There isn't much I'd change, fundamentally anyway, about Catonsville Gourmet. And based on everything we saw on a Saturday night, from the lines out the front door to the smiles on diners' faces throughout the sprawling restaurant, there's not much anyone else would change.
Comfortable, accommodating and upbeat, it's an easy restaurant to like. Since its opening in 2008, the restaurant has been a popular choice, especially for Catonsville residents, who have made it into their gathering spot.
It's the kind of place where on a Saturday night, everyone seem to know everyone else. ("Catonsville," a colleague reminded me, "is not that big.") I've been to places like this where I've been made to feel like an outsider, but Catonsville Gourmet has an exceptionally welcoming staff who made us feel at home right away.
If you've never been, you should know that Catonsville Gourmet doesn't take reservations, and that lines are long on weekends. The restaurant does have a "call ahead" system, though. Call up half an hour before you expect to arrive, and your name will be added to a waiting list. I like that system, which makes perfect sense to me, and I wish more restaurants did it.
We did call ahead and still had to wait about half an hour for a table. We lucked into four seats at the oyster bar at the back of the restaurant. This is also where Catonsville Gourmet has a small market operation — part of the restaurant's appeal is the promise of very fresh seafood. It was the perfect place to wait.
We ordered an oyster sampler and a few sushi rolls, which tided us over until we were called to our table. We also ran across the street to pick up some beer. Catonsville Gourmet has a BYOB policy and imposes a reasonable corkage fee: We were charged $5 for two six-packs, but the counter staff poured our beer into chilled glasses and kept our beer iced behind the counter.
We ended up dining at a table in the back area, too, which was fine with us, but there are quieter and cozier options in the restaurant. The front dining room, which has a bistro feel and its own small bar area, is where you'd want to be on a date. The narrow row of booths near the side entrance is out of the fray and intimate — the staff calls this space "the nook." The passageway to the back, which the staff calls "the wall," looks like a good spot for families.
Part of the restaurant's appeal is its very large menu. It runs several pages and includes, in addition to about a dozen seafood and steak entrees, an option for designing your own fish du jour dinner — just pick out a fresh fish, a preparation (pan-fried, blackened, sesame-crusted, etc.) and a sauce (red pepper pesto sauce, salsa fresca, lemon butter, etc.). There's a similar option for steaks, not to mention additional menu sections of sandwiches and light fare and two separate sheets of daily specials and oyster bar offerings.
It's a lot to wade through, and a lot for a busy kitchen to crank out on a Saturday night. Some of the entrees we ordered, like the trout Oscar and the char-grilled rosemary scallops and the fish du jour, were likely not at their best. The Oscar preparation needed more finesse, and the scallops needed more precise grilling. They weren't bad; just overproduced.
On the other hand, a halibut fillet was cooked perfectly — it was firm and very moist — but the pistachio crust we chose for it was underseasoned. Our favorite entree, the Salmon Five-O, was a satisfying arrangement of mesquite-grilled salmon, udon noodles and stir-fried vegetables in an Asian broth that we wished had been a little less sweet.
We had better results with the appetizers. The oysters we had at the bar were handled expertly and served with care. The sushi rolls impressed us, too.
It's nice to have choices, but I think the menu really is too large for a high-volume restaurant. But I'd go back any time.
The staff here, most of them young, really impressed me with their hustle and enthusiasm. And I just plain liked being here.
I know a well-run place when I see one. Were I to return, I'm sure I'd find better options than what I had. Colleagues have already been telling me their favorites.
Rating: 3 stars
Where: 829 Frederick Road, Catonsville
Contact: 410-788-0005, catonsvillegourmet.com
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Prices: Appetizers: $9.99-$12.99; entrees: $17.99-$35.99
Food: Seafood and steaks
Service: Extremely motivated, pleasant and friendly.
Parking/accessibility: Free parking is available on the restaurant's private lot.
Children: There is a children's menu.
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine throughout the restaurant, but some will find the noise difficult. Televisions in the bar areas have the sound off.
[Star key: Superlative: 5; Excellent: 4; Very Good: 3; Good: 2; Promising: 1]