Like most new restaurants in burgeoning Kendall Square, Catalyst defines its look with minimalist and modern. The space dazzles with a myriad of materials and textures: high ceilings with floor-to-ceiling windows, exposed piping, staggered raw wood beams and clean white tile, accented with an occasional plant. The check-all-the-boxes treatment continues with an inviting couch and fireplace area, a long bar with high top chairs, dining by the windows, dining by the open kitchen and dining in an isolated function room. On the menu, another key checkbox get checked: the requisite high end burger.
I visited Catalyst with two burger loving friends for a Sunday brunch (no, not the complimentary brunch some bloggers enjoy). This visit took place nearly a year to the day after I read a review of Catalyst's burger on Boston Burger Blog (a fantastic burger resource; see link below). Although he gave them a measly score of 61, I hoped for better, figuring a) I'd have a higher tolerance for brioche, and b) his burned serving must have been an abberration.
Another in a long line of what I call "brown bag brioche," this had the basic look of a brioche, the basic sweetness of brioche (though restrained), but a lot less shiny and a lot more dense. The insides were buttered and grilled, adding more sweetness from the butter that seemed to be spiked. But back to the density: it was partly that but more the overall volume of the bun that overtook this burger with just too much bread. So much for tolerance.
I hoped the cooking would be problem free. Guess what: it turned out to be perfect, at least donenesswise. They nailed the requested medium rare without compromising the crusty exterior I like, and the juices ran free upon both cut and bite. There was no doubt that this burger (around 8 ounces) was grilled, not griddled. Unlike many within that genre, the grill flavor accented the burger nicely without trying to steal the show.
Sounds great so far, right? Unfortunately, aside from the grill flavor (again, not that it overstepped its bounds), this patty had nothing going on. Minimal if any seasoning. Less than minimal flavor. Given its pricetag ($15) and its progeny (chef William Kovel, previously of formerly of Aujourd’hui), the blend oughtta be a little more sophisticated than what you'd get at your local outpost of a chain restaurant. The trappings (the restaurant interior, the white rectangular plate, the brioche bun, the fries served in a tin cylinder, all straight out of restaurant central casting) might be, but the meat itself was merely average. No worse, mind you, but no better.
This was one huge stack of a burger, thanks to the thicker-than-needed bun and the multilayered arrangement of greenery. It made for a great visual, but the lettuce took over as much as the bun. The bacon was adequate, proving to be neither problem nor plus. Roasted tomatoes, onions, pickles and Cheddar all got lost in the chaos—if I hadn't made it a point to check, I'd never even know they were there.
As for condiments, I did really like that there's a trio of stainless steel cups filled with house-made ketchup, mustard and mayo. The ketchup reminded me of a homier, spicier version of Contadina tomato paste. The loose, whole grain mustard was saucy, tangy and very enjoyable.
The Fries (and such)
Easily the highlight of the burger ensemble, these were thin, extra crisp shoestrings that may have been double-fried before being sufficiently salted.
Chicken wings: Listed on the bar menu but available throughout the restaurant, these wings arrived in a crock typically used for soup or chili. You get about 10 of them, but they're so tiny, even Swanson would be embarrassed to serve them in their TV dinners. The silver lining is that they're all very crisp, even the ones at the bottom. The second black cloud is that they're all very dry, even the ones at the bottom. They all could use a little more of the sauce (when was the last time you ever heard me say that?) that combines maple and chile flakes in what could be an effective heat/sweet tandem. Too small and too dry (inside and out) is a bad combination. Oh, that reminds me: the hearty blue cheese dip would have been fantastic pairing with a classic Biuffalo wing, but was a mismatch for this style.
Pork belly hash: Served in a mini cast iron skillet (more central casting), this dish might be a misnomer, because the potatoes (mucho) and pork belly (poco) were barely integrated. The former were halved mini potatoes well crisped and well lubricated in glorious pork fat. The latter were hard to find. Something else was in there giving it a hint of sweetness, but the ever present porkiness was what turned simple potatoes into something special. More pork belly—at least more than the few bacos-sized scraps—would have made them even more special.
Service was weird. A male server got things started with a demonstrative pouring of designer bottled water. A little later, a female server took our order and eventually brought us our first course (wings, hash). Although neither made any sort of waiterly introduction, we assumed that the female was our server and the male was a runner. The male wound up bringing us our burgers and the female was never seen (not even at other tables) after that. Neither brought us our check until we had to ask a third server to intervene after about a 20 minute wait. After the male server found out that we wanted our check, we watched him bus an entire booth before delivering the check to our table.
The Bottom Line
The space may be stunning and the chef may have cache, but in an era when high end restaurants are creating landmark burgers, Catalyst's offering is painfully ordinary. Too much bread, too much lettuce, too little flavor. The sad part is that this one mostly suceeded in execution but failed in design.
Other Opinion/ Info
Boston Burger Blog review of Catalyst
Yelp reviews of Catalyst
Urbanspoon reviews of Catalyst
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