Speaking as someone who was pretty much raised by television, I enjoy a good spinoff as much as any other over-stimulated, glassy-eyed child of the ’80s. Some shows were prolific in their spinoffs — Happy Days is rivaled only by the Octomom in terms of fertility. Much like TV shows, when a restaurateur or a chef decides to spin off, sometimes it’s the product of an idea that is too great to be contained in the original concept, like Laverne & Shirley. And sometimes it’s a case of a chef trying to capitalize on his or her own celebrity — like Joanie Loves Chachi.
One interesting case study in restaurant spinoffs is the twinset of Lili’s Bistro (1310 W. Magnolia Ave.) and Cat City Grill (1208 W. Magnolia Ave.). Lili’s chef/owner Vance Martin is the common thread between the two. He and culinary super-friend Martin Thompson opened Cat City in 2010.
You could say that Lili’s is the Happy Days of Magnolia. It’s fair to say that Lili’s arrival is what vaulted the Southside thoroughfare into a bona fide restaurant row, since many others followed in its footsteps.
Though I’ve been to Lili’s many times before, I’d never dined in the newish bar area, where the pianist set a relaxing mood.
Vance Martin either has an insatiable lust for gorgonzola cheese or he’s knocked off a truck carrying the stuff, because it figures prominently on his menu. My guest and I, perhaps out of obligation, started off with the gorgonzola waffle fries ($10). I thought the avalanche of cheese was too much, but my friend devoured them. The house nachos ($10) were also covered in rich gorgonzola, and the house-made chips were a nice touch.
The entrées on the eclectic menu range from Asian-inspired to Mediterranean to Southern comfort food. The Tina’s shrimp and lobster ($25) — two prawns glazed in well-seasoned Thai sauce and tempura-fried lobster bites on a bed of soba noodles, with a wasabi-avocado cream sauce — was an interesting dish with layers of complex flavors. The green chili pork loin ($22), topped with gravy and tomatillo sauce, was more comforting than challenging, but good nonetheless.
The Lili’s standard is a lot to live up to. But Thompson, who experienced his own share of past success as head chef at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, is the perfect star for the newer show.
On a recent cold weekend evening, a guest and I ducked into the warm and friendly Cat City for a pre-movie dinner. The place has a mellow vibe and a cool storefront reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s famous “Nighthawks” painting, but with a lot more people.
We started with offerings from the considerable appetizer menu. The tempura-fried lobster bites ($12), the same ones from the seafood plate at Lili’s, served with a tangy remoulade, were bland and disappointing. The mushroom caps stuffed with chorizo and blue cheese and topped with a red bell pepper sauce ($9), more than made up for the flavorless crustaceans. The blue cheese and spicy sausage mellowed each other out, creating a bold, balanced, and delicious flavor.
The star of the night, however, was the entrée of osso buco ($24), a slow-roasted veal shank in a garlic, herb, tomato, and onion sauce. The tender, stew-like dish provided the perfect antidote to the night’s chill. Cat City, like Lili’s, has a sizable selection of seafood on its dinner menu, and we were drawn to the sesame seed salmon ($20). The plum and sesame glaze on the fish didn’t have the spice of the Thai glaze on the shrimp, but the composition was similar. Unlike the shrimp, the salmon lacked flavor.
Cat City has all the makings of a good spinoff, and for the most part it achieves the quality of its parent restaurant. Like most spinoffs, it keeps some of what made the original place great. Not all dishes in a restaurant (the lobster bites) or characters in a television show (Joanie and Chachi) deserve starring roles. But with dishes like the osso buco, Cat City should be experiencing many happy days ahead.
Editor’s note: Vance Martin sold his share of Cat City Grill. Martin Thompson is the sole owner.
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