A mom-and-pop seafood restaurant pleases
Catonsville Gourmet looks like the kind of place you'd find at the beach. Sea-blue walls float above creamy wainscoting. A vintage wood sign advertises oysters; fresh fish is for sale in the seafood market at the back of the restaurant. The only thing missing is the muted crash of waves and a gritty trace of sand crunching underfoot. Instead, diners seated at tables near the giant storefront windows can watch the gentle bustle of downtown Catonsville making its way down Frederick Road.
I've bemoaned the fact that there are not many privately owned (i.e. not chain) seafood-dedicated restaurants in Baltimore anymore. And while you can get killer crab cakes at pubs and old-fashioned restaurants like the Perring Place or Pappas, sometimes you want to eat somewhere a little fresher and younger; somewhere you can take your kids or your folks as well as your friends; somewhere you can get full seafood entrées or just a sandwich or pub grub. Catonsville Gourmet appeals in just these ways.
Not everything was perfect here. The noise levels can make it nearly impossible to hold a conversation, and a side of mashed potatoes was gluey to the point of being inedible, strange considering that the accompanying carrots (whole ones, mind you, not those awful mushy "baby" carrots) and asparagus were crisp.
The seafood preparations are not nuanced, sophisticated, or edgy; in fact, some, like the creamy seafood bouchées, are downright old-fashioned. But the food is fresh, the young servers are eager to please, and the restaurant is comfortable and without pretensions. Plus, you can bring your own bottle for a $5 corkage fee. A night spent at Catonsville Gourmet reminds you that you reside in the land of pleasant living.
Catonsville Gourmet's lengthy menu offers ribeye, filet mignon, wings, and even spaghetti and meatballs, which two young sisters in matching sundresses seemed to be enjoying on the night of our visit, but the main draw here is seafood. There are daily raw oyster specials, including local Chincoteagues from Tom's Cove, Virginia and Conway Cups from Prince Edward Island, and bowls of steamers, like the hearty combination of mussels, clams, and andouille in a garlic and chili-pepper spiked broth (though a little more garlic wouldn't have hurt) ($11.99). Lobster bisque, and a brightly flavored corn and crab chowder ($4.99) brimming with pearly nuggets of crab and corn, and lightly thickened with flour, not cream, round out the soup offerings.
Many of the dishes on both the regular menu and the night's specials list were dressed up in Caribbean or Asian accents, like mango relish or seaweed salad and wonton crisps. And while crispy crab wontons ($8.99) may sound too gimmicky for foodie traditionalists, these were a guilty pleasure, greaseless, crunchy pillows filled with crab, shrimp, and minimal filler.
Also charming was the Hutzler sandwich ($11.99), a paean to the Quixie lunchroom in the old Howard Street department store. Those of us too young to remember were recounted with descriptions of the sandwich, reconstructed here in first-rate shrimp salad served on what appeared to be lightly battered cheese bread. If Hutzler's version was as good as Catonsville Gourmet's, then I, too, mourn the Quixie.
The Maryland soft crab special prompted another fit of nostalgia. Remember the sign above Danny's on Charles Street advertising "whales," those larger-than-can-be-believed soft crabs? Catonsville Gourmet's got 'em ($26.95 on special), and while I wish they had pan-fried the two crabs instead of dipping them in tempura batter, they still retained that easy sweetness that makes soft crabs such a pleasure. And the potato-ham hash served with them was absolutely salty/savory addictive. Substitute it on your plate if your order comes with something else.
We tried a hearty, modestly priced bouillabaisse ($19.99) and the aforementioned seafood bouchées, a creamy mix of crab, shrimp, and scallops served in puff pastry ($14.99). The dish is a bit fussy and might feel more at home in a ladies' tearoom, but if you like crab imperial, you will enjoy this. The restaurant also offers several fish du jour, prepared in a handful of ways. Black grouper ($23.95) seemed to call out for hazelnut beurre blanc rather than Asian barbecue sauce or mango and avocado salsa (though the sweet corn relish or chimichurri sauce would have worked well, too), and this simple preparation complemented rather than overwhelmed the mild fish.
With few exceptions, all the restaurant's desserts come from a local Catonsville bakery, SugarBakers, and you can even top off your night out with a slice of Smith Island cake, Maryland's official state dessert. It's a nice Eastern Shore touch for those of us who live closer to Baltimore County than we do Crisfield, like bringing the shore to the city.