There are no beads here, no Anne Rice touches, no “When The Saints Go Marching In.” At Catahoula, there’s just a well-executed, Louisiana-centered menu that evokes the flavors of one of America’s most revered food regions without peddling in the overblown caricaturing that has accompanied New Orleans for far too long.
So rather than baroque design touches or fleur-de-lis sauce curlicues, we get boldly flavored cornmeal-crusted oysters, creamy and big enough for three or four bites. Each of the three Pacific Northwest oysters arrived encased in a cracker-thin cocoon of cornmeal, which was buttressed by a traditional, homemade creole seasoning mix. Smoked bacon plumbed the depths further, and just when it seemed as if the dish would be unremittingly hearty, a tangy tomato jam sliced right through it, allowing the dollops of anise-scented Pernod cream to sing.
The best dishes at Catahoula find their footing here, on the bold end of the spectrum. Chef Paul Martin, a Starr Group alum, is a Louisiana native and an accomplished-enough talent to maintain a sense of balance and tangible technique no matter how hearty a preparation may be. “This is really [about] looking for integrity,” he said in a follow-up interview. He’s got that down pat.
Chilled shrimp (cooked maybe half a minute too long) were still rendered taut-textured by the high-acid creole-mustard remoulade and by the clever addition of thin-sliced gherkins, their high-toned snap both a mirror of the mustard and a textural distraction from the barely overdone shrimp.
Braised-duck jambalaya most clearly expressed the region’s French roots. Brooding and dark, the meat waited to be fork-pulled from the bone, the layer of subcutaneous fat buttery beneath its crisp skin. Hunks of smoky tasso ham and spicy, paprika-scented andouille bracketed the Louisiana pork spectrum, providing a nice baseline for the tomato-hearty rice.
I was concerned that the fried catfish would pale in comparison to the fireworks that preceded it, but even a simply prepared dish like this one won me over with impeccable execution. The same cornmeal batter that protected the oysters was employed here to similar effect: The fish inside was creamy, its meatiness enhanced by the seasoning of the crust and its marinating bath in buttermilk, worcestershire and cajun spices adding zip.
An accompanying scoop of mirliton slaw (the namesake ingredient is a member of the squash family better known by its Spanish name, chayote) brought sunshine to the plate, hinting at lactic sweetness but most clearly defined by a lemon-bright tang. Creole-spiced fries echoed the fish’s crust and took on an unexpected level of complexity when dragged through the truffled tartar sauce, capers livening up sporadic bites. Only the hush puppies disappointed, their gritty insides undercooked.
The presence of both fries and hush puppies alongside the catfish would have been one starch too many anyway; better to save room for bacon-braised collards, a hearty tangle of leaves braised not a second too long. The texture of the bacon was the only shortcoming here, some of its fat grown off-puttingly gelatinous at the edges, but the depth of flavor was worth it.
Desserts are blackboard items and change frequently. A recent pear cobbler showcased the fruit with subtlety, though the dabs of sweet biscuit dough on top could have used more time in the oven. Pecan pie, however, was fantastic and straightforward. High-strung molasses called out through the pecans, and a melty scoop of buttermilk gelato softened up the pie’s more aggressive edges perfectly.
For all the ambition in the kitchen, though, Catahoula is still very much a neighborhood spot—both the level of food being prepared and the prices are excellent. The beer program, relatively straightforward and very affordable, is a work in progress, and general manager Jackie Derstine is aiming to expand and refine the beer, wine and cocktail offerings.
Louisiana’s is among the most poorly parroted cuisines. But at Catahoula, with its focus on “good, honest food,” as Martin notes, it’s being rendered as solidly and appealingly as it has in a long time in Philly. Good eating needs no gimmickry—much less a brass band—to proclaim its worth.
775 S. Front St.
Cuisine type: Louisiana-inspired cooking, straightforward and honest.
Hours: Daily 3pm-midnight; weekend brunch 11am-3pm.
Price range: $2.50-$18.
Atmosphere: Understated, comfortable and neighborhood-y.
Food: Bold flavors rendered with far more elegance than Louisiana cooking usually gets up here.
Service: Laid-back and helpful.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014