I think I got off on the wrong foot with Catalina.
Perhaps it was something to do with the crowd. Or the vibe. There were things to like about it back in the early 00s, but it wasn't somewhere I was rushing to return. And the 2005 appointment of Paul McMahon, son of veteran restaurateurs and owners Michael and Judy, to head the kitchen didn't fill me with confidence. Sure, there are lots of great family businesses in the restaurant game, but it's hard not to be skeptical. I'm here to tell you that in thinking that, I was dead wrong. Paul McMahon is taking names and kicking some serious tail. The man can cook and, with some great people on the floor and none of the attitude, I think it's fair to say that Catalina is on track to being as good as it has ever been.
Like many of its customers, it has excellent bone structure, and as with many of its customers, it's something that was carefully planned and cost a pretty penny. McMahon père and architect Leigh Prentice laid the foundations in 1994 for the model harbourside restaurant. The broad curve of the room sees that there are no genuinely bad tables and plenty of very good ones. With this much water-view on show, adornments would be a distraction, and they're kept to a minimum. And despite the bare walls and hard floors, the acoustics are excellent and the tables are well spaced, so noise isn't an issue. There's a bar down one wall - all the better for drinking with you, my dear - and a fireplace, proving that it's not a single-season sort of place. My favourite features of the room, despite being costly and, to my mind, crucial, seem to get left out of too many other million-dollar refits. They're staff who have worked in the restaurant for more than five minutes. People who know what they're talking about and how to talk about it. Who know when to come and, perhaps more importantly, when to go.
My two current favourites are Tim Hughes, the maître d', and Simon Curkovic, the sommelier. Tim is affable, observant and fleet of foot. Simon, meanwhile, has the task of overseeing the management and sale of one of the country's more comprehensive restaurant cellars. Michael McMahon has more than a passing interest in the grape himself, and between the two of them, they've put together one heck of a wine list. There's a minimum of 20 wines by the glass, while the sommelier's selection at the front offers the kind of lose-yourself drinking that most restaurants barely manage across their entire list. And while Catalina is by no means a value proposition generally speaking (depending on how you want to tally up the cost of so comely a setting), anyone with an eye for older vintages might find some pleasant surprises tucked among the list's many leaves. Best of all, Curkovic walks the line between solicitous and spontaneous with a natural manner uncommon among sommeliers.
Paul McMahon is the other ace in the Catalina sleeve. A life spent in restaurants clearly hasn't been lost on him, and I'm willing to bet he knows a thing or two about wine himself. (The restaurant also offers a separate sushi menu, prepared independently by sushi chef Yoshinori Fuchigami; fate has conspired to place chef Yoshi and I in different places at all times, so I'm afraid I can't tell you anything about his food, though the two-restaurants-in-one idea strikes me as slightly odd.)
The oysters here are very good, but I can't stop ordering them deep-fried with harissa for dipping. So sue me. There are plenty of other sunny things perfect for picking over on the entrée menu - languid curls of Ibérico de Bellota ham with cos and grape tomatoes, for instance, or house-smoked salmon with fried capers and egg. Scallops and chicken wings is something you see a bit of around town (chicken wings being the new preferred land-protein chaperone for any seafood outing), and it's done as well here as anywhere, the wings a crisp and salty contrast to the glassy give and sweetness of the shellfish, with a slash of carrot purée and some little roasted tomatoes adding colour. A tomatoey linguine with hand-picked blue-swimmer crab with garlic and chilli isn't, again, anything new under the sun, but it's one of those dishes that's hard not to order (see also club sandwiches, cassoulet and soufflés), especially when it carries a genuine tang of freshness and a generous hand on the crab, as it is here.
I typically give preserved truffle products a wide berth wherever I can, but I'm willing to make an exception in the case of the white truffle paste long enough to enjoy the fat lozenge of crumbed pigs' trotter meat that it flavours. The sauce gribiche it comes with is damned fine, so perhaps the truffle stuff is superfluous.
Whitebait has been getting me down lately in its ubuiquity and general failure to be interesting, but I'm always excited when I see the little tiny neonata on a menu - they're the ones that are the size of alfalfa sprouts rather than the more usual chips-with-eyes numbers. Normally they're cooked in cakes or fritters à la Footrot Flats, but here they're termed 'Catalan-style' and arrive as a loose tumble topped with a gooey-yolked fried duck egg and a wedge of lemon. Shining in its simplicity, this is the pick of the entrées if not the menu, and its economy makes up for a multitude of excesses elsewhere.
Main courses are simple seared or roasted proteins down to a one, but most feature something interesting by way of accompaniment - morcilla (that Spanish blood sausage of the moment), Jerusalem artichokes and paprika oil with the fish, say. There's plenty of depth of flavour in the pheasant, burnished of skin and served with a foie gras and spinach sausage (fine) and caramelised witlof (sublime). Certainly the prettiest dish on offer is the coral trout. Poached in olive oil, its flesh has a rare lustre, the fresh green flavours of the pencil leeks and green artichokes under it providing light background music for the fish, with a funky note of piquillo pepper thrown in. The trout itself is a bit tight-fleshed - not dry exactly, but in a perfect world perhaps slower poaching or less of it would do it a favour. It's still clean, lean and pretty damned impressive nonetheless.
The one area it'd be great to see a bit of work is the sweets. Of the maybe seven desserts I've had at Catalina over the past six months, only one has come close to rocking my world. Another combined chocolate and apple in a manner which made me wonder if that combination ever works. Others still have plates covered with dots of this and jellies of that in search of a point. But then there's the lemon tart. Michael McMahon is a borderline lemon tart obsessive, and he may just press one on you spontaneously to see your reaction. Served with only a quenelle of mascarpone (ah, simplicity), it's superb. The cheese offering is pretty good, too - I'm hooked on the Testun Occelli al Barolo, a hard cow's milk cheese slathered in Nebbiolo grape must. Or you could skip dessert and spend more time getting to know the wine list.
With so lovely a site and situation, it would be a crime to let Catalina slide from the limelight. With renewed focus and a more mature outlook, the Catalina of 2007 again presents a compelling reason to take the sea plane to Rose Bay, go mano e mano with a worthy wine list, and luxuriate in sun, smart cooking and switched-on service and a classic Sydney scene. The school ties, hedge-fund wives and sunglasses-at-lunch types are still there, but with food and wine this good they're much easier to ignore, dare I say enjoy.