An island-hopping menu and a nautical view

Catalina is the latest in a long line of restaurants at waterside spot

Sunday Gourmet

August 25, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

If location, location, location is so important, why don't the restaurants that keep opening at 500 Harborview Drive stay around for a while? Every seat in the dining room has a great view of the harbor, and in good weather you can sit outside at the marina. The space inside is clean-lined and intimate. And there's free parking.

The restaurant's newest incarnation, Catalina, follows the South Harbor Tavern; and before that the space was J. Leonard's Waterside. A dozen years ago, well-known local chef Connie Crabtree opened the place as Pier 500, a fine dining restaurant. She handed over the kitchen to Brian Boston, who's now part-owner and executive chef of the Milton Inn. Other chefs came and went.

While it was Pier 500, it was a seafood restaurant, a Southwestern restaurant and a New American restaurant. These changes happened so rapidly that at one point I reviewed the Southwestern menu a month after it was instituted, and by the time the photographer went to take the picture, the chef had left and the concept had changed.

Over the years, the concepts have devolved and the chefs have stopped reaching for the stars. At this point, your best bet is tavern food. Whoever wrote Catalina's menu would disagree. It's filled with cioppino, chicken Veronique, butternut squash ravioli with a coconut curry cream and the like.

The menu has an island theme, so there are plenty of tropical influences. But the islands include Manhattan, which allows for a New York strip as well as Polynesian beef and a New York-style appletini as well as sangria and rum punch.

Try the more elaborate dishes if you must, but take it from me: You're going to be happiest if you keep it simple. Popcorn shrimp were hot, crisp mouthfuls flavored with coconut and graced with a curry dipping sauce. Tender chicken satay stood up to its flavorful peanut sauce. A quesadilla with crab, corn and goat cheese had enough firepower to make your eyes water, but the flavors were bold, and smooth slices of avocado cut the heat. A salad of eggplant, tomatoes and mozzarella with plenty of mesclun was enhanced by a lively balsamic dressing.

If you want to move beyond appetizers, salads and sandwiches, try the beef short ribs. An enormous pile of them rested on a bed of roasted potatoes. The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender, and the sweet and sour glaze complemented without dominating.

But no matter how tempting the Nantucket Sleighride Seafood Stew sounds, resist the urge to order it. At a whopping $24, you expect to get what's promised: snapper, mussels, clams and crab legs topped with a soft-shell crab. With no explanation, shrimp were substituted for the crab legs and the soft-shell was missing. The sea-food that was present had been overcooked to the point of rubberyness in an indifferent broth.

When I complained to our waiter, he made it right -- sort of -- by bringing out a crab cake on a butter plate. Unfortunately, by the time it arrived we were thinking about dessert. Still, I took a bite and can say that while Catalina's crab cake had lump meat as promised, it was pretty greasy, and the tarragon beurre blanc on top didn't help.

Salmon with jerk spices was simply ordinary, hard to criticize yet hard to recommend. Still, I would put it on a plate with something other than roasted potatoes and the mixed vegetables of the day. It was a very brown plate, and the one cherry tomato perched on top didn't do much to change the look.

Catalina offers several pastas, which you might not think of as island food unless you remember Sicily (fettuccine) and, for some reason, Providence, Rhode Island. This was supposedly where the lobster- and salmon-stuffed shells came from. Not that we expected great lumps of lobster and salmon, but the pink ground-seafood filling was a letdown. And the tomato sauce -- OK, tomato coulis -- didn't do much to jazz it up, not to mention the fact that the colors clashed unappetizingly.

Desserts were as ordinary as the rest of the meal: a carrot cake, a cannoli and a slice of chocolate cake, none of them made in house.

The news isn't all bad, though. I still think this is the place to go when you want to sit by the water on an end-of-the-summer evening and have a glass of sangria or a margarita. If you feel like something to eat, I'd order a burger, maybe with some slices of avocado, or the Chinatown chicken salad, or chicken or beef tenderloin skewers on pita with a Greek salad.

Besides the view, Catalina has one other thing in common with its predecessors at 500 Harbor-view Drive. The service has always been pretty good. Our waiter was lively, pleasant and got the meal on the table fairly quickly. It wasn't his fault the food didn't quite live up to the billing.

Catalina

Food: **

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 500 Harborview Drive, Baltimore

Hours: lunch and dinner daily

Prices: Appetizers, $5-$10; main courses, $12-$24

Call: 410-230-0705

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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