Small Wonder

Catalina’s has atmosphere to spare—and tasty fare.

THE SCENE: After driving 20 minutes through a soaking rain, arriving in Catalina’s dry vestibule, with its soothing dark woods and low lighting, was a relief. The half-full dining room was aglow with patrons sharing cheerful clinks and applause for the evening’s live entertainment, local singer/songwriter Jim Nelsen.

Glass-topped tables dressed in crisp white brightened the mostly mocha-hued interior, as did the orange-, red- and ochre-striped seat cushions and throw pillows in the repurposed church pews. The bright splashes of summer and fall colors felt whimsical next to the chic, raw-silk drapery. Mix-and-match antique chandeliers and period furnishings (many for sale) lent a romantic, yet not overly feminine, flair.
Tucked into either side of the restaurant’s windows are two alcoves, their hideaway feel punctuated by intimate seating perfect for couples wishing to escape into their own little world after a long week. Even tables along the perimeter of the main dining room afford a bit of privacy with the help of crimson-colored drapes (pictured below).

During the day, waves of shoppers flit about, popping into the café for sustenance. Then it’s back up to the Queen and the Princess co-op boutiques located above the restaurant—both owned by chef Jon Hallowell’s mother, Catalina.

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THE FOOD: A graduate of the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College, Hallowell is trained in classical French cooking. He’s also the grandson of Majorca-born Juan Balaguer, executive chef of the original Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Broad and Walnut streets for 30 years. Hallowell has diverse culinary influences. An apprenticeship in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, and a six-year run as chef/owner of Frazer’s Mixmaster Café preceded the opening of Catalina’s, which is now in its second year. (Fans of Malvern’s Nesting Feathers will likely remember the transition from Peacock Café to Catalina’s last April.)

Hallowell refers to Catalina’s offerings as Mediterranean American, but my take was more continental American, with heavy sauces and fairly traditional combinations.

Right away Hallowell got our attention with an attractive plate of three plump scallops paired with a roasted corn salsa timbale and a smoky chipotle crème fraîche. The dry-packed U-10 divers were huge and beefy, with a lightly charred, smoky flavor—the ocean’s version of filet mignon. We also loved the presentation of Hallowell’s garlic shrimp, which arrived awash in minced garlic, parsley and red chili peppers in a petite, covered clay dish. Biting into the shrimp’s flesh delivered a sweet pop, and the chili peppers added a bit of a kick to the luscious, garlicky butter bath.

The cracked pepper calamari, flash-fried and tossed with cherry peppers, was served with a ranch aioli that came off as more tartar than ranch. The squid were notably tender, not dry and rubbery like some unfortunate versions, with some tentacle morsels thrown in. The crunchy, zesty cracked pepper coating didn’t weigh down the rings, but I still prefer a light dredging over anything resembling batter-fried.

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A simple salad of baby spinach, feta, roasted peppers, Kalamata olives and artichoke hearts tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette may not have warranted a $10 price tag (maybe with grilled artichokes, but not canned), but the combination was refreshing. And there was a pleasant roundness to the dressing—a sign of premium, aged balsamic vinegar.

Conservative carnivores will surely be tempted by the roasted filet mignon, a tender 8-ounce cut of Black Angus beef topped with béarnaise sauce and stuffed with Gorgonzola cheese and crabmeat for an extra four bucks. The filet ordered by one of my fellow tasters was cooked perfectly to her specifications—although, in hindsight, opting for medium-well over medium may not have been her finest culinary decision.

Stuffed with a creamy mix of Gorgonzola and crabmeat, and dressed in a dubious looking—and tasting—béarnaise (more fresh herb flavor than dried tarragon, the color more spring green than yellow), the meat was a bit overshadowed. Serving the sauce on the side would make all the difference, as would ordering the filet medium-rare.

Pan-seared then roasted, with a rose-colored center, the Australian lamb—in half- or full-rack portions—afforded plenty of succulent mouthfuls, though I shied away from the caramelized shallot demi-glace, which was a little too overpowering for the meat’s mild flavor. Elsewhere, a simple pan-roasted salmon filet suffocated under a blanket of too-sweet barbecue sauce.

After this hefty round of entrées, dessert seemed like an insane idea, but the tiramisu beckoned. Made out-of-house and a far cry from the traditional ladyfinger version, it was dense and ice cold, numbing any hint of espresso or Marsala wine.

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THE EXPERIENCE: When led to a table just 10 feet away from the stage, our initial reaction was one of trepidation. But as we settled in, and Nelsen’s voice filled the petite dining room, our worries dissipated along with the decibel level. The warm woods, cushioned church pews and floor-length drapes mellowed the sound as it washed across the space.

Our waiter was highly attentive, seating us immediately and wasting no time opening the wine (though a bucket never appeared, and we were drinking white). The turnaround was a little quick between the second round of starters and our entrées, but no one felt rushed. In fact, we probably could’ve opened another bottle of wine and lingered while the staff finished closing up shop. If we’d had another, we would’ve, as the space is wonderfully relaxing. Tucked away in one of the more private alcoves, diners can easily tick away a couple of hours.

Pricing seemed high for some dishes, reasonable for others. Overall, it was consistent with today’s escalating food costs and generally higher BYO prices. The church pews add a unique charm to Catalina’s, as does its elfin size—like you’re dining in a friend’s home.

THE SKINNY: Catalina’s captures the quaint charm Malvern is known for, with an intimate setting and solid, straightforward cooking. Our visit was void of any of the “Mediterranean-inspired cuisine” touted in the restaurant’s press release. But we left feeling pleasantly plump and high on the thrill of finding a great new spot.

Catalina’s must be terrific for private parties, and the shopping-lunching combo is a great afternoon out. The fact that it’s open three nights a week is another great marketing ploy. Diners feel like they’re getting something special, with the added benefit of knowing the chef isn’t burned out. We would’ve loved it if Hallowell and sous chef Joe Greco (pictured above, from left) had popped out to work the dining room. Bottom line: Dining at Catalina’s feels a little out of the ordinary and exclusive in a fun way.

Even so, I longed for more ambitious pairings on the entrées, which didn’t impress as much as the appetizers did. Though the Catalina’s website talks up his Spanish influences, Hallowell’s Majorcan roots play second fiddle to more traditional French- and American-influenced creations. Only later did we find out that guests can order Hallowell’s signature dish, paella Valenciana, when they make their reservation. Both the paella and Wednesday nights will be added in the fall.

But right now, it’s disappointing that Hallowell’s only nods to Spain are the chicken empanada and garlic shrimp appetizers. Envisioning all the lip-smacking sides we might’ve been sampling, instead of the standard-issue roasted potatoes and snap peas, has awoken a serious craving for a taste of Majorca. Don’t be shy, Jon. Show us your stuff.

Location: 218 E. King Street, Malvern; (610) 408-0245,
Cuisine: New American with hints of Spanish, French and Italian
Price: Entrées $21-$36
Attire: Casual
Atmosphere: Relaxing, quaint antique-shop vibe with funky furnishings and friendly service
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Extras: Thursday early specials (5-6:30 p.m.); BYO; full-service catering; group dining; live music; high-tea menu; Ladies’ Night Thursday, featuring a four-course, fixed-price meal ($28 per person); pickup and delivery.

Our Best of the Main Line & Western Suburbs Party is July 25!