1298 Prospect Street, La Jolla
This is the winter of my discontent, following the autumn of my growing grouchiness, and the summer of my increasing reservations. It’s the economy, stupid — the stupid economy. For seven months, I’ve been trying to find food for moderate-and-under prices, including mainstream food that might appeal to palates unready to dive into the depths of exotic ethnicities (where the real bargains are; see the end of this review for a great example). The task has been not only thankless but often pleasureless. (Yes, yes, it’s still better than working in a cubicle.) The truth is that for mainstream eats, the food at higher-end restaurants is usually better.
I’ve always been both curious and suspicious about Crab Catcher. In its favor: It’s got a great view of the cove, and it has lasted since 1979, so enough people must love the place to keep it in business. Arguing against it: Ditto. I haven’t been happy with various old-time local restaurants I’ve tried, and tourist-luring “view” joints can be the pits. But some of my SD old-timer friends have fond romantic memories of dinners past at Crab Catcher and urged me to try it during Restaurant Week, when the house was offering an ambitious-looking menu for only $30 per person.
The huge restaurant occupies most of the middle floor of three stories (between the garage below and the elevator entrance above) that it shares with Trattoria Acqua, rambling through indoor dining rooms and heated outdoor patios. We were seated at one of the latter, enjoying a fine sea view. Some of our fellow diners were date-dressy, but most were dressed for basic respectability. Seated nearby, an evidently former blonde, now silver-gray, fulfilled the traditional blonde’s restaurant-role of talking so loudly and incessantly as to drown out my “date’s” conversation. (No shrieky giggles, at least.) She was seated before us and still working on a nearly full plate when we left, her mouth apparently never pausing long enough to chew.
Steve and I had a small occasion to celebrate — okay, I’ll tell: I’d just gotten an “A” on my cholesterol test — that’s what gobbling seafood does for you — so we ordered a half-dozen oysters to start. There were two species, big, plushy Chef Creeks from the north Pacific and smaller locally farmed Carlsbad oysters, which proved delicious if salty. For a venue that includes a specialized oyster bar, the shuckers were amateurish: Four out of our six samples held enough loose shell-grit to notice. Thanks for the nutrients, guys, but if I want more calcium in my diet, I’ll buy pills. The dip was a classic seafood cocktail sauce, ready to be mixed to taste with lemon squeezes and horseradish — though the horseradish was already heaped atop the sauce. (I should have spooned off most of it and dumped it on the ice before commencing to mix.) We did like the warm mini-loaves of bread sprinkled with delicious coarse salt that came with dinner, even if the EVOO (extra-virgin olive oil) for dipping was only adequate.
Among the first-course choices on the prix fixe, the best selection (and best dish of the evening) was a plate of “potstickers” in deep-fried wonton skins, filled with braised short-rib meat and garnished with sweet-sour red cabbage. The light, crisp wrappers were perfect containers for a moist, rich meat filling, and the cabbage was an ideal tangy contrast. Alas, that was the evening’s only good food.
The dish I most wanted to taste, since I love celeriac, was a cream of celery root and potato soup. It was palatable but extremely shy of celeriac, not to mention cream, and even salt. In sum, a bland, mainly potato soup. Dorm food.
Then the real awfulness began. On the entrée of macadamia-crusted halibut, neither Steve nor I could detect any macadamias. A dried-out hunk of overcooked white fish-flesh was topped with some heat-withered dark-green fresh herb, while falling like shrapnel around its periphery were crunchies tentatively identified as blanched slivered almonds (cheaper than the Hawaiian nuts). The fish sat atop a cube of coconut sticky rice. Steve thought it had too much coconut for the halibut. Given the totally dead protein, I wanted much more coconut, to add some tropical richness to this desert dryness.
Crusty grilled shrimp (cooked only slightly past optimum) were served in a garlicky tomato sauce with bouncy fettuccini, displaying that rubber-bandish texture that resembles the less-distinguished mainstream brands of refrigerator-case fresh pasta. The dish tasted like something I’d throw together in a tearing hurry, when too hungry to wait for inspiration. Any good home cook with an extra ten minutes could surpass it.
A glimpse at the regular menu indicated that despite the disarmingly modest Restaurant Week prix-fixe tab, this is not a moderate restaurant but a damned pricey one, with the most attractive selections listed at “market price,” aka “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” A family at a nearby table were enjoying several 11/2 pound Maine lobsters. The cost of lobsters has slumped with the recession — wholesale prices are down as low as $3 a pound, and many longtime New England lobstering families are going broke and selling their boats and traps. “How much are the lobsters at that table?” we asked the waitress. They were $55 each. Now, the last time I ate at the Palm, the price there for five-pound monster lobsters was $63. (Of course, bigger isn’t really better, lobster-wise.) In any event, drinking the cheapest white wine on the list, plus buying oysters for $12 extra, plus coffee, tip, and tax, our Restaurant Week dinner bill came to $73 a person. For that price, you can get much better food elsewhere. But our ordeal wasn’t over yet — before the bill came the sweets.
Bread pudding with dried cherries (I think that’s what they were) had a nice cinnamon flavor, but the texture was as wet and sludgy as new-laid cement — “Too much liquid in the batter,” said Steve, a paragon who actually bakes. We knew that if we ate much of it, it would still be sitting in our innards like a soggy cannonball the next morning; we’d have to swallow chorus lines of worker-ants to carry it away crumb by wet crumb to the queen. A horrible metaphor, yes, but that’s what came to mind. I didn’t even doggie-bag the ample remains for the next day’s breakfast. This stuff made whole-wheat toast look good.
Paradise Pie promised macadamia-nut ice cream over a bittersweet chocolate crust. It was a tasteless white blizzard in the mouth, like lapping up Siberia. We discovered that if you concentrated really hard, you could discern a touch of macadamia-nut flavor beneath the generic blast of icy sweetness. There was a lot of whipped cream, and a bit of ordinary chocolate syrup. My espresso was drinkable, and the waitress did deliver it as requested along with the sweets.
The busing, on the other hand, left a lot to be desired. I tend not to notice this service, because my sole waitressing experience was confined to two years working “sit-down dinner nights” in a college dining hall (no tipping), scarcely the paragon of the genteel Midwestern “gracious living” those dinners were supposed to epitomize. As waitresses, we also bused, once the table’s occupants were done and gone. Steve, on the other hand, has been a real-world front-of-the-house guy. “After the first course,” he said, “they never cleared away the oyster forks and soup spoons. After the entrées, they still didn’t clear away the used silverware. We’re eating dessert with a whole meal’s dirty cutlery still on the table. They obviously have low standards for service.”
Even more unfortunately, the standards of cooking were far less than we’d hoped. The place is pretty and comfortable, but from what was on the plate, I think they’re living on scenery, not quality. Yes, we were merely a twosome eating during Restaurant Week, but that’s when restaurants are supposed to be putting their best feet forward to turn experimenters into regulars. I suspect that this kitchen can do some simple things well. I wouldn’t trust them with fish (judging by that desiccated halibut), and the gritty oysters bespeak a sloppy attitude, but simple shellfish might come out all right — it’s hard to ruin a chilled cracked Dungeness crab, unless you leave it in hot water too long, which they might. Overall, though, it seems to be one of those “view” restaurants that give our “view restaurants” a bad name. If Crab Catcher netted me for a moment and I threw it back, it’s their problem and none of my own.
Bargain Restaurant Find
A letter-to-the-ed a couple of months ago accused Tin Fork of only reviewing “dives.” Well, my new posse member Steve is a big Tin Man fan, and a few days ago he took me to Ed-Bed’s priceless find of Cantina Mayahuel on Adams Avenue at 29th Street for the Friday night special of chicken molé. (It’s also available on Tuesdays.)
The restaurant is named for an Aztec/Mayan fertility goddess who gave mankind the agave cactus, source of tequila. The owner, a modest gringo named Larry, has traveled extensively in the Valley of Mexico, plunking himself down in any small town where he found a great dish and staying until he learned how to cook it himself. His red (actually red-brown) molé is one of those zillion-ingredient, two-days’-cooking extravaganzas, with hints of tropical fruits, deep sesame flavor, and multiple complex chile flavors — not just an exquisite version of this great sauce, but personal, eccentric, a distinct individual cook’s molé. The spiciness is perfect. He also imports a sweeter black molé paste direct from Oaxaca, and if you want to taste both, you can order “half and half.” The chicken under the sauce/s was cooked tender, and the salsa and guacamole are all fresh-from- scratch — no can-opener, no deep-fat fryer, no shortcuts, no cheating. Besides the daily specials, the menu consists of simple, authentic mainland Mexican dishes (as opposed to Cal Mex) — mainly a limited selection of authentic soft “street tacos” (with sirloin, chicken, mahi mahi, or shrimp, each with a different marinade), plus salads and “bowls.” Top price is $10.
The lime-y, refreshing Margarita “rocks” ($5) is totally addictive. Instead of a typical bar mix, it’s flavored with organic lime juice and sweetened with natural agave nectar. It’s probably light on the tequila, since I had four, and so did the ladies at the next table, and none of us fell on our faces when we slid off the high wooden barstools. There’s an awesome list of 135 tequilas and 20 mezcals, and beautiful, warm, terra cotta–painted decor, bedecked with huge masks and superb paintings, including several spooky-thrilling canvases by an artist who seems to be an updated Latin version of Aubrey Beardsley (illustrator of Oscar Wilde’s Salome) — mystical and Gothic and deeply Aztecan, with that doomy, scary fluidity of Art Nouveau (the inspiration for many psychedelic rock posters of the ’60s). The place is crowded by now, of course — it’s become a neighborhood favorite. There’s a delightful Mexican-style courtyard patio out back; but to sit inside in winter, go early. But go. Steve says the other nightly specials, e.g., chile colorado, are terrific, too, though none quite so grand as the molé.
1298 Prospect Street, La Jolla, 858-454-9587, www.crabcatcher.com
HOURS: Lunch Monday–Saturday, 11:30 a.m.–3:00 p.m.; dinner Sunday–Thursday, 5:00 p.m.–10:00 p.m., Friday–Saturday to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday champagne brunch, 10:30 a.m.–3:00 p.m.
PRICES: Dinner appetizers, salads, and seafood-bar items, $10–$25; entrées, $27–$40 (plus many at higher “market price”); side dishes $8–$10. Sunset Supper, 5:00–6:00 p.m. daily, three-course dinner for $30 per person. Sunday brunch à la carte.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Primarily seafood, with a few upscale surf ’n’ turf and “land” entrées.
PICK HITS: Short-rib potstickers; probably the short-rib entrée, or any simply prepared shellfish (not fin-fish), e.g., steamed or chilled Dungeness crab; seafood cocktails, ceviches.
NEED TO KNOW: Validated garage parking, entrance on Coast Boulevard (opposite Cave Store); valet parking on Prospect Street. Elevator access (same floor as Trattoria Acqua). Adjunct Seaside Cafe bar/oyster bar happy hour 3:00–9:00 p.m., with $3 drinks and $5 sushi specials Thursday–Friday. Family-friendly atmosphere.