California: ocean winds, sunny days, Hollywood glamour, cocktail-like fusions of culture, varied landscapes and traffic. California cuisine: fresh, light and healthy.
When I heard the name Catalina Room and read talk of the Golden State on the restaurant's Web site, I wondered if the Golden State could migrate successfully into the Lone Star State. More specific, could it merge into Dallas? My first instinct was sure. With both states' penchant for fresh-Mex, not to mention plastic surgery and tans, why the hell couldn't a chi-chi island such as Catalina nestle snugly into Big D?
On my first visit, the year-old restaurant's dim, masculine dining area was virtually empty, save for three booths of diners, mine included. The bar, however, was alive with football fans including one very enthusiastic and expletive-friendly (to put it nicely) San Diego Chargers fan. Ah, the first hint of California. My dining companion made quick note that the flat-screen televisions in the booths (incredibly roomy and accommodating for even a man of large stature), while ideally set for pigskin fanatics, were not conducive to romancing nor were they able to be turned off by diners. Fortunately, all but the bar's screens were muted, though, to be fair, both of us were hip to the occasional touchdown.
Our waiter, enthusiastic and a possible greenhorn, introduced us to the specials and provided me with a sample of the cream of leek onion soup (velvety and sharp, but unnecessarily rich) before we settled on the tomato and mozzarella salad and house salad to start. Though plated with perfect Bobby Flay squeeze-bottle zigzags of sauce, the large, anemic red rounds were more Albertsons than organic garden-fresh, and the basil was an hour away from the compost heap. The cheese medallions were the saving grace--pert and lilting on the tongue. The thick balsamic-like pap, though attractive, would've been best left in the kitchen. It was far too sweet and overpowered any freshness the salad had to offer. Our fellow diner's salad was a colorful toss of basics--iceberg (mixed greens had it not been for the whole E. coli debacle), olives, red onions and so on--but was paired with a seemingly store-bought vinaigrette. The full-slice garlic butter croutons served pre-order were impressive, delectable noshes tiding us over until our entrées arrived.
Despite the dark steak-house interior, I opted to try some of Catalina Room's seaside fare by way of the night's special, hoping to channel the restaurant's namesake. I was rewarded. The rainbow trout was presented as a butterflied fillet dressed in an ever-so-light butter sauce with capers. The fish flaked to the gentlest caress of my fork's tines, and the capers brought my taste buds to joyous attention. The sauce accentuated but did not mask the fish's smooth, natural flavor. Accompanied by a festive and vibrant mix of simply seasoned grilled seasonal vegetables (asparagus, bell peppers, mushrooms, potatoes), the meal's only downfall was its exceptionally large size. Dallas' Catalina knows no petite West Coast portions.
Our table mate wasn't so fortunate. He went full-on Texas, ordering a medium-rare 14-ounce New York strip with a baked potato. What he got was a hunk of beef rivaling one of Terrell Owens' pecs. Upon further inspection, our bovine expert also noticed that while the chunk of red meat was moderately tender (and perhaps overwrought by the garlic concoction slathered upon it), it appeared less like a strip and more like a rib eye cut down to look like the cut he ordered. The suspicion lay in a hefty telltale fat layer, marbling and a squat shape no strip has ever known. Steam rose from the baked potato like fog from the Pacific, but it was misleading: The spud was an undercooked dud.
We were tempted by our tip-hungry waiter to try dessert, but after such ample portions, choices such as cheesecake and Jack Daniel (sic) bread pudding seemed all too heavy (and slightly pedestrian). Taking leave as Wayne Newton belted "Danke Schoen" for the second time, I hoped that my next visit would be scored by something other than an Ultra Lounge compilation on repeat and a Chargers fan's "Oh, fuck!"s. But if there's one thing the Catalina Room owners should be grateful for, it's their classy and friendly hostess. On point for each of our visits, the demure girl offered a wonderful impression as soon as the doors opened upon arrival and exit...of course, her offers of complimentary champagne didn't hurt either.
Lunch proved to be a more popular time for the eatery with a dining room nearly full of business types. Though our server was slow to initially address us, we were well-tended to for the remainder of the meal. This time, I opted to taste-test a classic--the cheeseburger. At this point, I had given up on finding any more California flair, and after all, if you can't satisfy a girl's need for the basic beef and bun, just how good a restaurant are you? I cuddled up to a burger of respectable stature, cooked medium-rare and seasoned to near perfection. That is to say, the patty was flame-kissed and sealed with a russet grill crust, nothing muddling its Grade A flavor. The lettuce and tomato were limp and promptly removed. The red onion was thinly sliced and perfect. The beef's ample juice found a soppy, humid haven in the hamburger's soft bottom bun after the first bite. The side items, however, proved more than disappointing. A ramekin cradled bland, obviously pre-bought coleslaw. The skinny french fries were golden but also suspiciously uniform and tasted oddly unnatural.
Our lunch mate opted for baby back ribs. Plated in an inspiring tower, the meaty portions were stunning to behold, less stunning to sample. Sure, they were fork-tender, but their abundant brown bath was nothing short of irritating--atrociously sticky, too sweet and incredibly bland. Such a shame, as once past the thick skin of sauce, the rib itself was absolutely brilliant in flavor. Though a strong sunscreen is a must for sunbathing, when in comes to meat (as evidenced before with the "NY strip"), fresh and bare is often best. (And maybe they're tacky, but in this case, Wet Naps were sorely needed.) The slaw made another unfortunate appearance along with a cellulitic clod of garlic mashed potatoes. After tasting each of her items, my lunch buddy looked up with inquisitive anguish and asked, "Are we at Applebee's?" It was then that I realized: As much as the Catalina Room wants to serve cuisine, its diners are just getting food.
Now, it's obvious Dallas is no island, but a well-varnished boat hull over the bar shouldn't be the only thing tying the Catalina Room to its inspiration. "Fresh," "clean" and "simple"--like an understated one-piece--should be what comes to mind after dining at a restaurant that touts the gastronomy of the Golden State, not "heavy," "gigantic" and "home-cooking." We don't need any more of that here in Texas.
I'm baffled by the intent of this Lemmon Avenue establishment versus its product and its vibe. And it's not the Jelly Bellys in the bowl at the hostess stand, the distracting TVs or that Chargers fan. Hell, 10 bucks says she might have been the closest thing to California in the place.
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