It was the end of an era on Saturday night at Catalan, with executive chef Chris Shepherd in the kitchen for his last full service at the restaurant.
Catalan lives on until June, of course, in the able hands of sous chef Antoine Ware, but I couldn't resist one last meal from the chef who introduced me to what Houston dining could be.
I came back to Houston in the fall of 2007 slightly flustered after a shorter-than-expected career in New York. For my first big dinner back in town, my friends brought me to Catalan, which had opened in my absence.
I don't remember much about it until I was instructed to eat the foie gras bon bon in front of me all at once, and the pure joy of the warm blueberry compote filling my mouth in a sweet interplay with the foie gras. Would it not have led to blue mush all over my face, I would have broken out into an open-mouthed smile.
I have ordered the fois gras bon bons on every trip ever since, and I'm always happy with them, though they'll never be quite the same as the first, with that sense of surprise.
Like most twentysomethings trying to stretch out a budget (and unwilling to pass on the wine), I went years without eating a Catalan entree, instead splitting small plate after small plate to my heart's content. The Berkshire pork belly that became synonymous with Shepherd were an early fave, as were the mussels. Actually, when it comes to the mussels, I don't dislike them, but they are ordered primarily for the purpose of dipping bread into the delicious, mussel-y butter sauce.
Say what you will about Catalan's incomparable Juicy Lucy burger or the Colorado lamb chops, but I have never been as happy as when I skipped all that and just ordered the entirety of the street food menu. Also servers look at you impressed when you do that.
On Saturday, we were seduced by the appetizers once again, ordering the off-menu gnocchi with fish cheeks and the on-menu bruschetta. Even bruschetta at Catalan is taken to the next level by adding a layer of bacon to the mix. Sometimes the bacon proliferation around town is overkill, but at Catalan, whether it's in the bruschetta or the goat cheese grits, it's always in proportion, accenting but not overpowering the dish.
It's no exaggeration to say I love it all.
As the night dwindled to a close, Shepherd was greeted in the back by a champagne bath and emerged sans kitchen whites and slightly sticky. I asked him how he'd spend his nights for the next few months.
"I don't know, probably annoying my wife," he responded.
Like everyone else in town, I can't wait to see what Shepherd does with his own place Underbelly, and I'm excited to watch the Clark/Cooper brand evolve starting Wednesday at Brasserie 19 and at Coppa in the Catalan space later this summer.
But I will always cherish my memories at Catalan.