & Release, the new Marina del Rey seafood restaurant, you basically have to explain the knotty nexus of L.A.’s restaurant industry. This review ought to perhaps have a family tree attached, a diagram like you sometimes find at the beginning of complicated Russian novels so you can refer back and see who begat whom. Many, many things begat Catch & Release.
The space, in the bottom of the Stella condo building, was originally built out as Paiche, the third restaurant from Peruvian chef Ricardo Zarate, who was backed in part by prolific restaurateur Bill Chait. Last year, under somewhat mysterious but undeniably dramatic circumstances, Zarate’s small empire crumbled, with rumors swirling about the chef’s acrimonious break with his investors, including Chait. Paiche and Mo Chica, Zarate’s downtown restaurant, closed. Another restaurant, Picca, continues without Zarate, though many of his creations remain on the menu.
Here is where, in our tangled epic novel, we would turn from one storyline to another seemingly unrelated plot set in nearby Venice. There, a chef named Jason Neroni was making his mark on L.A. after arriving from New York, turning the once-sleepy Rose Avenue into a restaurant destination with Superba Snack Bar. Neroni had been well regarded in New York but had moved around a lot. At Superba, he seemed to have found his true voice as a chef, combining the beachy attitude of Venice with his talent for Cal-Italian cooking: handmade pastas, charcuterie and creative, produce-driven small plates. Superba was breezy and fun, but in his cooking Neroni brought a seriousness that was surprising in the best possible way. It was as if he had found his niche.
Then: plot twist! Neroni announced in June 2014 that he was leaving Superba to pursue an unnamed project with Chait. (Here’s where that diagram might start to come in handy.) That project turned out to be a revamp of the Rose Café, a longtime Venice restaurant right up the street from Superba. As of this writing, that project is still under construction.
And then, at the beginning of this year, Chait and Neroni announced another project. They would take the space that had been Paiche and open a seafood restaurant, inspired mainly by Neroni’s family history in Portland, Maine. The space would be opened up and brightened, there would be tiki-esque cocktails and a quirky wine list. The place would be called Catch & Release.
It would be wise in our narrative here to offer an aside — not a new chapter but perhaps a footnote — about the ongoing proliferation of East Coast–style seafood restaurants in Los Angeles. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher, especially in a city on the precipice of the Pacific Ocean with only a handful of West Coast–style seafood restaurants. (What’s a West Coast–style seafood restaurant, you ask? Try the Hungry Cat.) In recent years we’ve had at least four major eateries open that pay tribute to a far-away ocean. But many of our best chefs grew up summering on that other coast, eating out of that other ocean. Neroni is no different.
He insisted from the get-go, however, that this wouldn’t be just another restaurant devoted to re-creating the coastal food of his youth. There would be the same creativity that Neroni brought to his cooking at Superba, a point of view that would set it apart from all those other New England seafood joints.
This is somewhat true, although there’s plenty of food on the menu at Catch & Release that’s pure, if somewhat elevated, nostalgia. No dish represents this better than the HoJo’s clam strips, a tribute to many diners’ favorite dish at the quickly disappearing, orange-roofed restaurant chain. Neroni’s clam strips are wonderfully tender and fried in a batter much lighter, both in color and heft, than the original dish. There’s a Red Snapper hot dog, a Maine staple that’s as orange-red as a firetruck and has a natural casing snap to it. There are soft, pillowy Parker House rolls that arrive warm and might make you long for a childhood you never actually had. They serve as bun for the hot dog and roll for the lobster roll, which is simply dressed with lemon, Duke’s mayo and tarragon — and is as good as any in town if you can ignore the size. The single roll version for $12 will get you about two bites; a double roll is $24.
Raw-bar items are expensive as well, with oysters priced at $22 per half-dozen and $40 a dozen, and combo seafood towers following suit. There are usually only two oyster varietals to choose from, but you can get those along with prawns, scallops, clams, lobster and crab for between $56 and $150 depending on how ostentatious you’re feeling. If I were in the mood for raw seafood, for the sake of selection and price, I’d likely go elsewhere.
But if I were in the mood for seafood with Neroni’s clever and slightly idiosyncratic sensibility, I’d come here. There’s a salmon tartare that hews more closely to the silken meatiness of a beef tartare than any tropical tuna version you might have had. The pop of pickled mustard seeds and crunch of pine nuts mix with the fattiness of the fish and the yolk of a raw quail egg, adding up to something wholly original and highly pleasurable. A wild striped bass with fantastically crispy skin comes over a green swamp of “ocean herbal broth,” heirloom beans, haricot vert and black kale pesto. Elegant, straightforward and surprising, this is like nothing you’d get at any seafood shack.
Neroni offers a couple of pasta dishes on this menu, which is unsurprising, given his talent for the stuff. Seafood is always the backbone, though, for better or worse. A dish of al dente black squiggles of spaghetti nero with Manila clams was subtly oceanic. But the sweetness of the corn in bucatini with Dungeness crab overwhelmed the crustacean.
The same corn sweetness is problematic on a trout (sometimes salmon) dish. Here it comes in the form of a corn pudding, and the peaches and smoked almonds on the plate don’t help convince you that this isn’t half dessert.
The actual desserts are a fun middle ground between tributes to classic beach-shack treats and Neroni’s more inventive inclinations. I particularly liked a Boston cream pie that came in a big jar and delivered layers of chocolate and cream and various crunchy bits.
Does the seafood-shack shtick limit the chef a little? Sure. I prefer his cooking when it’s unbound by concept, when he’s allowed to do whatever strikes his fancy. I’m assuming (and hoping) that’s what we’ll see at the Rose.
In the context of literature, this is hardly Neroni’s magnum opus. Catch & Release is more like summer reading of the most satisfying kind. You’ve got to respect an author, or chef, with the range to do either.
CATCH & RELEASE | Three stars | 13488 Maxella Ave., Marina del Rey | (310) 893-6100 | catchandreleasela.com | Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Sun.-Thu., 6-10:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 6-11 p.m. Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. | Entrees, $18-$48 | Full bar | Limited lot parking