Editors' pick

Sea Catch Restaurant & Raw Bar

American, Seafood
$$$$ ($25-$34)

Editorial Review

At Sea Catch, Fresh Ideas

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 13, 2007

Freshness has always been the watchword at Sea Catch. Longtime chef Jeff Shively (now at Legal Sea Foods on K Street NW) used to boast that the historic Georgetown property didn't even have a freezer.

Current chef Christopher Sgro, who came in as general manager in 2005 and took over the kitchen last summer, has stuck with the program. In fact, he has made it a mission (although he does admit to having a freezer for the ice cream and french fries). The seafood is obviously pristine and so clean tasting that it may be the standard against which you learn to measure freshness. (Indeed, you may have a whole new appreciation for the taste of seafood you thought you knew: halibut, for instance, or head-on red snapper.) Sgro has expanded the oyster menu to include more Pacific varieties, making grazing more interesting, and has fish flown in same day from Hawaii, among other sources.

None of the treatments overshadows the seafood, though they offer nice contrasts, and in any case, the day's choices are always available simply grilled. Sgro has even retained -- actually, he has put it on the menu -- my favorite celebratory indulgence, lobster sashimi, which used to be by special request and chef availability only (although at $35 a pound with a two-pound minimum, plus a $15 service fee, it'll have to be rather more of a celebration than it was before the lobster shortage drove prices up).

Not to mention that when it comes to atmosphere, Sea Catch has about every advantage known: fireplaces for chilly weather, a deck overlooking the C&O Canal for nicer days (it had a brief opening season a week or so ago) and a comfy bar with nice wines and substantial martinis. (Note to bar: Restock the Tanqueray Rangpur.) The entryway is cool as a cucumber, or maybe a crustacean, the swath of ice glittering atop the white Carrera marble raw bar, and gleaming floor tiles; the lounge and dining rooms are wood, stone and brick, with views of the canal through the large windows and pastel linens to echo the blossoms. Altogether, one has to marvel at how often the restaurant is overlooked by seafood fans.

The kitchen is more than usually accommodating. One night's special of arctic char was to have been topped with grilled lobster, but as I think grilling is the worst way to treat that tender meat, I asked for something more gentle; it came out lightly butter-sauteed. (The char itself was immaculate, lightly seared on the surface and cooked just to a milky opacity.) Another night's wahoo -- ah, that daily delivery -- was also served just as requested, one minute on the light side. Topped with a roasted tomato sauce (with a surprise kick of chili) and sided with a slightly sweet gingery polenta, it was one of the nicest and least showy seafood entrees in several months.

The shrimp-and-risotto croquettes appetizer might break anyone's no-fry resolutions: about a half-dozen unbelievably greaseless golf-ball-size treats filled with sweet shrimp morsels, gently oozing with just-cheesy risotto and a spanky dipping sauce (oddly referred to on the menu as "green goddess" dressing but in fact a brilliant green chimichurri). Fried calamari is delicately battered and served with a better-than-average roasted tomato dip. The asparagus are bottom trimmed and still a little crunchy, and the paprika-spiked aoili has a barely sweet undertone. And although it sounds a little cutesy, the marinated crab salad with coriander-spiked pico de gallo and tortilla chips (more like roasted flat bread) is a vast improvement over the usual chips and salsa, and the crab was pretty lumpy.

Bacon-wrapped and pan-roasted monkfish was fine, if perhaps a little done, and the carefully restrained vinaigrette on the salad quietly cut the remaining trace of grease. Sgro likes to serve his various side salads on the same plate as the fish, which in general works quite well, one exception being the warm bacon-wilted greens with the pan-seared sea scallops: The shellfish, carefully cooked to be crisped but still translucent, were already dusted with crystalline salt and bedded in a coarse mustard sauce, so the too-heavy bacon dressing pushed the saline level over the top -- the only time seasoning was too assertive.

Even the more predictable dishes are treated with respect: Seafood linguini comes with four large shrimp, two enormous scallops (seared all the way around and soft in the center), lump crab and a "light tomato cream" that earns the term. Potato-crusted cod with simple fresh peas and pearl onions could have walked off a Boston matriarch's plate, all good taste and no affectation.

You will pay a price for such freshness, admittedly; it's not just lobsters going short, it's jet fuel going sky high. The wahoo special was $30, but it was a big portion (and obviously market prices change daily). On the other hand, the $75 "shellfish skyscraper," which includes oysters, clams, mussels, shrimp, lump crab and lobster meat, will feed as many as four pretty handily. And if you like oysters, there are several types, usually Atlantic, going for $1 each at happy hour.

Now if they would only take a few of the mirrors out of the restrooms so people wouldn't keep walking into walls before they even pop a cork.