Look around Café Catula and you'll notice an absence of blackboard-laden walls, mismatched plates, and exposed brick. On the menu, there's no mention of sliders, kale salad, or pork belly. But what East Kendall's Café Catula lacks in trendiness, it makes up for in other ways.
For instance, the long hallway leading to the main dining room is outfitted with bronze sculptures by Cuban artist Uldis Lopez. One depicts a crossed-legged woman resting an arm on a harp where her stomach should be. It's delicate and sensual, and it's for sale. So are the rest of Lopez's works displayed throughout the roomy space. The pieces have been designed specifically for the restaurant-cum-gallery, and they cost up to $17,800.
Mezzaluna pasta $21
Wild hog snapper market price
During the second half of the week, Catula also becomes a destination for live piano and jazz music, with special guests such as Los 3 de la Habana and Amaury Gutierrez. On a recent Saturday evening, the tunes emanating from the piano were soothing, reminding diners to slow down and pay extra attention to the food. Alas, the food doesn't necessarily deserve that added focus.
There's no harm in paying mind to the croquetas, though, which despite their homespun taste require near-scientific precision to reach perfection. Catula's rendering of the ubiquitous Spanish bar snack is textbook. In lieu of ham, these crisp-on-the-outside, creamy-on-the-inside croquetas are loaded with salt cod that's been soaked overnight. The ratio of fish stuffing to béchamel is spot-on, ensuring each discernible bite contains ample protein. On the side is a slightly sweet dipping sauce, but it only distracts from the golden batons' stand-alone greatness.
Owners Saul and Leida Hernández opened Catula in early 2013 with the intention of combining fine dining, art, and live music. For the cuisine, chef Roger Moreno is at the helm, sending out dishes the owners describe as Italian, French, Argentine, and Spanish in taste and technique. Certain menu items combine elements from all of the aforementioned countries, while others are limited to one. Case in point: the Argentine-style empanadas.
These petite dough pockets are offered with either beef or chicken and are baked till they achieve a bronze hue. Parsley-accented olive-oil dipping sauce accompanies the warm crescents. Chef Moreno's empanadas deliver on both filling and crunch. Oh, and they're proffered with fries, just so you can be absolutely certain you've entered a fried culinary comfort zone.
Another starter — a plump crabcake speckled with a balsamic glaze — is good but would be excellent with a crisper shell and a less sweet glaze.
The main dishes, however, miss the mark more often. Several pastas dot the menu, including mezzaluna di granchio. Five half-moon raviolis are packed with crabmeat and dressed in a creamy lobster sauce. Like the rest of the eatery's dishes, this one comes with a banana chip that's decidedly out of place. There's also an awkward piece of carrot atop the plate. Despite the nicely prepared crab stuffing, the pasta is overcooked, and though the sauce is scrumptious, there's way too much of it considering its richness. Less focus on fussy plating and more on culinary finesse would result in a sharp pasta course worthy of its $21 price.
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Meanwhile, Moreno sautés wild hog snapper with roasted red peppers, scallions, and onions in a white-wine oyster sauce. The flaky fish is aptly seasoned and well cooked, but it too suffers from an excess of an overly pungent sauce. There's also a sweetness to the liquid that fails to complement the snapper. A banana chip is inserted into the accompanying mashed potatoes, which taste great when not tainted by the sauce.
Only a few tables were occupied at 7 p.m., but an hour later, the piano was playing to a packed house. Most parties were large and older, with a few families with young children, but barely any couples in their 20s or 30s.
Maybe Kendall isn't the place to be on a weekend night, or perhaps the older crowd reflects the unhip quality of the food and decor. Indeed, the overly busy dish presentations feel dated, as do the orange walls and the fluorescent blue lighting by the bar. Yes, the artwork is lovely, but like the restaurant, the paintings and sculptures are more classical in nature — nothing to get particularly excited about, in other words.
There's always something to be said for traditional, generally well-executed fare with a side of live tunes. Café Catula marches to the beat of its own drum, but it's a shame the cuisine gets lost in all the noise.