Among catches at Catches: steak

Broiled crab cakes at Catches in Middle River.
Broiled crab cakes at Catches in Middle River. (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd Fox)
They had me at the name: Catches Restaurant, Grill and Wine Bar in Middle River. The karaoke was just a bonus.

After getting a couple of e-mails urging me to try this relatively new place (described as a "hidden jewel" by the last one), I decided it might be a restaurant that deserved area-wide attention. Sometimes reviewers really do find places worth the trip; other times it doesn't make much sense to criticize a restaurant when the most you can say for it is that it serves its purpose in the neighborhood.

But a wine bar on Pulaski Highway? This I had to check out.

It turns out that there are many positive things to be said about Catches Restaurant, Grill and Wine Bar; but the wine isn't one of them. I might as well get my criticism of it out of the way.

The wines by the glass are no-name house wines for $3.75, never a good sign. The bottle selection is equally limited. I ordered a glass of white and after one sip put it aside. (Maybe the last glass had been poured from that bottle a month ago?) In its place, I got a glass of good, not-too-sweet sangria. And, yes, we paid for the undrinkable white.

Everybody else just laughed at me when I ordered wine. They were perfectly happy with their icy-cold beers. (No glasses were offered, which suited them just fine.)

Catches is an interesting place because it seems to want to be a restaurant first and foremost, and yet the dining room is set up almost to be secondary to the bar. The bar area is huge, with room for live music, karaoke and dancing. The dining room is in front of it, a sort of narrow enclosed porch with a stone wall, lots of windows and a knotty-pine ceiling. It has two rows of tables, with cheerful Tiffany-style lamps over each of them. Somehow the space appeals, as Old Baltimore restaurants sometimes do - at least until the bar gets raucous and its proximity to the dining room is a problem, which didn't happen when we were at Catches.

The restaurant is trying to do something admirable: Offer good American seafood and steaks at moderate prices. The kitchen starts with good ingredients (OK, with the exception of the weird-tasting "drawn butter"). With a couple of fixes, Catches would be getting reviews that would have customers beating down its doors.

The seafood, and we tried a lot of it, was across the board overcooked; and most of our dishes were oversalted.

What we found, in spite of the restaurant's name, was that beef might be the way to go here. The "signature" New York strip steak was a fine piece of meat, cooked exactly as ordered. With it came an enormous crab cake made with big lumps of crab - but too much soft, bready filler.

I wouldn't put too much faith in things designated "signature" or "house specialty," by the way. When we tried to order the house-specialty soup, corn chowder with crab or shrimp, we were told it was no longer offered. Instead, we got a rich and not impossibly thick shrimp bisque with whole shrimp in it.

The seafood imperial, a special that night, featured lump crab, lobster, scallops and shrimp. It would have been spectacular if it hadn't stayed under the broiler so long. The king crab legs on the Catches Steamer Combination plate were so overcooked the shells were too mushy to crack. The mussels and clams in their shells were oversteamed, too. But the fat steamed shrimp were excellent, and the cocktail sauce was some of the best around.

Catches' version of oysters Rockefeller consisted of just four oysters, and was priced accordingly, which I think is a good idea. This is supposed to be an appetizer. Six would have filled me up, especially when topped with a lot of creamed spinach and what seemed to be imperial sauce but could have been a hollandaise lacking enough lemon juice.

After the appetizers, the server arrived with a large bowl of house salad and hot, soft breadsticks baked with parmesan cheese. The salad is unlimited, but our appetites weren't, so we didn't test it to see if a second bowl would be as generous. The feta vinaigrette house dressing comes on the side in little plastic cups, probably a good idea but not exactly festive.

Catches prides itself on having fresh seafood, so many of the dishes end up being recited specials. Portions were generous, and the fish was very fresh. The flounder stuffed with ricotta and spinach was the better of our two fish dishes because the stuffing kept the fish more moist. Mahi mahi topped with scampi had spent too long in the oven (although the shrimp were perfect).

Dinners come with various homey sides like a good baked potato in foil, fried eggplant with tomatoes, salty creamed spinach and waterlogged corn on the cob.

Catches has various homemade cheesecakes for dessert, but I was more impressed by the warm, molten-centered chocolate cake with ice cream, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. It tasted better than it had any right to after that big a meal. The rice pudding is also made on the premises; but without raisins, rice pudding won't get my vote. A pot of decaffeinated coffee was made fresh for us, by the way, and was a highlight of the meal.

Some experiences are more than the sum of their parts, and our dinner at Catches was like that. The server was friendly and competent; the dining room was just a pleasant place to be. The good news is that the food could be so much better if the kitchen would ease up on the salt shaker and watch the clock when the seafood is cooking.

A sign in the bar said Catches will be having steamed crabs later this year. I liked the place enough to consider going back for crabs, even if it is a trek from Baltimore.

Address: 9727 Pulaski Highway, Middle River

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily

Prices: Appetizers: $6.99-$16.99, entrees: $10.99-$25.99

Contact: 410-574-3200, catchesrestaurant.com

Food: **

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]

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