Savory Seafood

The tasting menu at Kato, an understated seafood restaurant in a Santa Monica mini-mall, explodes with innovative and ever-changing takes on California, Taiwanese, and Japanese cuisines

Written by Virginia Fay

Born of serendipity and a straightforward mission to serve stellar food in an unpretentious environment, chef Jonathan Yao launched Kato, a new seafood tasting-menu-only restaurant in Santa Monica. A departure from the often aesthetically arresting restaurants in the area, Kato is tucked into a strip mall, announced only by pink cursive writing on the glass entrance. The location came about simply because of a lease Yao’s parents obtained that he took over to develop Kato. Though the décor is austere, it offers an understated appeal that allows the food to take center stage. 

The food itself is anything but austere. Having opened barely a year ago, Kato has already gained a substantial buzz, and for good reason. Serving a tasting menu for just $55, Kato does away with the idea that chef’s menus must be a splurge while sacrificing nothing in quality and inventiveness. Just what this menu will hold on a given night is anybody’s guess.

“We tend to leave our dishes a mystery until the diner comes in to eat,” says Yao. A recent June menu featured mouth-watering Hamachi, octopus, and quail dishes. Menus change seasonally, and Yao tweaks the offerings at his discretion. Substantial changes come every two or three weeks, with the most popular items including smoked Hamachi and Dungeness crab porridge.

Prior to Kato, Yao (who grew up watching his mom and grandmother cook) spent his career staging at acclaimed restaurants from Northern to Southern California: Coi, Alma, and Benu. He applied this varied experience to develop Kato’s tasting menu, which is not easily categorized.

Mostly seafood (one of Yao’s favorite foods to cook), patrons will also often find one or two meat dishes in front of them. The cooking style shows influences from California, Taiwan, and  Japan; Yao’s own tastes are similarly diverse—Szechuan, Vietnamese, Thai and Taiwanese are his favorite food types. With these varying cuisines informing the menu, eating at Kato feels like an ultra-fresh taste exploration led by an expert guide. 

Yao’s decision to offer a tasting menu only originated from pragmatism: he wanted to provide “an upscale menu with a casual vibe” while streamlining ordering and inventory. That emphasis on marrying a luxury menu with a comfortable atmosphere persists.

“I want [diners to] experience a creative meal without having any formalities or pretense of a fine dining restaurant,” Yao says. “Our front staff is really good at making everyone feel comfortable.” With Yao’s explosion of flavors parading one after the other on your plate, a meal at Kato is sure to be both comfortable and memorable, without breaking the bank.





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