When Catalan opened a year and a half ago on Washington Ave., I found it promising. Since then, it has been one of the most restless and exciting restaurants in Houston.
The evolution of Catalan's menu has been fascinating. The menu has grown. And new dishes frequently rotate on and off the list.
Some of Catalan's dishes are brilliant. A few are failures. A successful meal requires some strategy.
Catalan's menu has five categories: "small plates to share," "soups," "small greens," "Chef's playground - what we're eating now," and "big plates."
On a first or second visit, I recommend making a meal of the small plates section. Most of Catalan's best and most interesting dishes are in this category. Among my current favorites are crispy pork belly with cane syrup, piquillo peppers stuffed with lamb, and salad of morcilla sausages with dates and Cabrales cheese.
As I discussed in my last post on Catalan, no one should miss the garlic soup.
Some of the large plates do not work as well. For instance, a special I tried last year consisted of a crispy skin fish on a bed of cauliflower puree. The fish was fine, but the huge pile of puree had the consistency of oatmeal and the flavor of old cabbage. I have had far better cauliflower purees elsewhere. Another entree came with a side of brussel sprouts - my least favorite vegetable. Even the big plates that have better sides fail to maintain my interest in the same way the small plates do.
The Chef's Playground section is a good idea, and a good way to step out on the edge. It gives the kitchen an excuse to serve strange dishes it might not otherwise serve. Last Saturday, I tried pupusas filled with duck confit and a side of spicy cabbage slaw. The thick corn pancackes were spicy street food that you might expect to be served in a grungy Central American restaurant. Sure, it was inconsistent with the other dishes on Catalan's menu and did not fit well with the rest of my meal. But the dish was tasty and different. Other strange listings in this section range from organ meat to a Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwich with foie gras to venison tartare with blueberry compote.
Catalan's food may not have the consistency or the coherency of restaurants like Da Marco and Cafe Annie. But its primary audience is not elegant diners, but experimental foodies. I don't mind a few failures on the menu because they are a sign that Catalan is experimenting on me. Your experience may depend on how much you want to be experimented on.
My favorite wine list
Antonio Gianola has put together my favorite wine list in Houston. It may not be as brilliantly matched with the restaurant's food as, say, Sean Beck's lists at Backstreet Cafe and Hugo's. It also is not as big a menu, or as deep on expensive cult wines, as the lists at Cafe Annie, Lynn's, and Pappas Bros. And it is not as deep on particular regions as the lists at El Meson (Spain), Cafe Rabelais (Rhone), Da Marco (Italy). But Catalan's list has two very strong virtues:
1 - Value. Along with Ibiza and Reef, this is one of three wine programs in town that sell wine at a price near retail cost. Yet Catalan's list is even better because of a second reason.
2 - Excitement. Every time I read Catalan's last, I keep exclaiming, "wow!" For one thing, I am impressed at how many hard-to-find cult wines show up on the list. Consider the zinfandels. Last Saturday, Catalan had at least 7 different Turleys on the list. I have never seen that many hard-to-find Turleys on any list in Houston. But it also had even rarer zins by Williams Selyem, Martinelli (the prized Giuseppe and Luisa), and A. Rafanelli.
As much as I wanted to order one of those zins, I have been even more excited lately by some of Catalan's more exotic European wines, including multiple labels of whites and reds from little-known regions in Italy, Spanish Albarinos, Austrian whites, chenin blanc from Savennieres, and reds from Prioriat, Monstant, and Jumilla. At most restaurants, I can find 3 or 4 wines that catch my interest. At Catalan, it is always over 20.
This Saturday, we chose a wine from Veneto that was Gianola's featured red. He came to our table just to chat about the wine, and 10 minutes later, he had given us a print out of his favorite restaurants in Rome and Venice to use on our upcoming Italian trip.
Gianola's excitement sums up why I like Catalan. The owners and staff are excited about food and wine. They want you to be excited. So what if a dish here or there is not perfect? Catalan is not about perfection or consistency. It is about experimentation and generating interest in food.
That excitement makes eating at Catalan more fun than almost anywhere else in town.