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Wild romp through Catalan

I really don’t make it out to Catalan enough. They refuse to acknowledge that vegetarians have to eat too, so my wife won’t go there. The few lunches I have had there have been hit and miss, although on good days Catalan can be exceptional, so I have been looking for an opportunity visit at dinner for a very long time. Every couple of months I arrange a business dinner, but those fall mostly on Monday when the restaurant is closed. So when a scheduling change pushed my plans by a couple of days, I jumped on the opportunity and headed down to Catalan with 10 people and an expense account.

Turns out Catalan is a great place for a business dinner. There is a private room that stays quiet even with the doors open. The wine list is more than reasonably priced and reads like a Tom Clancy novel to the wine geek. The menu is incredibly well put together. You can easily have some of the most innovative food in Houston, while everyone else gets by on well executed staples like salmon or steak. Everyone is happy.

My game plan? Order the most interesting dishes, caloric caution and logic be damned. Here’s what I had:

Foie gras bon bons served with house-made local strawberry and black pepper jelly
I have been eating a good deal of less than traditionally prepared fois lately, so this was my second fois gras bon bon dish in as many weeks. Although I have to give the "completeness of vision" nod to the chocolate covered fois bon bon at Orson that came finished with salt and cocoa powder, the deep fried version at Catalan was more fun to eat. Although the strawberry jelly is an entirely unnecessary distraction, I’d recommend starting with this as an appetizer anyway.

Right after the initial crunch, the bon bon explodes in your mouth with a shot of liquefied fois. The effect is an entirely unexpected rush of textures and flavor so intense that one of the guys that tried it said that it felt like he had just cheated on his wife (I don’t pretend to understand what that means). If you are expecting any of the adjectives normally associated with fois – delicate, subtle, velvety, buttery, luscious – prepared to be surprised. This is what food would taste like if Texas invaded France and turned it into a vacation getaway for rich oil executives.

Roasted bone marrow with Maldon salt
Probably the dish I was most looking forward to, especially since Catalan is the only place that serves it in Houston. If you love bone marrow and don’t care about living a long, healthy life, order this without any reservations. Though not perfect, this is a nice presentation with all the right things in the right places and should deliver a perfectly decadent experience. The toast was just thin and crispy enough. The big flakes of Maldon salt were superb and pickled onions were just mildly acidic enough to make this dish a winner, overall.

I have to admit that I expected a deeper flavor from the marrow. I can’t quite put my finger on what went wrong, but it could have been the cooking temperature. The bones came out in a pool of fat and one had to be sent back to the kitchen because there was nothing left in the cavity. I am only guessing, but there is a good chance the oven was running too hot to deliver the optimal marrow consistency and flavor. I don’t have the Whole Beast to reference, but some of the recipes I have come across confirm my suspicions.

Crispy lamb sweetbreads tossed with tomato, cipollini onions and mint emulsion
This was probably the best dish of the night. The mint emulsion had a pronounced green color, so I was worried that the mint would overwhelm everything else. In fact I tasted very little mint and the emulsion combined seamlessly with the tomato and onions. The sweetbreads were perfectly cooked and became part of the dish, rather than just be a hunk of fried protein dressed up with irrelevant sauces. The dish is a winner on every level.

Crab and grits, fried crab claw
This was an off the menu special, so there is a good chance I botched the description. I am not even sure what I was eating were really grits, but it tasted like crabmeat folded into a perfectly cooked corn meal, with a fried crab claw perched on top. I know it’s not supposed to be cool to eat dishes made with cream or butter, but I thought the dish worked quite well.

C5: chocolate panna cotta, chocolate milkshake, chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream, chocolate ganache:
No description of this on the online menu either, so this may not be 100% accurate. If I was a prick judge on Top Chef I’d say that there was no continuity here, but individually everything tasted great, so who cares? One thing I really appreciated was that, though served with a trendy drink in a shot glass, no one told me which order I should eat the dessert in.
Great way to finish a meal at Catalan? $12. Being treated as an adult? Priceless.

Few logistical and execution issues can take away from the experience at Catalan. Overcooking is sometimes a problem. A tuna requested medium rare came out medium well. I’ve had the same problem myself when I ordered a salmon in cauliflower puree that was overcooked at the edges, yet quite nice in the middle. The bone marrow comes with a teaspoon that doesn’t quite fit the bone cavity. If wrestling with a greasy bone isn’t your idea of a good time, you might get pretty ticked off.

It sounds as if I am complaining, but hear this – Catalan is one of the best places to eat in Houston. You can find a better dining experience elsewhere, but good eating is what Catalan does best. I’d be there several times a month working my way through the fascinating menu if they didn’t ignore the 2.5% of Americans who don’t eat meat. Here’s to hoping that situation is remedied soon.

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