The Food Critic and I have been recently scrimping and saving, as our 401(k)s have been hit rather hard by the plunge in the stock market. Let’s just say that perhaps I shouldn’t have taken advantage of the opportunity to purchase Reliant stock under their employee stock purchase plan while I was an employee there, hmmm? So, after a couple of weeks of brown bagging and ramen (don’t worry, I did make some scrumptious onion rings – photos to be posted), we decided to treat ourselves this weekend with an outing to the highly rated Catalan Food & Wine.
Our first impressions were highly favorable. The restaurant is beautiful and elegant; the wine list reads like a novel, and is very reasonably priced. We selected a white Beaujolais and some small plates that I had read raves about to start off with, as well as a cup of each soup.

The garlic soup was flavorful, and as promised, came with the soft egg. I wasn’t sure what the egg brought to the soup, other than more cholesterol, which seemed to be a specialty of the menu (more on that later). What would have really made the soup delicious would have been a textural element, such as some crisp croutons or even toasted garlic on top. The sweet potato soup with chorizo was perfectly matched to the season, very autumnal, and the chunks of chorizo were a nice touch. The flavors of this soup were well balanced.

Cured lardo was exactly what the waitress told us to expect – salted and cured fat from the back of a pig. We both found it to be a little oversalted. Neither one of us really wanted to eat our second pieces, but did anyway.

Thai Street Food was unremarkable. The description was “Cervena venison sausage wrapped around sugar cane over coconut cream,” which sounds delicious and innovative. I felt the dish was over salted and needed far more coconut cream. Plus, the sausage wasn’t so much wrapped around the sugar cane so much as the sugar cane was speared into sausage balls. Perhaps I was expecting something else, having lived in Taiwan for parts of my life and eaten sugar cane. This was not sugar cane for eating.

Foie Gras Bon Bons I was so looking forward to. Sadly, my first bon bon had hardly any foie gras in it. There were three bon bons so the Food Critic and I split the third, and I don’t know how much foie gras was in his. The third bon bon had much more foie gras. These were tasty and unique but hardly the food orgasm promised by so many reviewers. The foie gras didn’t “explode in my mouth” and wasn’t liquified – it was definitely a lump of solid foie gras within a crunchy coating. I don’t know if my bon bons sat too long waiting to be delivered to my table or what, but though this was the best thing I had had so far, I was slightly disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, though – at this point in the evening, I was still having a good time, lively conversation, and enjoying the food.

Food Critic then announced he needed some “real food” and wanted to order one of the big plates. I scrutinized the menu and decided I didn’t really want any of the big plates, but would be happy trying a couple more small plates. What followed:

Pork Chop which was quite satisfactory for the Food Critic, though he was confused as to what some wide, thin, orange, crunchy slices of something were, mixed in with his mashed potatoes. I tasted them and weren’t sure either- no, they weren’t carrots, for the smart ones out there.

Asparagus wrapped with prosciutto and Pork Belly with cane syrup for me. I love asparagus with prosciutto, and the lovely citrus dressing was a wonderful contrast with the balsamic I usually use for this type of dish. It was really bright and flavorful, a real difference from the other heavy dishes we had tried so far that night. My only gripe was that the asparagus was slightly overcooked, and I felt the hunk of mozzarella served with this dish was kind of unnecessary. (I actually forgot it came with the dish and when it came, assumed it was another egg and pushed it aside. Only later, when I was cutting it up did I realize it was mozzarella, and felt a duty to eat it).

The pork belly… I don’t know what happened. The top was completely charred… tasted like charcoal and was so over-spiced it tasted BAD. We had to wait a while for these dishes to come out; the waitress explained that the pork chop took longer. Perhaps the pork belly got left under the salamander for too long? I don’t know. The parts under the charred top section were good, but the first bite almost put me off the whole thing altogether. Only years of dutiful child training made me take another bite.

For dessert we chose the PB&J;, described as brown sugar bread putting with peanut butter cream, vanilla ice cream, and blueberry compote. I feel like, with so many dishes, ratios are key. (Dishes and candy bars, too, that’s why Snickers are so tasty!) This had far too much bread pudding to ice cream ratio… or far too little ice cream. I wanted a little ice cream with every bite of bread pudding, and a little peanut butter cream, and a little blueberry. I ran out of ice cream in 4 bites. We left most of the bread pudding on the plate.

What I really wanted was to tell them it was my birthday. Two other tables were celebrating birthdays, and they brought a fluffy pile of pink cotton candy with a sparkler stuck in to the table for the birthday girl. That looked like too much fun.

Looking back, I think of Catalan as the restaurant that takes the mouthfeel of a steakhouse – meaty, heavy, manly – and does it x10. Add salt. The food here is not shy about its cholesterol content. It reminds me of cuisines where it is a delicacy to eat raw fat (oh wait, that was the first dish I had…) and where butter and eggs and lard are still part of the daily meal. I’m not sure if that’s exactly the food of Catalonia, but it sure makes you feel decadent. EDIT: The Food Critic would like to add that he is a manly man who likes his meat & potato steakhouses, and this was too much for him. So take that as you will.

The nicest thing about this meal was the atmosphere, the conversation, the slow pace, and the surprisingly friendly bill at the end. I’ll say with ease that Da Marco may be the best restaurant in Houston, but it’s one heck of a painful bill to pay at the end of the meal. At Catalan, I felt like I had just built my own 7 course tasting menu, with wine, for an extremely reasonable price.