Collin Crannell is in his seventh year as executive chef of The Lobster, a landmark restaurant on the Santa Monica, Calif., oceanfront that serves roughly 500 pounds of it namesake crustacean every day.
But Crannell’s customers are also enjoying a growing variety of fish preparations, and his oyster selections are becoming increasingly popular.
Crannell recently discussed the evolving taste of his customers with Nation’s Restaurant News.
You’re in your seventh year at The Lobster. You must like it.
I do. It’s a good place to work. We have a panoramic view of the entire ocean. It’s gorgeous — a beautiful, busy restaurant. The owners and general manager let me do what I want with the menu. I’m able to be creative and change things as I want — most of the time — as long as it works for the guest.
I’ve implemented a lot of different types of seafood here. Before it was mainly just lobster. It still is a lot of lobster, obviously, but I’ve introduced oysters and more raw plates — like crudos and sashimi-style plates — and I brought [ingredients from] the famous Santa Monica Farmers Market here.
What has changed most in terms of what your customers are looking for?
More and more oysters are selling. I’m buying oysters from Blue Island Oyster Company. I order from them twice a week, and when I order, that’s when they harvest the oysters, so we get the best quality, and I think my guests appreciate that and want to come back more and more from that.
They also have good connections on the West Coast, and I offer two oysters from each coast on the menu at all times.
Is there a coast your customers prefer when it comes to oysters?
It’s both. I have these regular guests — in fact they’re in the restaurant right now — who were introduced to oysters at a younger age back east, so they tend to love the East Coast oysters. They’re higher in salinity and have more ocean flavor.
I think it has to do with what was introduced to them when they fell in love with oysters to begin with.
On the West Coast they’re a little more plump and meaty.
What about fish?
Currently I have this program called Sea to Table, where I’m buying directly off the boats. In the past I wouldn’t buy tuna because I didn’t feel responsible about getting the tuna if it wasn’t caught by hook and line. But Sea to Table lets me buy it directly off the boat, so I know how it was caught. I have the captain’s name and the name of the boat and everything.
Is that something your customers are interested in?
We’re a very busy restaurant, so it’s important for me to be sustainable because the oceans are depleting rapidly and I want to be responsible about what we serve here. I don’t want to buy the wrong things and deplete the oceans even faster.
And my customers are interested in it. When my servers or I explain [our sourcing] to them, they really appreciate it. I think that’s the way it’s evolving: People are aware of more sustainable practices. I think more of them try to be responsible when they go out.
Do you sell a lot of farm-raised fish, too?
Yes. Currently we’re using New Zealand king salmon. It’s from a farm right at the base of the New Zealand Alps, and it gets all of the fresh water from the mountains, and it’s right on the ocean as well.
I think farm-raised fish is the future, and they’re doing a great job with it nowadays.
Consumers often have somewhat simplistic beliefs about fish sourcing, like wild is always good and farm-raised is always bad. Do you come across that much?
Oh yes, often. We try to explain to them how well they do [aquaculture] now. We try to educate them and let them know how great the product is. A lot of them are open to listening and learning, and then there are some who are like, "Nope, I want wild only." So we give them wild fish.
We change our menu twice a day — lunch and dinner — so it’s easy for me to change if I need to.
Twice a day? How do you decide what to do and how much of a timeline do you give yourself?
Well, mostly we change it because of the oysters. But if there’s something I don’t have, instead of forcing it, I just won’t run it that night. It helps out a lot. I think it’s important in a seafood restaurant that you do that.
And your customers are okay with that?
Oh yeah. They think it’s really cool because they know that everything we serve is as fresh as possible.
Do you have meat on your menu, too, like steak or pork chops?
Pork chops, no. I’ve tried running them, but when guests come here they only want steak and seafood. I carry a New York Choice, which I sell a lot of. I have a filet also, and I also have an 18-ounce Prime bone-in rib eye from Nebraska, so I offer a nice range for steak lovers.