So you have this very high-end chef, William Kovel, running a fancy hotel dining room, Aujourd'hui at the Four Seasons. The recession closes the restaurant out from under him, and by some combination of whim and fate he opens his own place, Catalyst, in the developing geek-town, gastro-pub/locavore hotbed of Cambridge east of Inman Square.
CHICKS, DIG IT The spiced chickpea fritter — falafel served on a deconstructed carrot-raisin salad with shredded chard — was a favorite.
Portions are small. Prices are serious. You have to ask what half the dishes on the menu are, and then look them up on the Internet and find out what you ate. How do these elements combine? If it were a question of literal chemistry, you would need a catalyst — an element that promotes a reaction. But since it is a metaphorical question (molecular gastronomy is fortunately not part of the picture), the answer is that the different aspects of this restaurant combine uncertainly. There are moments of wonder at a perfect cocktail or an irresistible pasta. There are also duds and flops.
The room — an echoic duplex space in a bland modern building — is not what I would pick to showcase cuisine. The address of the building is Technology Square, which is actually a street and not a square, but the entrance to the restaurant is on Main Street. Fake fireplaces in restaurants are so 2009, but Catalyst has the longest, prettiest gas flame ever to promote global climate change among platters of sustainable food — like our first what-is-it, an appetizer of "seared spice-crusted hiramasa" ($11). The server knows that hiramasa is a kind of white fish. Back home on the Internet, I learn from the excellent Web site Sustainable Sushi that hiramasa is yellow-tail amberjack farmed in Australia. On the plate, one pushes around a heap of micro-greens and shaved radish and cucumber and such, to get to slices of a tataki made from pleasantly plain, light-colored slices of fish. I know what a "crispy quail" ($15) is, although I don't know why this one is half the usual tiny size and twice the flavor. A big advantage over the hiramasa is that the fairly crisp quail is served on top of mizuna, with black figs and a bit of sweet-sour sauce.
The bread at Catalyst is fabulous — moist and crusty and full of yeast and wheat flavors in a Tuscan style — and butter mixed with sea salt makes it even more so. And nothing misses in Jerusalem artichoke soup ($9), gourmet baby food from the first spoonful.
Pastas are available in half orders that make heartier appetizers. The "chicken oysters" served with garganelli ($10) needn't wait for the Internet — they are those nuggets of dark meat nestled into the pelvis of the chicken, so they actually taste like chicken. The ziti-shaped pasta comes in a comforting cream sauce with small dice of smoked bacon that doesn't dominate the sauce but garnishes it. Even better is "Georgia candy roaster" (an heirloom squash) tortellini ($10/half order; $19/full) with thin pasta and plenty of sautéed escarole to cut the cream sauce.