A Taste of Iberia
Tapas steal the show at Catas.
By Andy Clurfeld
Photography by Daryl Stone
The bar at Catas has more curves than Marilyn Monroe. Judging by the way a thick crowd (ratio: eight guys to one gal) is packing that bar, you’d think Marilyn was back and doing a horizontal crawl from one end to the other. It’s so dense, in fact, I can’t see the mosaics that have made the bar almost as famous as the bombshell I’m suspecting is keeping these imbibers glued to an undulating form.
We’re here at this modern Iberian in the Ironbound for dinner, not drinks, so we make our way to the relatively intimate dining space at the rear of the restaurant opened in 2011 by Ruben Dominguez. There are myriad spaces here at Catas, each with its own personality. You can spend hours looking at the art, the furniture, the rooms and spaces that seem curiously foreign. You may well have time on your hands to do so because service here is on the snooze-button side of slow.
There’s good reason for the snail’s pace the night of our visit: Those throngs at the bar are part of a party saluting the retirement of a local officer. It’s a gang’s-all-here fete and it’s clear it will go on through the evening, moving outside to an alfresco setting where food will be served. The merriment is contagious; we watch as stories are told and backs slapped in memory of shared times.
We know we’re here to share the kinds of tapas that have made Catas an instant favorite for revelers. The contemporary takes on classic Spanish and Portuguese small plates work with the cocktails, beers and wines the Catas crowd likes to tap into—particularly late at night or during a soccer game. Catas stays open till 2 a.m. Sundays through Thursdays and till 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. The late-goers are hungry and thirsty, we’re told.
If you snag the chipirones a la plancha, you will be hungry for it for years to come. Lightly charred squid gets a lift from emulsified lemon juice pocked with snippets of chive, a one-two punch of acid and allium that helps to tenderize the meat of the mollusk and give it an herbaceous kick. I loved this trio of tastes: smoke, citrus and onion. The shrimp wrapped in filo dough and dubbed a samosa was spliced with slivers of garlic and shallots before being plated with a dollop of pimenton-infused allioli. That garlicky mayo not only looked sunset-color chic thanks to the musky Spanish paprika, but tasted ready to do-si-do with all manner of ingredients. Sure, the shrimp and pastry lapped it up, but I’m thinking of it to slather on a turkey sandwich, to bind a tuna or egg salad, or to use as the base for a crudité dip. Good stuff.
So is the queso frito, here a log of manchego that’s fried and served with slices of tart Granny Smith apple. What a great combo, that salty cheese and that crisp, juicy apple. I also learned from the little pork-and-beef meatballs known as albondigas that a spoonful of sugar in the accompanying tomato sauce isn’t the flavor crutch it too often is, but rather a way to ensure depth of flavor that the pork and beef demand.
A totally different take on the seafood-pimenton partnership came in a hot tapas of sliced octopus tossed with fingerling potatoes and given a dash or three of the smoky paprika. A little olive oil, and the dish is done. Here, the dense meat of the mollusk and the opaque potato were penetrated ever so slightly by the spice. Nice. My personal favorite tapas also starred potatoes: The patatas mimosas partnered thick slices of spud with thin slices of onion and scallions, all of which were drizzled with a riveting jamon cream sauce that must’ve spent a week in reduction. With a poached egg on top ready to be poked and bleed gold, this cunning “mimosa” defines crazy good.
The entrées were a notch less interesting and also less technically precise. While the skirt steak in the steak-and-eggs combo was properly cooked, the fried eggs were rubbery and unseasoned. French fries on the side? Meh. Arugula with nothing to complement? Snore. Octopus that was well handled in tapas form is tough in the main dish, though I loved the sideshow of chickpeas and wilted spinach, especially when given a dunk in the tapenade of salty olives balanced by a smack of honey. The pan-seared chicken is unevenly cooked and in need of more than just a scant (miserly might be a better descriptive) drizzle of pan juices. Serrano-flecked rice, charred cherry tomatoes and jalapenos are good-looking sides, but the dish lacked unity.
Dessert is a bit of an afterthought here. Churros are very basic, fried dough served with hot chocolate. Doughy in a bland way, with ho-hum chocolate. An apple tart with toffee sauce and vanilla ice cream made me appreciate even more the skills of the savory chef(s) turning out the engaging tapas.
Next time, tapas, and tapas alone.
And next time, I want to go at an off-hour and have the spaces at Catas all to myself so I can take a self-guided tour of this restaurant’s singular aesthetics. The word Catas, for instance, is written in a kind of graffiti-graphic type, the letters “CA” and “AS” curving in and under the tower-like T. It’s stylish and a statement: Catas wants to be different, and is.
538 Market St., Newark • (973) 491-5400
Major credit cards accepted. Reservations accepted. Open Sunday through Thursday from noon to 2 a.m. and Friday and Saturday from noon to 3 a,m. Prices: Charcuterie and cheeses, $18 to $21. Cold appetizers and salads, $8 to $13. Hot appetizers, $12 to $19. Tapas, $6 to $10. Entrees, $20 to $35. Sides, $6. Desserts, $5 to $10. On-street parking (a competitive sport in this neighborhood).