Thanks to my insistence on that old-fashioned thing called service in restaurants, I am often accused of being an aging spoiled brat. If it’s old-fashioned to expect some hospitality with my dinner, then call me outdated. How about a warm welcome, friendly waitstaff who know what they’re serving and can deliver it with a smile and a modicum of grace? Is all that uncool?
Absent that amenity, the best food in the world is not so much fun.
Witness dinner at Catch, the hot new sustainable seafood restaurant where Filippo’s used to be, on St. Clair West, across the street from the Rushton. (Frank Pronesti, who owns the Rushton and was one of the original partners at Ferro, also owns this place.) Catch’s kitchen is top-notch. The room is small but grand, with big windows letting in the springtime evening light and an elaborate wood-panelled ceiling. Any day now they’ll be opening their fabulous terrace (to face Rushton’s equally gracious terrace) and then it will feel positively Mediterranean.
But the waitstaff have not been taught the meaning of hospitality. One pressures us to order bread (which they charge for) and tells us the kitchen is very high-end. That’s a really warm welcome. When we ask where the trout special comes from, he says Nova Scotia, but turns out it’s from Lake Huron. And again with the bread:
“What’s the urchin sauce for?” we ask.
“Well, you could dip the bread in it,” he tells us.
The opacity of the menu (urchin sauce? hot jar? bottled clams?) is part of the hospitality problem at Catch. Small dishes and salad-like things are listed higgledy-piggledy among the mains, with no indication of what’s small and what’s a main. Would it be too much trouble to list them under separate headings? And when we ask what bottled clams are, it’s probably not a good idea for the waiter to tell us they’re fermented, ’cause fermented seafood doesn’t sound all that appealing.
There’s a guy in the room one night who looks an awful lot like Mr. Pronesti, but he doesn’t seem to notice when a second server spills both wine and water while pouring (twice for each!). Maybe it’s the owner’s twin. Or maybe he only attends to the taste of things.
Because it seems the kitchen, unlike the waitstaff, cannot put a foot wrong. They use sustainable seafood from impeccable sources (many of them Ocean Wise certified), and they cook it with élan. Sweet little Nova Scotia smelts are briefly deep-fried, ungreasy and crisp, and served with marvellously flavoured collard greens and lemony aioli. East Coast clam bake is perfectly (barely) cooked big fat clams steamed in fish stock scented with pork belly and tomatoes. Equally impeccable mussels are also perfectly cooked; their tomato and garlic broth, jazzed with preserved lemon, merits drinking. Chef enriches perfect fresh scallops with a slice of foie gras and sits them on a cute little duck confit cassoulet, with a light carrot-and-cardamom cream.
Once we figure out which are the mains, we are entranced by them. Bouillabaisse is a complex and yet delicate tomato-based broth brimful of perfectly cooked seafood. Nova Scotia Arctic char is sautéed like a dream and partnered with fresh roasted artichokes, scrumptious wrinkly black olives and slightly roasted sweet cherry tomatoes. A small pool of basil sabayon ties it all together. Paella is home to more amazing seafood, beautifully smoked chicken, roast rabbit and great chorizo. Only the rice suffers – from terminal gumminess and the absence of saffron.
As for sides, quick, bring me a big spoon! We’re unsure what to put the urchin sauce on (the mashed potatoes?) but the combo of sea-urchin roe with cream is pretty great. As for those lobster mashed potatoes, they are, for starters, impeccable, slightly lumpy, indeed the ideal buttery mashed potatoes. The addition of small chunks of lobster meat just keeps you wanting more. Same deal goes for the Brussels sprouts, which have been shaved thin on a mandoline and very briefly sautéed with toasted hazelnuts and Parmigiano Reggiano for savour.
The one non-seafood main, pappardelle, demonstrates the kitchen’s reach with meat: Lamb neck is braised long and slow for sweetness and tossed with wild mushrooms and oodles of Parmigiano Reggiano.
One so often finds inferior desserts in small restaurants, thanks to the economies of small scale that make the hire of a real baker impossible. Perhaps the Rushton and Catch are sharing a baker – and a kick-ass one at that. Tres leches is a cake built literally on three milks – condensed, evaporated and fresh, in the Mexican style. It’s neither custard nor cake but a delicious milky hybrid. Their butter tart is silken smooth and built on fine short crust. The sole sweet miscalculation is the P.B. and J popover with jam. The menu calls it peanut-butter flavoured bread pudding, the waiter calls it peanut-butter brioche. Despite my lifelong fealty to all things Skippy, I call it kinda dumb tasting. And besides, who wants jam on a dessert plate?
Despite the silly popover, we are delighted by Catch’s food. For a restaurant to combine sustainable seafood with great cooking is both politically and gastronomically correct. Two additional ingredients make Catch a new wow: It’s another addition to the St. Clair West strip, which is poised to be the next Ossington – low rents, decent pedestrian traffic, good transit (you read it here first), and there is the splendid terrace – E.T.A., any minute.