Savor: The Review: Nice Catch

Matt Haley’s newest restaurant, Catch 54, hooks diners with traditional seafood dishes. And the view is a keeper, too.

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Catch 54 Fish House
ighthouse Road
Fenwick Island436-8600

Prices Entrées $18.95 to $29.95; appetizers and salads $4.95 to $11.95; desserts $5.95

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Recommended dishes Crab cakes, Waldorf salad, lobster pasta, seafood stew

Flash-fried soft-shell crabs are served atop a snow pea-and-sweet corn salad
all Catch 54 photographs by Thom Thompson

Dinnertime at Delaware’s beaches can lead to some tough decisions. If you’re staying in Rehoboth Beach, the question is which of the town’s outstanding restaurants you’ll try tonight. If you’re staying anywhere else, the question is whether you have the energy to fight traffic for a trip to Rehoboth or, more likely, where you’ll eat if you’re not up for the drive.

OK, that might overstate the severity of traffic between Delaware’s resort communities, but not by much, and given the lack of progress on a new Indian River Inlet bridge, the situation isn’t likely to improve any time soon.

Restaurateur Matt Haley has come up with a unique method of dealing with a situation that would frustrate most restaurateurs: He has opened a different seafood restaurant at each chokepoint along the Delaware coast.

Starting with Fish On! in Lewes, he has strung restaurants down Delaware’s beaches like shells on a necklace, opening Bluecoast Seafood Grill north of Bethany Beach and NorthEast Seafood Kitchen in Ocean View, just west of Bethany. That means seafood-hungry vacationers are never more than a few miles away from one of Haley’s seafood restaurants.

His newest venture, Catch 54 Fish House in Fenwick Island, opened in May. It completes the north-to-south chain by going almost to Delaware’s southern border. Like its predecessors, it gives vacationers a high-quality dining option that’s almost within walking distance of the beach.

Actually, the word “chain” might be misleading. Haley’s restaurants aren’t stamped out, cookie-cutter style. Each has its own menu and personality. Fish On! is the most ambitious and most expensive, one of the few dining spots in the resort area that merges the beach’s abundance of seafood with the local emphasis on cutting-edge creativity.

But Haley wisely hasn’t tried to outdo his flagship with each successive effort. The other restaurants are lower-key complements to the original. The emphasis is still on fresh seafood, but the preparations skew toward the familiar and classic. They help fill the niche vacated by the old-fashioned family restaurants that have disappeared over the past decade—a niche that’s been invaded by national chains of dubious quality. Though the menus are comfort-food familiar, Haley’s restaurants are more distinctive, but the decor is modern and uncluttered, a welcome respite from busy-looking national chains and dowdy old dinosaurs.

Catch 54 (the name derives from the state highway it’s located on) continues this emphasis. Those familiar with the area will know the building by its former incarnation, Shark’s Cove restaurant. The cove in question isn’t named on a road map or navigational chart (the shark sculpture that gave the place its name is still there, at the end of a pier, looking like a refugee from a miniature golf course), but it sounds a lot more suitable than the recognized name of the waterway connecting the Assawoman and Little Assawoman bays: the Fenwick Ditch.

It’s prettier than it sounds, as you can see from almost any seat in the house, because the main dining room is long and, except for the adjacent bar area, exceptionally narrow, built to maximize the view. The place has been spruced up since its sale—a row of wide, banquette-style booths is an attractive and comfortable addition—but the decor remains minimal. It doesn’t matter much; with windows virtually wall to wall, the view provides all the atmosphere Catch 54 needs.

Assistant chef Felipe Ramales (left) and chef Philip Mastrippolito

Most of the menu consists of dishes that wouldn’t be out of place at an old-fashioned seafood house: steamed clams and mussels, crab cakes and fried seafood, including fish and chips. And contemporary recipes such as pan-seared tuna, fried calamari and roasted scallops are well on their way to becoming classics. The kitchen shows its imagination mainly with salads, such as a crab salad with asparagus, scallions, pea shoots and citrus fruit. Customers who prefer meat have only a few choices: Baby back ribs, strip steak and filet mignon are about it. Forget the turf—Catch 54 is for those who are at home in the surf.

Even with all the familiar dishes, there are a few surprises. One appetizer, for example, consists of a half-pound of chilled blue crab claws (you’d be amazed at how many that comes to) served with tangy vinaigrette dipping sauce. Another delivers a trio of mini-crab cakes served, like White Castle hamburgers, on small, soft buns. The meat is seasoned mildly and has enough filler to bind it, but the flavor is pure, sweet crab.

Salads are served in generous portions. The most interesting is a Waldorf salad that has been re-imagined from the ground up. Instead of the classic recipe, which mixes chunks of apple, walnuts, celery and raisins with mayonnaise, the Catch 54 version combines thinly sliced Granny Smith apples with spiced walnuts, dried cherries, Belgian endive and raisins in a light cream dressing. The result was delicious, a dish that wouldn’t be out of place on any menu in Rehoboth.

At the other end of the spectrum was a special the night of our visit: a platter of fried oysters and chicken salad. It’s a dish that turns up at back-road diners and country club luncheons, and one taste showed why—small but fresh, crunchy oysters and a rich, smooth chicken salad make an admirable match. Down-home food doesn’t get any better.

Seafood stew is actually what most people would call cioppino, a mix of fish and shellfish in a tomato-based sauce, served over pasta. Like bouillabaisse, it can be a handy way to use anything that didn’t sell the previous day, but it’s even more forgiving, since the tomato sauce is strong enough to cover any lack of freshness. That wasn’t the case on our visit. Everything was fresh, especially the tender littleneck clams.

Pan-roasted day boat scallops-—are there any others these days?–—were the only main course that didn’t live up to expectations. The meat wasn’t especially fresh (come to think of it, the menu didn’t say which day the boat went out), and in a day and age when almost every ambitious kitchen offers its own twist on pan-seared scallops, the preparation, which involved mushrooms, bacon and arugula, was OK, but comparatively unimaginative.

Sometimes, of course, ambition and imagination can muddy up great ingredients. Soft-shell crabs, for example, seldom benefit from fussy preparation, and Catch 54’s didn’t need any help to shine. They were not only fresh and sweet, but as large as any you’re likely to see, fried light and crisp, just to the point of doneness.

Lobster with pasta—large chunks of shellfish, mainly claw meat, in a rich, creamy sauce flavored with bacon, roasted garlic and tomatoes prettied up with fresh peas-—might have been the best entrée we tried.

Desserts lean toward the family restaurant side of the ledger, mostly cakes and pies. Strawberry shortcake, featuring marinated berries and sweetened sour cream over pound cake, was an example of how delicious the simple classics can be. Coconut cream pie, while tasty, was too grainy for my taste.

Sangria and a mojito

The wine list isn’t long: 20 whites and rosés, 15 reds and a handful of sparklers. Only a few exceed $40 a bottle, and most are under $30. Even better, more than 20 of them are available by the glass. Despite the modest prices, the list has its share of decent choices, such as the clean, crisp unoaked Omrah Chardonnay and a clean, melon-like Viognier. The emphasis on white is understandable. Most people are still taught that white wine is the only thing to order with fish. Still, the reds are necessary for the dishes with strong sauces—no white can stand its ground with the tomato-based seafood stew, for example—though I’d prefer to see more medium-bodied reds than the pair of Pinot Noirs found here.

For those so inclined, the bar also stocks a variety of tequilas and rums, along with a half-dozen beers on tap. The beer selection could use an upgrade. With six taps, is it really necessary to carry both Coors Light and Miller Lite? If you cater to people with no taste, you’ll only draw more people with no taste. And shouldn’t one of six beers be an American microbrew? Anyone who prefers high-quality, domestically brewed beer instead of mass-produced bellywash must rely on a few bottled selections.

Peaches and cream are served on a corn cake and topped with fresh mint

The serving staff is, as should be expected at the beach, a bit inexperienced, but many of the waiters and waitresses have transferred from the company’s other restaurants, so they know the menu well enough to describe everything accurately. It was impressive considering that we visited just days after Catch 54 opened for the season—and it showed why Matt Haley has had so much success spreading his restaurants up and down the Delaware coast.


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