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By Eating Our Words
To eat the appetizer called "crispy pork belly with Steen's syrup" at Catalan Food & Wine Baron Washington, you grab the stout little splinter of sugar cane that's stuck through the middle of one of the cubes of fatty pork, then bite into the loose layers of crunchy meat and hot fat and try not to let any of the pork grease or cane syrup run down your chin. The flavor might remind you of thick, soft bacon slices that have been inundated with old-fashioned cane syrup as they lay alongside a stack of pancakes -- only without the pancakes.
The other appetizer I tried with the pork belly was a Spanish tortilla, which isn't the kind of tortilla Houstonians are used to. In Spain, a tortilla is an omelet. The one we were served at Catalan was studded with potatoes and red peppers. And although it was served with garlic aioli, the egg dish was fairly bland.
For an entrée, I ordered "crispy pressed Berkshire pork shoulder with Catalan spinach and local fried egg," which was more fatty pork cooked crispy and topped with a fried egg. I hacked my way through the luscious meat, spreading each slice with a bit of egg yolk for a sauce.
5555 Washington St.
Houston, TX 77007
Pork belly and syrup: $9
Seafood stew: $26
Shrimp grits: $24
Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre: $30
It was a rich -- and oddly familiar -- combination of flavors. Looking over the three plates, I realized that so far, my lunch consisted entirely of pork and eggs, and what it reminded me of was a Grand Slam breakfast. Also on the menu, there was a frisée salad with bacon lardoons and a Catalan garlic soup with a soft-cooked egg, in case you wanted to keep the bacon and egg thing going.
The other entrée I sampled on my first visit to Catalan was a plate of pasta with corn, Portuguese sausage and caramelized Brussels sprouts. The ingredients seemed to promise bold flavors, but in fact the dish tasted wimpy and washed out.
With towering, vaulted brick archways rising alongside the wine racks, stout wooden furniture in the dining room and a polished black floor, Catalan is a strikingly handsome restaurant. But there's a touch of whimsy in the details -- like the white glass light fixtures with random splashes of color that hover over the bar area like an armada of kites.
The restaurant is a joint venture of Ibiza's Charles Clark and Grant Cooper, along with former Brennan's chef and sommelier Chris Shepherd and former Da Marco sommelier Antonio Gianola. The concept of Ibiza was to offer great wines at a reasonable wine-store markup rather than an inflated restaurant price. Catalan is based on the same idea.
As you'd expect with a team like this, the wine list at Catalan is spectacular. You find rare varietals, not to mention bargain Barberas, courtesy of Antonio Gianola's encyclopedic knowledge of Italian wines. There are witty headings such as "sledgehammer wines: I am not afraid of the big bad wolf" from the iconoclastic Chris Shepherd and more great bottles in the $30-to-$60 range than any other list in town, thanks to Clark and Cooper's pricing strategy. There are also three-ounce and six-ounce pours available if you want to taste wines served by the glass.
On my second visit to Catalan, I ordered a bottle of Domaine Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre to go with the cockles in chorizo cream sauce we'd ordered for an appetizer. What a wine! The tart green apple and crisp mineral flavors cut through the cream sauce perfectly. I could have sat there dipping baguette slices in the clammy sausage sauce and drinking that sharp-as-a-razor white wine all night long.
While New World winemakers look for ways to turn sauvignons blancs into approachable aperitifs, the old-fashioned winemakers in Sancerre keep turning out these stellar and highly acidic wines. You may not want to drink a bottle before dinner, but there is nothing like it with seafood in a butter or cream sauce.
The wine went wonderfully with the Gulf shrimp with bacon sage grits and pepper butter, an excellent version of the Southern classic, with bacony rich grits cooked thick and spooned over a pile of the skinny green beans called haricots verts.
I also sampled a "seafood stew" that night. It tasted familiar, probably because it included the same cockles, or baby clams, we got for an appetizer, and the shrimp tasted just like the ones on the grits. A seafood stock was ladled over the top of these items in a big white bowl, and a piece of sautéed redfish was placed on top.
I am a big fan of such fish stews as bouillabaisse, bourride and cioppino. Something happens when seafood is cooked together in a spicy stock. The fish stew of the Catalan region is called suquet, and it's made of the same fish, clams and shrimp in Catalan's seafood stew. But the fish and seafood are supposed to be cooked together in a traditional garlic and pepper sauce, thickened with the pureed nut-and-herb mixture called picada and simmered with potatoes. Sticking some fish in a bowl and pouring stock over the top is a sorry substitute for seafood stew.
Which brings up the question of authenticity. The Spanish island of Ibiza is a European package-tour destination. Its native cuisine was long ago replaced by hotel buffets. Naming a restaurant "Ibiza" leaves you free to offer any kind of nebulous tropical fare you care to dream up.
Catalonia, on the other hand, is a Mediterranean region with a long culinary tradition. Did the restaurant owners intend to use it as a fantasy name like Ibiza, or is Catalan Food & Wine Bar supposed to have something to do with the Spanish region of Catalonia? The mention of Catalonian olive oil, Catalan spinach and Catalan garlic soup on the menu would seem to suggest some kind of stab at authenticity.
I spent three days in Barcelona a decade or so ago. What I remember eating were lots of paella-like casseroles and seafood tapas dishes with octopus, squid and a variety of tiny fishes, along with cold roasted vegetables and lots of wine. But I'm no expert.
So I e-mailed a copy of the restaurant's menu to Colman Andrews, the former editor of Saveur magazine and the author of Catalan Cuisine: Europe's Last Great Culinary Secret, to see what he thought.
"It reminds me of the usual Spanish (or Catalan) restaurant menu in the U.S., bearing only the most occasional resemblance to anything you'd see in Spain," Colman wrote back. "Tagliatelle, feta, gremolata, pesto, grits, preserved lemon, pumpkin seeds, avocado, Swiss cheese, portabella mushrooms, seared tuna, Caesar salad and my favorite multinational dish, 'calamatra pasta with sweet corn, Portuguese sausage and caramelized Brussels sprouts...' -- none of that's remotely Spanish, even in today's fusion-made Spain; it's Mediterranean-inflected American food, 21st-century-style. Could be good if the guy can cook, but I guarantee you that no Spaniard would ever identify the menu as being from a restaurant called 'Catalan.'"
I think it's fair to say that head chef Chris Shepherd can cook, and that Catalan serves some very good Mediterranean-inflected American food. In fact, the shrimp grits, the Steen's syrup and the Gulf seafood would seem to put Catalan into the even more intriguing category of Mediterranean-inflected Southern food.
The combination of several sommeliers helped make for a wonderfully eclectic wine list at Catalan. But I suspect too many cooks are looking over Shepherd's shoulder, resulting in a menu that's going several directions at the same time. That said, I predict that with an awesome bottle of reasonably priced wine on your table, you are going to find something to love on Catalan's menu -- especially if you are partial to bacon, eggs and grits.
Just don't expect to learn anything about the cuisine of Catalonia here. And if you have visitors coming in from Spain, take them out for Tex-Mex.