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Catablu Grille
****
Out of a possible five
$$$

New look surrounds great food

The move raised an eyebrow.

Vacating the old theater on Broadway – with a setting that was the most awe-inspiring of any restaurant I have had the pleasure of dining at in northeast Indiana – and taking up shop in a vacant shopping center space that had already failed multiple times didn’t seem like a textbook move to me.

But the new digs aren’t the only thing that changed with Catablu. It is now Catablu Grille, and although it still has some of the upscale feel that made the former so enjoyable, the restaurant has made efforts to scale back and be a place you would frequent more often instead of just for special occasions.

The menu – although big, clumsy and cheesy-looking with its faux leather frame – has some of the fine-dining staples from the Broadway locale, such as lobster mac and cheese with black truffle and, of course, the famous Chop Chop salad, which, by the way, is just as good as it always was. But there are some items that I never thought I would associate with Catablu, such as chicken wings and burgers.

The setting didn’t seem right for wings, either, and in spite of having a family-friendly area, it is still very much a place for grown-ups. Many of them packed the bar, which has existed in the middle of the main dining room of the Covington Plaza eatery, formerly Spoons Bistro and most recently Vigneto. And that bar still has its half-circle ceiling canopy with various movie quotes that were painted on the drywall when it first opened. But, as Catablu Grille, the room now also features a floor-to-ceiling wine rack on the back wall with rolling ladders, more wine racks flanking the fireplace and a few small touches like some new paint and lights, butcher’s paper table coverings and some old photos scattered about.

The dish that had me the most excited was the fall spice-roasted sea bass with butternut squash, mushroom risotto and toasted pumpkin seeds. But I could not order it in good conscience when I found it was Chilean sea bass, which is overfished and not sustainable. So I opted for the macadamia-crusted salmon instead, and I did not pine for the bass long.

The thick slab of salmon was flaky and moist and had a wonderful mild flavor without a hint of fishiness. It was served over sticky rice cakes, which were crunchy and mimicked the textured of the nuts on top. The ginger-butter sauce and julienne-cut peppers lightened the dish and gave each bite a pop of freshness to counteract the hearty nuts and rice.

Equally as impressive was the 14-ounce char dry-aged rib-eye. This fatty, nicely seared steak was topped with a rich, dark orange cheddar and bacon butter that melted over it, forming the perfect sauce for the pink, juicy cut of beef. Fresh cut french fries – another thing I never associated with Catablu before – were perfectly crisp and tasty.

The sweet potato fries that accompanied the barbecue-glazed pork chop were also top-notch and were great for soaking up some of the smoky-sweet sauce. This bone-on chop was nearly 3 inches thick and juicy from top to bottom, thanks to its heavy marbling. It was so well marbled that my friend Jeff, who tried it with me, remarked, “That was a fat pig, there.”

The mahi-mahi fish tacos didn’t have any fat, but they did have an ancho honey glaze that had a sweet-like barbecue sauce. The fish was super mild and needed the sauce, however, because the black bean corn relish was scant. It was also not filling with only two tacos.

Another new addition, flatbreads, proved to be one of the great appetizers. The smoked duck with roasted mushrooms, fresh spinach and cilantro sour cream worked well with the tender duck and soft mushrooms. It needed the crunchy bread, which was more like thin-crust pizza dough and gave it some texture. Uncle Antonio’s flatbread could have doubled as nachos with the crunch of the bread being the chip for the toppings of black beans, cheddar, tomato, black olives, chiles, guacamole and sour cream.

I also could not resist seeing what Catablu could do with wings, so I sampled three varieties; buffaloque, Valenza and sweet and spicy. I thought the Valenza were going to be my favorites with their zesty balsamic vinaigrette, but a second taste of the sweet and spicy changed my mind. At first, I found these Asian, sesame seed-covered wings to be too sweet, but a slathering of spicy peanut sauce improved them tenfold. The only downside was that all the wings were messy and my cloth napkin was not up to the task.

The wings were actually a much better choice than an appetizer that seemed much more Catablu-worthy, the jumbo shrimp and crab cocktail. The shrimp were jumbo and quite meaty and delicious, but there were only four of them. The crab was sort of shredded and blended in with the sauce. Had it been in lumps, I would have been happier. The dish also had a lot of greens and other unnecessary garnishes that just got in the way and made it hard to find the already hiding crab.

I was also torn by two desserts, both of which probably belong on my list of bests. The beignets looked hip in the upside-down paper funnel they were served in. They were wonderfully crisp outside with a soft, billowy center that only a good freshly fried doughnut can have. But what made them heavenly was a dip in the thick, super rich and creamy homemade chocolate made from the finest Callebaut chocolate.

The chocolate dip was so good I was tempted to ask for a cup of it on its own, but then I tried the chocolate duo of lava cake and pot de crème. It was like someone was reading my mind. The lava cake was great. It was cakey-moist, kind of like a hot chocolate doughnut with a melted center, but the pot de crème was orgasmic. This simple little crock of custard looked timid with its light brown color, sort of like chocolate milk, but that first bite held so much rich, luscious chocolate flavor that I think I channeled Augustus Gloop from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” for a moment. If you can, order two pot de crèmes and tell them to keep the cake.

Restaurant: Catablu Grille

Address: 6370 W. Jefferson Blvd.

Phone: 456-6563

Hours: 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Cuisine: Steaks and seafood

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol served: Full bar

Credit cards accepted: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes, but more of an adult atmosphere

Menu: Shrimp and crab cocktail ($11), chicken wings ($8), duck flatbread ($11), Uncle Antonio’s flatbread ($10), macadamia-encrusted salmon ($18), rib-eye ($28), mahi-mahi tacos ($16), pork chop ($16), beignets ($7), chocolate duo ($9)

Rating breakdown: Food: 2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1 (1 maximum), service: 1 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130, or go to the “Dining Out” topic of “The Board” at www.journalgazette.net. DuVall’s past reviews can also be found at the Web site, and you can hear Ryan every Thursday from 5 to 6 p.m. on 92.3 FM, The Fort.

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