Saturday, August 6, 2016

Catal Restaurant - dinner - August 5, 2016

My husband and I and a couple of friends had a chance to visit Catal Restaurant in Downtown Disney in Anaheim for dinner.  People who know me know that Catal is one of my favorite restaurants anywhere.  My husband and I made our first visit to the restaurant in May of 2001, a few months after they opened, and we’ve been going regularly ever since.  We have introduced many friends to Catal, and many of these friends have become regulars as well, and they’ve introduced other friends to Catal.  Acquaintances and co-workers know that I’m a regular visitor to the Disneyland Resort, so I often get asked for restaurant recommendations, and Catal has been one of my most frequent places to recommend.
Because of recent personal circumstances, we hadn’t had a chance to visit since January of this year.  We normally go at least every 3 or 4 months, sometimes more often.  Because we visited often, we’d gotten to know a lot of the staff, and we’d enjoyed our visits to Catal for the amazing food, the friendly and terrific staff and the opportunity to spend time with friends.  In the time that we’ve been going, there have been many menu and personnel changes.  Over our last few visits, I started to notice changes in the menu that I wasn’t particularly pleased about.  I was hoping that in the time since our last visit, maybe the menu had been changed back to resemble more of the style that celebrated the Mediterranean cuisine that Catal is supposed to serve.  However, I’m sad to say that didn’t happen.
Many of the more interesting items that were customarily on the menu in Catal’s first 10 years have been taken off with each progressive menu adjustment, to be replaced by much more pedestrian offerings.  In the past, on our first visit after a seasonal menu change, I already knew that I had to go back 3 or 4 times to be able to try everything on the menu that I wanted to try, because so many things sounded interesting.  On our last visit in January and on this visit, though, I had a hard time deciding what to order, not because there were several things to choose from that I was interested in, but because there was nothing special on the menu that jumped out at me.  There were several flavors of paella, a couple different cuts of beef, a couple choices of fish, a chicken dish, a scallops dish and the normal salads that are staples of Catal’s menu.  Gone were the interesting entrees that included lamb or venison or duck.  They used to have an entree of baby back ribs with an amazing sweet and spicy sauce.  Gone.  They used to have a wonderful pasta dish with a terrific tomato-based sauce, and maybe one or two other pasta dishes with interesting presentations and sauces.   All gone.  There are actually no pasta entrees on the menu at all.  The only entree on the current menu that is particularly interesting is the suckling pig.  Otherwise, the beef and fish and chicken and scallops dishes are ordinary, and while they are indeed tasty entrees, they can be found on menus of most ordinary restaurants.  Catal was anything but an ordinary restaurant.  It first caught our attention not just because it was a new restaurant but because of the menu offerings.  If we were not already familiar with the restaurant, if we walked by and looked at the menu, there is nothing on the menu that would draw me to make a first visit.  If we were not already familiar with the restaurant and if we happened to have dined there, there is nothing on the menu that would compel me to return for a second visit.
One additional change that we noticed on this visit is that while Catal has always offered bread service with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, they seem to have discontinued that now.  Well, sort of.  After our appetizers had been brought out, I realized that we hadn’t gotten any bread, which is usually brought out when they bring water/drinks, often while we’re still reviewing our menus.  I asked about the bread and was told that they no longer automatically offer bread but will provide it if anyone asks.  So, they have bread available, but you have to know to ask for it.  Is it a secret?  Do you have to know the secret password to get bread?  If they had done away with the bread completely, I would have been unhappy, but at least then it’s the same for everyone.  But if you’re a first time visitor and don’t know to ask for it, then I guess no bread for you.
So, bread arrived, olive oil and balsamic vinegar in a dish arrived.  I took a slice of bread, tore off a piece, dipped it and ate it.  And something was wrong.  I couldn’t quite tell what it was at first.  I like the bread that Catal serves.  Especially on days when I’m particularly hungry, I have to make sure not to eat too much bread so as not to ruin my appetite for the actual meal.  I dipped another piece and ate it.  Yep, something was definitely wrong.  I asked my companions to try the olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  And without any further prompting from me, they came to the same conclusion I had come to - the olive oil tasted old.  It wasn’t spoiled but there was definitely something wrong with the flavor.  It seems that because they don’t offer bread and olive oil and balsamic vinegar to all patrons anymore, they don’t go through their stock as fast.  I don’t know when they stopped automatically serving it, but it was clear the olive oil had been sitting around, having its flavor changed in a bad way.  So, if you don’t know to ask for bread, you don’t get any.  If you do know to ask for bread, you get olive oil that has already started to turn.  This is really unacceptable for any restaurant, and it would have been unheard of at Catal even as recently as January of this year.
When I walked towards Catal for dinner, I noticed that the upstairs rotunda had its shades drawn and the lights were turned off.  We often sat in the rotunda for dinner, so I thought it was odd.  Was there something wrong with the restaurant?  When I asked about it, I was told that the rotunda is now no longer open if the restaurant itself isn’t busy enough.  OK.  So, the most visible part of the restaurant, the part of the restaurant that can be seen up and down Downtown Disney, no matter if you’re coming from the Disneyland side or the Downtown Disney parking side, the part of the restaurant that draws your eye to pay attention to it because it’s lit and people are in it enjoying a good meal, making you curious about what it is, making you want to investigate either for a meal that night or for a return trip in the future - is dark and closed.  It now gives the impression that whatever used to be there is now closed, so no need to pay any attention to it anymore.  It seems like a terrible business decision to project that kind of image.  It sure seems from the architecture of that rotunda that it’s designed to catch your attention, but now, it looks like an abandoned section of a building.
The meal itself was fine.  I had the scallops and enjoyed it, but it wasn’t something that I raved about to my friends, posting pictures on social media and making my friends envious of what I was having and having them express the desire to come to the restaurant to enjoy the dish at a later time, something that’s happened multiple times in the past as the result of a dinner at Catal.  Our party still had a nice evening.  Among the staff, we saw some familiar faces and many new faces, but everyone was still friendly and helpful.  That hasn’t changed.  Based on the menu offerings, it seems Catal is now a place they hope you’ll choose to eat at if you’re already at Downtown Disney and deciding among the various restaurants there.  Catal used to be a destination spot, a place you specifically planned to visit because of the amazing items on the menu, because of the multiple amazing items on the menu.  Catal was a place that you talked to your friends about, that you made plans to visit with friends who hadn’t been there before but wanted to experience this great place you keep raving about.  Catal had a terrific balance on its menus, with some really interesting items you don’t find on every restaurant menu but with enough “safe” items that anyone could eat there, and then people who were more comfortable with dishes they were familiar with could try the entree that someone else might have ordered that they’d never tried before.  “That steak looks great, but would you like to try a piece of my lamb?”  “That fish looks terrific but would you like to try a piece of my duck?”  “That spaghettini looks terrific.  May I have a taste?  Oh, I want to come back next time and order that.”  Dining at Catal was an experience all around, not *just* a meal.  I’m hoping that whomever is in charge now will come to realize that and with some menu tweaks and some operational changes, it can be that way again, and I can again recommend Catal as a dining destination.

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