Catalan

Houston

Juicy, very juicy. as my happily dazed friend remarked, perusing the tabletop, “There’s so much to dip your bread in that you hardly know where to reach next.” Consider yourself warned: The one thing you do not want to do at Catalan is run out of bread, lest you miss a drop of the wonderfully aromatic juices and sauces that flow across your plate and, if you’re not careful, down your chin and onto your shirt.

Named after the region of Spain that includes Barcelona, Catalan is the latest dining destination in burgeoning Houston Heights, brought to you by the grown-up wunderkinds from Ibiza, Charles Clark and Grant Cooper. It capitalizes on the dining world’s fascination with all things Spanish, and judging by the crowds that showed up during week one, that was a smart choice. The fact that Catalan is duplicating Ibiza’s hugely popular pricing policy on bottles of wine (retail plus $6) and offering three-ounce pours undoubtedly has much to do with diners’ affection for it too.

Given the restaurant’s identity, you would expect there to be a good tomato-and-cucumber gazpacho, and there is, a zesty, garlicky version. The kitchen also turns out a classic tortilla, a.k.a. Spanish-style omelet, and a robust seafood stew in a sprightly saffron-and-tomato broth. But chef Chris Shepherd is not slavishly bound to dishes from the Iberian Peninsula (anyone for red-chile-and-sake vinaigrette?).

As I said, though, what impressed me most was the kitchen’s go-for-broke way with sauces, juices, and buttery concoctions of all stripes. Take, for instance, the crisp pork belly with cane syrup. It will remind you of sopping the last of your breakfast bacon in the syrup from your pancakes. (Don’t get scared off by the words “pork belly”;  just trust me and order it—it’s hardly naughtier than ham hocks.) I also adored the griddle-cooked asparagus a la plancha with warm, oozy mozzarella melting on top; the subtly sweet citrus dressing drizzled over it mingled with the cheese in the most seductive way imaginable. And here’s another good one: cockles in their shells. Uncommon in Texas, cockles are meatier than clams and milder than mussels. At Catalan they are paired with strips of firm Spanish chorizo and plunged into a rich, savory broth that has been zapped with the chile-based condiment sambal. Waiter! More bread!

They cook fish just right here. Red brook trout was on the rare side of medium and came with brown butter (more irresistible juices) and caramelized brussels sprouts; the latter were so good I immediately took back all the hateful things I’ve said about them over the years. As for meats, the lush, tender filet of beef with anchovy butter was steakhouse quality. In fact, the only thing I could really fault was dry braised rabbit shank in a bourbon-mustard demi-glace. And even it had a wonderful flavor.

I will be back. The dining room, with its soaring ceilings and dark woods, is inviting, if not exactly intimate, and thanks to the miracle of carpeting, it’s less noisy than any new restaurant I’ve visited this year. And besides, a good half of Catalan’s enticing menu remains to be tried. So much juice, so little time.

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