Wednesday, June 1, 2011

to Catch, to Catch, to Catch.

Keith Rhodes is a recognized chef who braids farm-to-table philosophy with low-country cooking and elevated culinary presentation. He brings solid accolades behind his cuisine, including a James Beard Award Nomination for 2011 and a Best Dish award in North Carolina for 2010. His food is an eclectic mix of Michelin ambitions and shrimp and grits sensibility; luxury ingredients are juxtaposed against highwayside produce and small-source ingredients. Little-known proteins become stars alongside country buffet staples, mulling a high-vs-low play of flavor notes, amplifying something deconstructed or something extraordinary. Foodies and writers and gourmands trek to sample his menus and so did we. Well, we drove four minutes from home.

Mr. Rhodes maintains his passion for our locale with Catch restaurant.  Market Street's strip malls and vacant car lots scream urban sprawl, reckless construction, while daring even the bravest of drivers to turn left or right.  Market Street terrifies city developers across the nation. But Mr. Rhodes moved into one of those strip malls, designed a nice, unassuming and simple interior, squeezed a kitchen behind some partitions, and started cooking. To Catch.

The maitre d' greeted us at a small podium in front of young herbs growing beneath bright lights and she sat us at a table that featured a slight wobble. The room was bright with evening light from large windows (facing Market St), and artful photographs of local beach scenes charmed the modest space. Casual but smart is a catch-phrase of the space, from describing the bar area to the staff attire to the overall vibe. (Mr. Rhodes emits the same vibe- I used to see him at The Village Market after dinner service when he was chef at Deluxe.  A friendly guy.) The service at Catch is focused and engaged and their knowledge of the food was impressive. She anticipated our questions and responded with well-informed answers. If she did not know, she found out. We were specialed and Kas got an excellent recommendation of wine and we got into the menu with our orders.

Our oyster appetizer offered six perfectly fried NC darlings bedded across a good cole slaw. The cole slaw was room temperature but fresh, which was fine when paired with the oysters' temperature. In fact, I believe Chef Rhodes may have designed the dish that way, to present the creamier undertone of a blue cheese folded in with the slaw. A tooth of shell did bite into my gums but I cannot dis the dish on that one mishap. All in all, a good starter.

The sweet potato salad of sauteed sweet potatoes, spinach, chevre, cranberries and toasted hemp seeds was good and plentiful. This is the dish that won NC Best Dish award last year, and I agree that it was very good. North Carolina has good spinach, excellent local goat cheese, the sweet potatos are a major cash crop, and we have really good hemp. It all worked marvelously in this dish.

Kas had scallops, listed as OBX diver scallops, grilled on bamboo skewers, and they were delicate and light and delicious with a smoky char pushing against citrus notes. Alongside were two thick slices of fried green tomato: amazing. The dolloped aioli was tasteful with white truffle as a base flavor, but the scallops were superb sans sauce.
I had local flounder pan-fried with a lively breading insulating a finely-flaked meat. This was the whitest meat flounder can produce, and I think Mr. Rhodes procures the finest seafood around.  (Hence the name Catch, I suppose.)  The filets were easy to savor with good clean buttery flavors bolted by a vinaigrette of lemon, peppers, perhaps saffron.  The filets were not large, but were cut to the exclude the lesser ends of the meat.  Sweet potato puree and sauteed spinach accompanied the entree. The flounder was good for what it was, and it was true to the menu's description. 

The highlight was a spanish basque cake, a buttery pound cake with almonds and a caramel sauce slung across the plate, maybe a hint of lemon zest. Topping the basque cake was freshly whipped cream.  The cake was a magnificent cracking crust of full sweet aromas yielding a warm near-custard center.  If I take anything to the grave from my life as a dessert addict, it will be the part of this cake I wrestled from Kas. 

One issue that lingers is the portion-to-cost ratio. With a low-country format I anticipated larger portions, and my instinct is that 23 dollars worth of flounder should amount to more, but I was satiated by the end of my plate (and one and one-half of Kas's scallops). They did not serve us bread, but I saw bread at other tables so it must be delivered on request. I didn't care about the bread so much as I was curious of what Chef Rhodes would choose for Catch's menu. After all- it could have been jalapeno cornbread or something totally funked out and awesome, or it could have been a crusty basic bread working towards technical perfection.

(Catch has two locations.  This meal was at the Ogden location while the other spot is in downtown Wilmington.  Check online for more information.  I would recommend reservations for any dining occasion there.)