Catcher and the Rye
3 out of 5 stars
917 11th St., Palm Harbor. Appetizers: $6-$14; entrees: $8-$15; dessert: $6.50; wines by the glass: $5-$11; whiskey: $6.50-$18. 727-754-7337; catcherandtherye.com.
Since J.D. Salinger first wrote his much-loved novel Catcher in the Rye in 1951, many a student has looked to its protagonist, Holden Caufield, as the embodiment of teenaged angst and rebellion.
But what happens if the preposition "in" is swapped for the conjunction "and"? Then, you get historic Palm Harbor's mashup of American coastal comfort food and whiskey. That one small word change snatches us from the fields of waving grain and surrounds us instead with distilled dark spirits. We're transported from adolescent alienation to a world where grilled cheese, wings, sliders, nachos and tacos coexist with 23 bourbons and 12 scotches — most affordably priced under $10. The ultimate goal is to offer the greatest selection of dark spirits in Pinellas County (saving fans a trip across the bridge to Haven).
Catcher and the Rye owners Austin Sanchez and Mike D’Amico have transformed the old historic LuLu's into a relaxing atmosphere with an indoor-outdoor bar (faced with old wine crates) that seats 50 or so guests, and a huge, covered, airy patio that accommodates double that amount.
We decide to start with smoked salmon dip, because smoked fish is popular on many Florida menus and useful to establish a benchmark for the kitchen. C&tR's version is assertive and delicious. House-smoked seasoned salmon is blended lightly with fresh herbs and cheese. We eagerly scoop from the cabbage leaf cup holding it, piling a smoky mouthful on a crisp cracker. The bite is then topped, if you wish, with a few silvers of pickled red onion for a contrasting bit of acidic brightness. It's more chunky than spreadable, and just delightful for those who like smoke in the forefront.
I'm surprised to see oysters Rockefeller as a starter, since it's a rather fussy shellfish treatment. The restaurant opts for a slightly simpler recipe with six oysters on the half-shell. Traditionally, spinach, Pernod and hollandaise are baked under Parmesan bread crumbs. Here, unidentified "greens and spirits" with lemon butter are advertised. It's less rich, but the favors are muted, without any prominent hit of anise or sharpness of lemon for some pop. My overall impression is muddled. It's as boring as the salmon is charming.
The sandwich special, which is on-again, off-again on the menu, is the sumptuous Catcher's Rye piled high with sliced beef brisket, pork, candied whiskey bacon and gooey beer cheese holding some crunchy slaw in place on thick-cut marble rye. My taster "assigned" to tackle the special grins from ear to ear; it's the equivalent of hitting the comfort food lottery.
The market fish is a grouper Reuben. It's extremely tasty. The local fillet is fried rather than grilled, and there's plenty of flavor from the house-cured sauerkraut and lots of decadent cheese.
Speaking of decadent cheese, there's an adult grilled cheese sandwich that's wonderfully caramelized. The secret, even if you're cooking at home, is not to rush. Low and slow on the griddle yields perfect crunch, and wonderful flavor develops as the bread turns golden brown. The combo of smoked Gouda and sharp Cheddar combines with the surprise of cream cheese, plus a little candied bacon to make this one soar.
Another big hit is a trio of bacon-wrapped chicken lollipops glazed with barbecue sauce laced with bourbon. The accompanying asparagus are fresh and on point. Everyone is happy.
Our sides include well-conceived fresh waffle-cut fries that aren't quite crisp enough, as well as golden brown mashed potato croquettes filled with beer cheese and topped with a squiggle of remoulade, a welcome and fun twist on most potato accompaniments.
There's no dessert lineup, as the duo of sweet selections is ever-changing. Citrus bread pudding is reminiscent of a giant sweet roll. The outside is brown and crispy — in a couple of places too much so. But the soft interior dough and bracing lemon sauce are memorable, and this one quickly disappears.
Now it's time for crème brûlée. Today's flavor combo of coconut-pineapple boasts the most beautiful sugar crust, yet sadly the custard underneath is too soft and barely set. Trying to get a spoonful is a lesson in futility. As we break through the thick, crunchy topping, the filling oozes out like toothpaste, turning the ramekin into a somewhat sloppy mess. Great crème brûlée yields to the spoon so that diners may scoop up a pleasant bite with flavorful, eggy custard topped by crunchy sugar. Getting the balance right is tricky, and on this night, at least, more work needs to be done.
The specialty cocktails, however, show attention to detail that pays off. It seems like any self-respecting food critic shouldn't be allowed to escape without trying a libation featuring the title spirit. My Bulleit Rye Old Fashioned arrives with a perfect square of carefully prepped orange peel, a dark cherry and a single 2.5-inch round ball of ice to keep the whiskey cold, but not diluted.
I'm a happy guy made even more so when I hear that C&tR will soon be offering both draft beer and whiskey flights. All the better to taste a variety of offerings. The more you taste, the more you know and grow. And that's a good thing.
Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.