Every once in a while, a new restaurant hits the jackpot. It's the right kind of food in the right kind of location with the right kind of atmosphere. There is hardly any competition. And people are knocking down the doors to get in. No matter how much research you do as a prospective restaurant owner, it must come as a surprise when your place is an overnight success.
That's the kind of response Woodberry Kitchen in Woodberry/Hampden had from the moment it opened, and that's what seems to be happening with Catonsville Gourmet Market & Fine Foods in Catonsville. It's not as innovative as Woodberry, but then few restaurants are. It's simply a very nice place to have a good meal -- as if that's ever simple.
I hear Catonsville Gourmet is always very busy. It certainly was when I was there, and I was impressed by how well the staff handles the crowds. Expect a wait. (No reservations are taken.) But once you're seated, the service is smooth and the kitchen seems able to stay on track. It's high energy in a good way: Not because there's lots of loud music and crowds of people screaming to be heard over it, but because there are lots of people having a good time.
The white clapboard storefront that was once Muir Hardware has been transformed into several smaller dining rooms with a beach cottage feel to them. They are done in soft green and white, with big windows and bare hardwood floors. It's a white tablecloth restaurant; but the tablecloths are covered with white bistro paper, a metaphor for the engaging combination of fine dining and comfortable food that Catonsville Gourmet offers. In back is the market; but it must be such a minuscule part of the business at this point, I wouldn't be surprised if the seafood cases get taken out to make room for more tables.
One of the partners, Sean Dunsworth, has been in the wholesale seafood business for a decade. (The other is a restaurateur, Robert Rehmert.) With Dunsworth's background, it's no surprise that there are six or so fish du jours every day, as well as a variety of raw bar items and seafood dishes. These might be a fat, very fresh fillet of sea bass, pan seared with a mango and avocado salsa, or a soft, sweetly flavored pecan-crusted trout with hazelnut butter, or the obligatory crab cakes.
If you don't specify, the crab cakes come pan-seared. Too bad it's not acceptable these days to have them fried instead. These cakes have plenty of meat and good seasonings, but they also have binder. They would benefit from a crisp golden crust; without it, they seem mushy.
One of the reasons for Catonsville Gourmet's instant success is, I'm sure, the range of the menu. You can spend quite a bit here on elaborate entrees, but there are also light fare items like an eggy seafood quiche in a wicked pastry that comes with fruit and a salad for $10.99. Some of the appetizers would serve the same purpose. An appetizer for two of rare, sushi-grade tuna with an Asian drizzle; steamed shrimp; and scallops wrapped in prosciutto with a bit of parmesan in the mix would be a fine supper with nothing more than a salad. Or you could start with the crisp little crab wontons and follow them with a bowl of soup.
Oysters are given pride of place on the menu, raw, fried and, as an appetizer, baked with prosciutto, fontina and pine nuts. That last is a lot to do to an oyster, but it's an interesting variation on the usual Rockefeller. I'd probably get them raw next time, though.
While Catonsville didn't have much in the way of fine dining before Catonsville Gourmet opened, desserts were covered by SugarBakers Cakes. The restaurant wisely steps out of the way and lets this superb bakery supply the best example of Smith Island cake I've ever tasted (as well as a cheesecake).
The kitchen provides its own warm apple pastry, but the only way I could get it this soft, almost mushy, would be to over-microwave it. Your fine dining dessert choice? Creme brulee, of course. Your comfort food choice? A hot fudge sundae with bittersweet chocolate sauce.
The restaurant doesn't have a liquor license, but folks are welcome to bring their own, with a $5 corkage fee per table.
With all the restaurants that come and go, it's interesting that three places have opened up recently that I'm betting will be not only surviving but thriving in five years. A month ago, I would have said two: Tark's Grill in Green Spring Station and Woodberry Kitchen. Add Catonsville Gourmet to that list.