Dining Out: Catalyst
When rustic and industrial meet French-style finesse, good things happen — most of the time.
It’s a worrying inconsistency. So is the caramelized onion soup ($9), puréed to obliterate every bit of textural interest and at once sweet and sharply acidic, as if the kitchen had grated green apples into it.
There are more lapses in the main courses. Mild-flavored cod in a “mussels chowder” ($27) tasted more of cream, onion, and chive than the seafood or bacon; olive oil “smashed” potatoes were a strange addition to a white, creamy dish with little to chew on besides the mussels. Spiced chickpea fritters with yogurt-mint sauce ($22) were perfectly fine, but more like an hors d’oeuvre than a satisfying vegetarian entrée.
Lemon sole (shown above) with roasted baby fennel, creamed leeks, and vermouth butter ($27), though, was an elegant, polished French dish, the cream and butter well judged, the fish with lovely flavor and texture. Organic rotisserie chicken with chanterelles ($26) was even better: moist meat, wonderfully crisped skin, and expertly sautéed mushrooms and haricots verts over a Madeira-spiked jus. It shows you how well Kovel can cook. Plus, he roasts chunky “dripping” potatoes under the chicken, which baste and brown in the bird fat. Who can resist them? Not me.
Desserts (all $9) by chef de cuisine Anthony Mazzotta — a college pal of Kovel’s who worked in Thomas Keller’s French Laundry and Per Se, as well as local spots Toro and Evoo — take some of the experimental curves you’d expect around Technology Square. A couple are good, one unexpectedly so: butterscotch-and-passion-fruit pudding (shown below), a combination that worked beautifully, the acidic fruit underscoring the dish’s sweetness. Whipped cream and toasted nuts made it like a festive sundae, with fried pound-cake batons for dipping. A disk of chocolate mousse over a thin shortbread cookie glazed with chocolate caramel was airy and fun to eat, the plate dotted with banana purée and chocolate sauce like a map of the solar system. The “Bosc pear tart” though, wasn’t a tart. A torte, maybe: a crustless low rectangle of thin pear slices baked in a rich ground-almond-and-egg pastry. Oddest was a “root beer float” mixed with sassafras-ginger syrup and layered with vanilla ice cream and, at one visit, an inexplicable sludge of crushed blueberries. (On a later excursion, the dessert featured apple slices.) Served in an old-fashioned ice cream fountain glass, it was better viewed than consumed.
The food may not be worth crossing the river for yet, but Catalyst will work, I think, to serve the kind of customer that its neighborhood has created. It achieves a casual elegance without the starchiness of a white-tablecloth restaurant, and the ambitious cuisine suits both important occasions and business dinners. What will help it live up to its potential? The opposite of a catalyst: just a bit of time.
Catalyst, 300 Technology Sq., Cambridge, 617-576-3000, catalystrestaurant.com.