Restaurant Reviews

No Catches, Just Fish

South Floridians will do almost anything, forgive almost anything, to eat on the water. They'll suffer through mildew, service more inept than the Scott Peterson prosecution, and food no better than Denny's to gaze in rapture at the Intracoastal Waterway or the ocean.

Boynton Beach's Prime Catch, the four-month-old venture of Restaurant Holdings (which also owns Boynton's Banana Boat and Delray Beach's Fifth Avenue Grill), won't make you suffer too much. Hard by the Intracoastal, it's tucked in under the west side of the Woolbright Road bridge. A big buster of a building with royal-blue awnings, matching roof, and white exterior that echoes the Keys, the two-story restaurant rises prettily at the end of a shopping center parking lot often filled with large American cars.

Walk up a short boardwalk past the complimentary valet parking stand and enter through the double front doors and you'll quickly see that this place means business. As in high-volume dining. Lines on Sunday. Mother's Day brunches. Busy happy hours with complimentary hors d'oeuvres. Early Birds crammed with a clientele who would sooner get caught stealing the napkins than pay a 15 percent tip.

The foyer is larger than the dining room of some restaurants. Everything looks new, is new, as if protected by laminate. There's a "yar" brightly painted replica of a sailboat up on the wall and lots of other nautical touches. The bathrooms sparkle. The windows sparkle. The brass doesn't sparkle -- it gleams.

It's all so perfect and so suitable to the expectations of the happy diners that you might have an urge to bolt -- if you're that type. As you notice the pocket-sized, free-for-guests Prime Catch notepads in a dish near the hostess stand, Prickly Old You might feel that your critical faculties are being dulled by the corporate expertise (in part courtesy of Manager Adam Huggins) that often ensures the success of Palm Beach County restaurants.

You begin to feel that the beautiful smile and warm "Hello!" with which the hostess greets you is exactly the same combo with which she greets everyone who walks through the front door. You begin to regard the bar crowd and other patrons as marketing "units," with easily accommodated comfort-food tastes. You begin to feel helpless as you realize that the huge restaurant -- with a yet-to-open second floor private/wine room seating 100, outdoor patios, indoor dining areas, boat docks, and rooms off rooms -- is already a smashing success.

Even without your say-so.

Well, recognize that you are a snotty, ungrateful wretch and then get over the fact that you're not at some gray-shingled Cape Cod crab shack watching your own personal filet being hauled off the boat. Prime Catch doesn't have the intimacy of a mom-and-pop fish house, and its charm can be considered derivative and prefabricated. But dig a little deeper and show some patience and you'll be glad you made the drive, thanks to both deft, considerate service and a kitchen that knows how to prepare fresh fish with imagination.

Though the indoor seats have a decent view, it's the patio and outdoor deck where you'll get the real on-the-water kick the management has paid so much to provide. Reservations are suggested for the tables directly along the railing overlooking the Intracoastal -- they're harder to get than a substantive answer in a presidential debate, especially during the Early Bird hours or from 8 to 10 p.m.

Sit down at your (rather noisy) glass-top table and your server will arrive sooner than you can comment on the pretty but uninspired view of an inauspicious part of the Intracoastal. Our server, a well-trained young man studying to be a paramedic, brought a wine list, heavy on merlots, cabernets, Bordeaux, and chardonnays. Wines by the glass start at $4.50 and go up to $12 for a Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, famous for its "cat pee" aroma. We ordered a Ravenswood Zinfandel 2002 for $25 and were pleased we did.

As you look at the dinner menu (refreshingly different from the lunch version), you begin to believe your server when he tells you that the fish -- including halibut but excluding all-too-common tilapia -- really is fresh daily and filleted on the premises.

Among the 12 appetizers ($6.95 to $12.95), 11 are from the deep blue. The ten signature fish offer enough choice to please the most persnickety diner; everything from yellowtail snapper to Chilean sea bass can be grilled, broiled, sautéed, or fried. Then there are 12 other seafood main dishes ($14.95 for a bouillabaisse to $29.95 for Tristan lobster tails, caught off South Africa and processed on the boat for maximum freshness.) A special lobster menu rounds out the options, including such early-bird specials as 114-pound Maine lobster for $17.95 to a three-pound Maine job for $47.95.

All this variety is further proof that Americans' appetite for fish is increasing yearly -- 16.3 pounds of seafood per person per year, according to industry statistics. (Don't feel too proud. By contrast, Europeans average 37.4 pounds.) And it's easy to feel, after looking at the portions of your appetizers, that you could eat at least half of your annual quota in one meal here. Our cornmeal-crusted oysters ($11.95) arrived as a quartet of plump and tender mollusks lightly dusted with a crust that could have used a little more seasoning; they were delicious despite this drawback but not as tasty as the pan-seared prawns ($9.95), jumbos drizzled with a cilantro oil that added a zesty, Southwest flavor. Alternate a bit of prawn with a bite of the warm yeast rolls that come with a slab of fresh butter.

The main dishes courtesy of Chef Joe Calandro's kitchen come with a choice of soup or house salad (caesar or Stilton can be substituted for an extra $1.95) and a choice of potato -- there's parmesan pavé (a more fattening version of the scalloped pomme de terre with whipping cream and parmesan cheese), French fries, chived mashed potatoes -- or rice. All this attention to starch attested to the fact that fish was not Prime Catch's only draw -- or the main staple of the diners' diets.

My companions and I threw environmental conscience to the wind and exposed ourselves for the heartless gluttons we are. My companion knew that Chilean sea bass is threatened with extinction due to over-fishing. Did she care -- especially after she saw that it was topped with pecan crab relish and beurre blanc sauce ($21.95)? As people used to say in the '60s, get real. She salved her conscience by referring to the sea bass as Patagonian tooth fish (its other name) and waited for it to arrive with fork poised. Was it worth the lack of political will, let alone the 15-minute wait? The answer lay in the first bite of the well-grilled, flaky, warm, tender fish, whose rich, full flavor was well-complemented by the delicate relish and sauce.

The stuffed sole ($17.95) was our other choice. The Pat Nixon of fish, sole can be easily dismissed because its flavor is so mild that, unless accompanied by an especially skillful sauce, its delicacy is lost. This version cane appropriately flaky, medium-firm, and resting on top of some juicy, tender shrimp. It was accompanied by a medley of expertly steamed green beans and carrots, but the Creole seasoning and sauce piquante did not have enough zest, and the stuffing ended up with the taste of mattress ticking.

The ample portions of the entrées will not put anyone in the mood for dessert ($4.95 to $5.95) -- except, that is, two of our amply proportioned neighbors, who devoured their orders of bread pudding and apple pecan cobbler as though they had not already vacuumed up their huge fisherman's platter and snapper grenobloise.

Instead of increasing our waistlines with more food, we preferred to pay our reasonable bill and head to the bar. There, we sipped two glasses of rewarding Fonseca Tawny Port ($14) and watched two single-malt scotch drinkers practice giving "air" intravenous injections for their upcoming paramedic exam. That quirky, engaging end to the nicely delivered evening made the Prime Catch experience memorable -- and worth repeating.