Restaurant Reviews

Washington Ave. Revisited

The cold cured salmon at Catalan came with a duck egg on top. The fish was cured with Tabasco mash, the fermented pepper residue left over after Tabasco sauce is bottled. The cure gave the salmon a sharp tang and a hint of heat.

I visited Catalan with Bill Addison, former restaurant critic of The Dallas Morning News, last fall while he was working on an assignment about Houston's best restaurants. (He now writes about food for Atlanta magazine.) Addison ordered the Tabasco salmon because, as he put it, "it's not something you're going to see in Dallas."

He didn't think any restaurant in Dallas was serving the bizarre, cloudy white wine we were drinking with our appetizers either. We had asked Catalan sommelier Antonio Gianola for something unusual — which is always a "careful what you wish for" proposition. After declining a red wine that had the bouquet of vinyl beach balls, we settled for a half liter of Radikon, an Italian white wine that is aged in old Slovenian wood and bottled without filtering or fining. The flavor was tart and yeasty and otherwise difficult to describe, but it was certainly unusual.

We also sampled chef Chris Shepherd's pork belly with Steen's cane syrup and shrimp with goat cheese grits. Addison was blown away by the range of Catalan's menu, which included Mexican street food, Vietnamese-influenced dipping sauces and Spanish peppers. There were also lots of Louisiana flavors, like the Tabasco mash and the Steen's syrup.

You don't see regional, quirky ingredients like this in Dallas, Addison said. I found myself agreeing with him when he said that Catalan exemplified what's great about the Houston dining scene — ballsy chefs, an only-in-Houston hodgepodge of ethnic and regional influences, and customers who are eager to experiment.

He had visited Reef, t'afia, Feast, Indika and Textile before I took him to Catalan. In the end, he picked Catalan and Reef as the two restaurants that best represented the Houston dining scene, and Bryan Caswell and Chris Shepherd as examples of the new breed of cool Houston chefs who are more willing to take risks than anybody back in Dallas. I knew exactly what he was saying. Which made me look back on my own review of Catalan [see "Bacon, Eggs and Barbera," November 8, 2006].

The review was mostly positive, but I was put off by the half-assed attempt at a Spanish concept. "I don't understand the name either," Addison agreed. "The restaurant is not what you expect when you walk in the front door. But I am willing to forgive that."

The more often I visited Catalan after the original review, the more I regretted giving the restaurant anything less than a rave. And so, for the first time in the nearly ten years that I've been the critic for the Houston Press, I decided to re-review a restaurant.

The last time I visited Catalan, I was early and had a while to wait for my dinner guest. So I had a glass of El Maestro Sierra Palomino Fino Jerez at the bar. I ordered the traditional accompaniments that come with the sherry, a plate of olives, house-cured white anchovies, and Spanish Marcona almonds — at $3, the sherry snack plate is the best deal on Catalan's menu.

The white sherry was lightly chilled, crisp and very dry. The olives and cured fish were the perfect foil for that funky sherry flavor. (The wine ages with a mold cap on top that gives it a distinctive taste.) It was a delightful, and very Spanish, way to kill a little time.

When my friend arrived, we ordered the cockles in chorizo cream. Cockles is a blanket term for small bivalves; the ones we got looked like cherrystone clams. We wolfed down the slightly gritty clams and then started on the cream. The orange sauce was spicy and extremely salty, with lots of slivers of cured meat. We polished off an entire basket of bread while dipping slices in the cream sauce, and then we asked for more.

We got a glass of Lucia Vineyards "Lucy," a dry rosé made from a Pinot noir. It was a little too dry for my companion, so I drank it. There is a funny "Think Pink, Drink Pink" page in Catalan's wine list extolling the virtues of dry rosé for summer drinking. It's released early; "first flower of spring," it's a flexible warm-weather wine, the propaganda said. I like it in the heat of the Texas summer because the almost red wine is always served cold.

We also got a glass of chasselas called Ermes Pavese Blanc de Morgex et De La Salle. Chasselas, which is made from a very common grape, is the most popular wine in Switzerland. I once sampled 30 of these wines before breakfast. It was at a tasting in the Alps put on by the Swiss wine board back in my wine-writing days. I have been fond of the unpretentious varietal ever since. You rarely see it on an American wine list — but it figures you would find it at Catalan.

We also ordered Catalan's charcuterie plate, which is both exciting and generous in its portions. A lot of Houston chefs are putting cured meat plates on their menus. Poscol is even calling itself a salumeria (Italian for a charcuterie store). It's easy enough to whip up such charcuterie standards as terrines and pâtés, but I don't know of another chef besides Shepherd at Catalan who is curing his own salamis and hams.

I tried each of the meats — the ham was excellent and so were the pâtés, but the salami blew my mind. I studied the coarseness of the ground meat and the size of the fat chunks intently before I concluded that I wanted to start making summer sausage. I wish I could get Chris Shepherd to show me how.

Meanwhile, I noticed that my companion hadn't had any of the meats yet. She was so enamored of the chorizo cream sauce, she wouldn't let the busboy remove the bowl. I encouraged her to try the salami, but she was still intent on mopping up the salty, spicy clam-flavored cream.

When we finished off the appetizers, I suggested we should order some entrées. But she wasn't really hungry anymore and to tell the truth, neither was I. It was one of those perfect summer dinners with lots of interesting wine and enough food to satisfy your hunger, but not so much that you had to call it a night.

If you want to sample all of Chris Shepherd's latest favorites in a single sitting, try the "sandbox tasting" on the Chef's Playground section of the menu. It's $80 per person, and the whole table has to order it. Expect wild, inspired dishes — and come hungry.

So I guess it's time to fess up. Shortly after the place opened, I gave Shepherd grief for the ludicrous Catalonian theme and a menu that's all over the place. Now I'm taking visiting food critics there.

The fact is, Antonio Gianola is a fantastic sommelier. And Chris Shepherd is one of the most inventive chefs in Texas. I admire his craftsmanship and I've come to love his Southern, Mexican, Vietnamese and Mediterranean jumble of a menu. Forget what I said in the previous review. Catalan is one of Houston's best restaurants. I just wish they'd change the name.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh