Table Talk: Joanne Kates reviews Catch
Sea bream with tomato, corn, cucumber and a dusting of elderflowers (Image: Cheol Joon Baek)
It has become commonplace for people of a certain age to kvetch like crazy about the cool new restaurants that don’t take reservations or have backs on their chairs or make you welcome, that serve fatty pig and play the music at rock concert levels.
How come nobody’s talking about the game of musical chairs that the chefs are playing? At the trendy new places, it almost seems a badge of courage for the chef to decamp (on short notice) and go off either to find himself (most are male) or to open his own place. Oftentimes this after a stay of less than a year. This year Matt Blondin decamped from Momofuku and Patrick Kriss left Acadia. Both brief tenures.
Back in the day, chefs didn’t do that. They stayed put in one restaurant for years, partly to hone their craft and partly because being reliable mattered. It also really helped diners — being able to count on consistency in restaurants. That was then. Consistency is out, spontaneity is in.
Take Catch, which opened in 2012 with chef Nigel Finley doing a great job on sea critters. It felt like the restaurant was just hitting its stride (a year old) when chef Finley decamped, and they replaced him with P.E.I. native Charlotte Langley, who had made a name for herself at The Whalesbone Oyster House in Ottawa.
Since she left Whalesbone in 2011, chef Langley has hopped around Toronto, cooking at Cafe Belong and then The Atlantic. Clearly Catch hired her because she understands fish. I hope she understands staying put.
Most chefs overcook fish. Few get it just right, and fewer have enough passion for fish to refuse all but the freshest. Chef Langley gets both of those right. She excels at the great piscine Canadiana like haddock and halibut, rainbow trout and Lake Erie walleye. These she cooks perfectly, flesh just melting off the bone. Her seasonal accoutrements are unfailingly jazzy — fiddleheads and sea asparagus, ramps in the aïoli in the spring, tomatoes in summer and squash in fall.
She loves everything chèvre, playing with puckery smears of house-made goat yogurt (on a snazzy wooden board) and “goatmeal” (oatmeal toasted with goat milk) on a splendid salad of deep-fried soft-shell crab with smoked walnuts. Lavender and poppyseeds perfume raw tuna.
Chef makes few missteps, but the lobster paella is a big blooper. On top is a significant amount of the expectable perfectly cooked lobster. But underneath it is an insult to the impeccable lobster, a large pile of horribly mushy rice with scant taste. Better chef should stick to the more straightforward seafood.
And better still chefs should stay put for longer, so we can get to know them, their oeuvre, and so that they can refine their cooking and work out the kinks, like the mushy rice in the paella. And the servers who have improved since Catch opened but are still not at the top of their game: they don’t always bring everything ordered and are not quite ready to answer all the food questions. These are the kinds of problems that get ironed out in shakedown cruises, when the captain gets a clear sense of what works and what doesn’t work and the team gels around her.
One hopes the Catch team will get that chance.
Catch, 744 St. Clair Ave. W., 416-658-0568
Joanne Kates trained at the Ecole Cordon Bleu de Cuisine in Paris. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Maclean’s and Chatelaine, and she was the Globe and Mail’s restaurant critic for 38 years.