Bottom feeder, top cat

Natchez plumbs the subtle pleasures of America's favorite scavenger

There aren't any human cultures that haven't made a ritual out of dining, and there aren't any that don't dine on some things that are totally repulsive to other cultures.

So the French eat snails and frogs, the Koreans eat dogs, the Chinese eat shark fins and swallows' nests made of regurgitated saliva. (Let's not even mention what the Japanese eat.) And Americans eat catfish.

According to Waverly Root (Food), catfish are bottom feeders, scavengers. They're weirdos in the fish world--they are scaleless, and have both whiskers and acute hearing.

The smallest variety, in tropical America, live as parasites under the gills of other fish and can even wriggle into swimmers' bodies, causing infection. Catfish are fish who can live without water for extended periods--burying themselves in the African mud to wait for the rains, climbing slowly with their suckers out of drying Andean waterholes. (Remember the "walking catfish" that made big news in Florida a few years ago? They have internal air sacs, so they can move around on land in search of water.)

Wisely, catfish grow largest in Europe, where they are seldom eaten. According to Root's Food, out of 23 genera and 2,000 species of catfish, only one is eaten very often, and they're eaten almost exclusively in the American South or in places that are trying to eat like American Southerners, such as certain restaurants in New York City. (Arrogantly unprejudiced about the exotic, New Yorkers eat a lot of snails, frogs, and probably birds' nests--I don't know about dogs). At one time, catfish were imported to France to be raised for the table, but those French frog 'n' snail eaters never did learn to like catfish; instead the catfish naturalized in open waters and wiped out several native French fish.

Catfish is white, fine-grained fish, not very bony. Root doesn't think much of it; he says its flavor "lacks character" and is occasionally "muddy"--channel cat used to be considered the best eating catfish because it likes gravel-bottomed, moving water. I think the fear of muddiness is pretty far-fetched now, since virtually every catfish you eat is raised on a farm (in the South, Mississippi or Louisiana) and is probably fed some kind of catfish kibbles, just like chicken and cattle.

Catfish makes up a sizable portion of the menu at Natchez (a restaurant named after a town in Mississippi), which serves catfish three ways: grilled, fried with a corn crust, or fried with a pecan crust. And when they bring you a fillet, just out of the fat--richly, meltingly crisp on the outside and breaking open to a cloud of sweet white fish flakes, you forget about that bottom-feeding, characterless aberration of nature. This may be a gross creature, but it's good food.

Natchez's dining room is small; my companion said it reminded her of someplace in Europe. It reminded me of someplace in Louisiana or Mississippi, but we meant the same thing. It's simply square, the walls are a warm yellow, decorated with pretty, Impressionist-style paintings and pastel prints. It could be a grandmother's dining room; it's the sort of place where you sit down to dinner on Sunday afternoons. It's not formal, but it does expect you to behave--to ask your neighbor to "please" pass the butter. You remember to keep your elbows off the table, but you don't have to worry about what to wear.

Natchez--like Europe and the Deep South--hearkens back to a previous culture, a slower, more gracious time. It's a slightly old-fashioned place where food and sharing it are the focus, and the only entertainment you have is each other and what's on the plate.

The menu is short. There are four appetizers; we tried them all. The "king cake," a name I only knew as a kind of French Epiphany dessert, here referred to a big, flat cake of mixed seafood, chunks of firm shellfish, seasoned and coated in brown, buttery crumbs. Potato cakes were a pair, patted from mellow mashed potato, fried crispy hot, barely flecked with the tiny shrill notes of green onion. Roasted garlic you've had before. Here the split head is caramel-sweet and buttery as it should be, served in a pool of golden oil on the plate that slopped easily--be careful--served with snowy goat cheese and a confetti of peppers. (You do wish the bread you were served to spread it on was of better quality, and that the fluted butter curl had not been waiting in the refrigerator for so long.)

The list of entrees is equally simple: a filet, some chicken breasts, grilled or sauteed scallops, two main dish salads, grilled salmon, some specials, and of course, catfish three ways. The special was trout or tuna, served with a salsa of pineapple and cilantro, a combination that sounded more suitable to meaty tuna than delicate trout. And that's the way we tried it, although the restaurant seemed more suited to trout than tuna, and our knowledgeable waiter tempted us, telling us at 8 p.m. that there were only two trout left in the kitchen. We stuck with the tuna decision and were happy, although the salsa was much less assertive than we'd expected.

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