Jason Neroni grew up in Orange County and built up culinary credentials at New York restaurants like 71 Clinton Fresh Food and 10 Downing Food & Wine. He returned to Southern California and ran the Osteria La Buca and Superba Snack Bar kitchens before teaming with Sprout on Catch & Release in Marina del Rey and The Rose in Venice. In his “spare time,” Neroni also consults on two B Side Brick Oven Pizza locations in New York. In June, I met Neroni at Catch & Release, where we discussed his philosophy and approach.
Joshua Lurie: How did the opportunity with Sprout come about?
Jason Neroni: I was working brunch at [Superba] Snack Bar and Rory Herrmann, now my partner, walked in the door with two guys. Rory and I used to work together at Blue Hill and [Alain] Ducasse in New York eons ago. He was at Bouchon at the time…They come to leave. I said, “I heard you’re leaving Bouchon. What are you doing?” He said, “I’m getting ready to open five restaurants.” “Five restaurants? That’s advantageous.” I said, “Who’s that?” He said, “That’s Bill Chait…And that’s Michael Glick, owner of L.A. Specialty.”
A month later, [Rory] gave me a call: “I have an opportunity to do this thing.” I was happy with what I was doing…They took me down and showed me the [Rose] space and we talked about the opportunity. Bill told me about his vision for the space…People move away from certain things, and I didn’t see my future with the Superba and Pitfire group. Bill is very chef-friendly and is very chef-forward and gives chefs a lot of opportunity to grow. He puts the chefs in charge, and I really like that a lot about him. He wants chefs to get the best product, buys the best equipment, and is there to nurture you in that way. He respects everyone’s opinion and listens to you, and I thought that was great. That’s what I was really looking for in a partner.
JL: How did Catch & Release change the dynamic?
JN: I was still working on B Side in New York and got a phone call. They were like, “We’ve got this thing we want you to look at in Marina del Rey.” I came back and saw what was here. Rory and I used to talk about opening a spot like Mary’s Fish Camp in New York, for the longest time. Last summer, I’d spent some time in Maine, and we’d talked about it off and on. I was actually wearing a Russ & Daughters T-shirt the day I showed up to the meeting. He’s like, “Why don’t we do something like this?” I thought about it and talked to my wife, because my wife and I were still going to Maine every summer. My grandparents are from there. My grandfather, that’s him, and those are his boats.
[Neroni points to photos of his grandfather on the Catch & Release wall.]
JL: Your grandfather’s from Maine?
JN: He was actually born in Puerto Rico, grew up in Manhattan and was stationed in Portland. Those are lightboats. The lighthouses weren’t always effective enough, so the Coast Guard would send boats out. He would have to stay on these boats for a month at a time. Can you imagine? Terrible. He manned the boats, what’s coming in and out of Portland harbor.
JL: And they would fish on the boats?
JN: Of course. He got to know all the fishermen there, obviously, because he was directing them in and out. That’s what he did until he got shipped off to Vietnam.
Catch & Release came about because we didn’t want to lose the space. We didn’t want to lose the location. We wanted to do something that was fairly easygoing for the neighborhood without sacrificing the integrity of what we believe as chefs, serving quality seafood and product.
JL: My friend pointed out that the name is Catch & Release, but you’re not releasing a whole lot of seafood.
JN: Well, it depends. The art of catch & release is actually on the menu and gives all the times, according to actual catch and release records and logs, when you actually can catch and release a certain fish.
JL: So that’s the origin of the name?
JN: Correct. Some people thought it pertains to trout fishing, which is not true. California Department Fish & Wildlife catch and release logs. It’s actually practicing sustainability of catch and release, knowing when to catch and when to release.
JL: You mentioned the notion of value in seafood when I sat down. How are you offering value at Catch & Release?
JN: We’re trying the best we can to explain what we do. We opened with spaghetti with ramps and Dungeness crab, preserved lemon and breadcrumbs…The eggs we use come from Chino Valley, organic, sustainable eggs. To make the pasta, we use King Arthur Sir Galahad flour, and 00, all organically milled, ground within one week, made in-house with a $5000 pasta machine that’s imported from Italy. The Dungeness crab is alive when it comes to me, which we bring in every single day from Alaska. Kill it, pick it and preserve it. The ramps are being foraged by a friend of mine in New Jersey, put into a bag and shipped to me via FedEx twice a week. The butter is Straus. The lemons were preserved by us, in-house, three months prior to opening, in Cryovac bags. If you take all of those components from all over the world that converge into one small plate sitting in front of you, for $17, think about the monumental-ness that took to put that one dish together at that one time. To me, it’s worth so much more than that.
JL: How are people responding to the menu so far in Marina del Rey?
JN: It’s a work in progress. Most people are responding pretty well. We’ve tinkered with the size of the lobster roll. It was large for $22, then we did a small one for $12. Now we do it large for $24 and it comes with fries. Again, lobsters are flown in every day by Steve Connolly in Massachusetts. They’re caught in Maine and arrive at LAX within 24 hours. Parker House rolls are made in-house every 20 minutes, in intervals, as we bake them off. Giving more to have loss leaders helps us at the end of the day. I want nothing more than every single person to walk out of here happy. That’s why I’m in the hospitality business. We’re still trying to convey the message that we buy only the best, we serve only the best, as best we can.
JL: Do you really have the sense that every neighborhood is so unique in what they want? This is your first restaurant in Marina del Rey, but you’ve had many restaurants on the Westside.
JN: And I’ve had restaurants in New York City. I have one more being built in Venice. Neighborhoods change dynamics, 100%. This neighborhood is much more family oriented. Our clientele base is late 30s, 40s and 50s. Venice was young. I call that the Instagram set. I call this the Facebook set. If you follow the demographics and see it on Facebook, who is actually following you, there are different people. Millennials will spend very good money for high-end products, whereas I’m 39 years old. We look at the perception of value and where our dollar goes. We don’t have as much disposable income at times as some early 20s do, having fun, going out. They’re with their friends.
JN: Pre-family. Yes, exactly. Pre-mortgage. Pre two cars.
JL: Does that influence what you put on the menu, knowing the demographic?
JN: Yeah…I see a lot of families here, which we love. I have two kids. My kids run around this place four times a week, but it’s just a matter of getting to know your clientele. Do I focus the menu that way? Kind of. This menu is based upon a childhood. Most people under 30 probably have no idea what HoJo clam strips are. I grew up eating at Howard Johnson every Sunday with my grandparents, across the street from Disneyland. When my grandparents got here from Maine, it was the only place you could get that sort of back East throwback.
JL: What does a dish have to be to be a Jason Neroni dish?