There’s no law against plucking a food from its roots and serving it to people who didn’t grow up eating it. Yes, that’s how you get gas station sushi, but it’s also how you get taco trucks, and if you deny the worth of those, you don’t have any business pretending to enjoy food.
And so it goes with Grand Catch, the new St. Paul seafood boil restaurant. The natural home of a crab, or crawfish, or shrimp boil is America’s Gulf or southeastern coast, being dumped out of a huge pot or barrel onto a picnic table and joyously picked apart by friends and family. Although the occasional crawfish may turn up around here, fried smelt seem to be the true, if highly seasonal, local equivalent: unpretentious, simple, communal, and unstoppably festive. See also: booya, or (for the closest regional analogue) the Door County fish boil.
Grand Catch recently opened on Grand Avenue and tries to embody both the downscale festival angle of a boil and the seafood-as-luxury angle, with some success. The food is shared, it’s messy, and it’s celebratory. And it’s presented in a thoroughly stylish modern setting, with thoroughly upscale prices—probably just about right for Macalester faculty members and visiting parents.
We tried a variety of seafood to get a feel for how the restaurant’s somewhat cryptic two-menu system worked. Grand Catch’s cute little protein menu gives you the cost of several seafoods (mostly by the pound) and you then consult your large menu to figure out how to dress them, picking a sauce and selecting a heat level.
The non-intuitive menu setup leads to a pretty difficult question: How much should you order? Our waiter goaded us toward six pounds of seafood for four people, but we cautiously ordered four; three would’ve actually been fine, once you factor in appetizers. Use your own judgment and appetite as a guide, but hold the line and don’t panic.
We got head-on shrimp (with medium-hot “awesome” sauce, $18 a pound), mussels (with hot isaan sauce, $17 a pound), snow crab (with mild garlic butter, $17 a cluster), and crawfish (with medium Louisiana sauce, probably the closest approximation to a classic Low Country boil, $14 a pound). In every case the seafood itself ranged from “satisfactory” to “pretty good.” Nothing had that peak firm sweetness that makes great seafood so compelling, but neither was there anything wrong with the product or preparation, other than a single gritty mussel.
And while Grand Catch sells itself as a boil restaurant, and a boil is typically a mix of seafood and a lot of other (far less expensive) bonus stuff to sop up the Old Bay spice and miscellaneous liquids, the plates we saw and tasted were nearly 100 percent seafood, which is to say big old mounds of crawfish, or crab legs, or shrimp.
That scarcity of “filler” ingredients—sausage, potatoes, corn—would suggest a better experience than a traditional boil, since you’re gorging on a plate of pretty close to nothing but seafood. But the real strength of Grand Catch is its sauces, which are deeply spiced, well-balanced, and strong without being acrid or smothering. Not only are they cunningly crafted, they’re complementary—if you happen to take a bite of hot Isaan followed by a taste of mellow garlic butter, nothing clashes.
To that point, having more than just one potato and one half ear of corn per plate to drag through that consistently tasty sauce would actually make for a considerably more varied and enjoyable meal, seafood be damned. And if it brought the per-pound price point down a bit while preserving (or improving) the restaurant’s margins, that wouldn’t be a bad thing, either. (The menu does offer a single extra potato or half ear of corn for $3, but that’s not a fix, that’s adding economic insult to injury.)
Flavor and value prospect aside, the key thing about Grand Catch and its boils may well be this: It’s an Experience. You’ve got bibs. You’ve got gloves. You’ve got crackers. And you’ve got a mission: Disassemble as many giant sea bugs as you wish using a combination of manual dexterity, specialized tools, and animal cunning. If you’re a fan of classic horror movies, you’re in for a visual treat: stuff is squirting around, legs are coming off—it’s essentially just total carnage everywhere. It’s ideal for a group of buddies out to pound some drinks and unwind, and also for a first date, if you want to learn a lot about your new friend’s comfort level with messy, overwhelming situations. There aren’t too many places in town where you can do this, and to do it in such stylish surroundings is an incongruous pleasure.
The complexity of the boils notwithstanding, there’s some really good stuff on the menu. We thought the Shrimp Toast ($9) was stellar—thick, crunchy, beautifully browned toast stuffed with shrimp paste and drizzled with remoulade. And the Fried Green Tomatoes ($9) were elegant versions of a dish that can get clunky and bready. The tomatoes were sliced thinly, delicately breaded, and sauced with a delicious creamy hot sauce that complemented the rest of the dish. The Cajun Fries ($6) were equally good—they’re battered and double fried so as to be excruciatingly crunchy and exceedingly difficult to stop eating.
The lunchier entrees were also a hit. We tried two of the four sandwiches on offer, and while they’re not cheap, they happen to be perfectly balanced and delicious. The Crispy Fried Chicken ($9.50) is indeed profoundly crispy, and the carby-ness of the bun and chicken breading offset by a creamy sauce and the tang of sliced pickles. There’s nothing new here, and that’s fine—this is a delicious sandwich, and that’s all we’re asking for most afternoons. The Cold Shrimp Roll ($14) is more complicated. It’s a play on a lobster roll: a handful of cold shrimp presented on nicely toasted split hot dog rolls basted with intensely but interestingly spicy Isaan sauce and a light coating of lime mayo. Whether this glorified snack rises to the price point is a personal decision, but there’s no getting around the fact that this is a light, refreshing, flavor bomb of a dish.
The sandwich menu is a nice offset to the boil concept, but not a cure for it—it ultimately feels like a welcome but insufficient callback to the kind of global soul food that makes the Wadis’ World Street Kitchen such a killer spot on Lyndale Avenue. Which makes us wonder: Why wasn’t this prime Grand Avenue space turned into a second World Street Kitchen and Milkjam combo?
It’s hard to fault the ambition or creativity of Grand Catch—it’s one of the most original restaurants to surface in Minnesota in years, and the place clearly knows how to have a good time. A little tuning of the concept—and a few more potatoes—may turn this spot into a Grand Avenue mainstay, regardless of the distance between St. Paul and the Gulf of Mexico.
What: Grand Catch
Where: 1672 Grand Ave., St Paul, MN 55105
Hours: Sunday–Thursday, 11am–10pm; Friday–Saturday, 11am–11pm