Is it kosher to begin a restaurant review with a poll? As a teen, I loved Holden Caulfield. In fact, I had a passion for most of Salinger's characters, from Esme to Seymour Glass and definitely Teddy. My daughter, now 21, thought Holden was a drip. A whiny, entitled narcissist. The poll: Holden Caulfield, thumbs up or down? Now state your age.
Thus far my proof of generational difference in enthusiasm for Catcher is just anecdotal, but I wondered if the new restaurant Catcher and the Rye in Palm Harbor would resonate with millennials. After a couple of visits I'm patting myself on the back. This is a fully grownup bar, an indoor-outdoor good times kind of place that reads like a beach bar without the beach. But maybe the clientele says more about the demographics of Palm Harbor.
Owners Mike D'Amico and Austin Sanchez, who together managed the Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge, are putting the emphasis on the rye. They've assembled a lengthy bourbon, rye and American whiskey list and what is thus far a fairly pedestrian cocktail menu.
In what was formerly Lulu's, the duo essentially rebuilt the building from the subflooring up, giving it a breezy covered patio that is integrated seamlessly with a comfortable indoor bar and dining room. The irregularly shaped bar is surrounded by low round tables and four-person hightops with flooring that looks like rustic planks, lots of flat-screen TVs and a decorating motif of Buffalo Trace signs and a fairly homemade-looking shelving system for booze bottles.
Both owners have spent years in the restaurant business, for Sanchez some as general manager of a World of Beer in Tucson, Ariz. And in fact it feels not dissimilar to a WOB — a comfortable, friendly place to catch a game or hang with friends, aided and abetted by a far-reaching lineup of taps.
They are calling the food American coastal comfort, which ostensibly means a seafood-centric approach to familiar dishes. To me, it reads like a greatest-hits list from mid-priced American chain restaurants in the past few years. There are soy-dashed ahi tuna lettuce cups and Bonefish-inspired "bangin' shrimp," a taco lineup and another of sliders. Catcher's website talks about "locally gathered fresh ingredients" and "local vendors," but on two visits nobody could point to who those vendors are or what those products might be.
Chef Mike Schulze, who was most recently a kitchen manager in Pensacola, has worked hard to present as broad a menu as he can with a focused list of ingredients: Fried shrimp appears four different ways, house-smoked shredded pork is featured in several dishes, and candied whiskey bacon crops up all over the place. (Can't remember the last time I saw an American menu with little beef other than ground, no chicken breasts and no second-tier proteins like lamb or duck.)
That makes sense for a new restaurant still getting its bearings. Cooking times still seem problematic for the kitchen. The shrimp in one day's shrimp basket ($12.95) were woefully overcooked and rubbery, and one evening's bacon beer cheese sliders ($9.95), while they featured interesting elements like a beer cheese that resembled sherried cheese fondue, were marred by extra well-done patties.
The best dish I tried was a wedge salad ($9.95), an absolute monster with cold, crisp iceberg quarters that could have sunk the Titanic, a flurry of that candied whiskey bacon (see?), cherry tomato halves, curls of red onion, blue cheese dressing and generous drifts of blue cheese crumbles. All of the three salads are meal-sized; it would be nice if the menu offered a smaller, starter-sized salad.
The all-day menu adds a small handful of additional dishes after 4 p.m.: a fish of the day, bacon-wrapped chicken lollipops ($14.95) and shrimp and grits ($13.95), the menu's most coastal comfort item. Again, the shrimp were overcooked, but the flavors of the gravy, cheesy grits and candied whiskey bacon (!) were solid.
Judging by the evening crowds, Palm Harbor residents have already found Catcher, enjoying the 3 a.m. close time Thursday to Saturday. If the whiskey list continues to expand as D'Amico and Sanchez have suggested, perhaps with some craft cocktail options that push the envelope a la Mandarin Hide in St. Petersburg or Haven in Tampa, and if cooking times can be nailed down, Palm Harbor's excitement is merited.
Because as old Holden said, "I like it when somebody gets excited about something. It's nice."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.