Arts restaurant review

Eating at Catalyst Restaurant

Fine dining but not that fine but still pretty fine

9702 octopi
The Octopus special from Catalyst is adorned with colorful vegetables.
Anirudh Rahul

Contemporary French/American, $$$
300 Technology Square 
Cambridge, MA 02139
Tuesday–Thursday 11 AM–2:30 p.m., 5–9 p.m.
Friday 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m., 5–10 p.m.
Saturday 5–10 p.m.

A budding entrepreneur eyes his Brut Rosé scintillating under the light of the dimmed chandeliers as he delivers his elevator pitch to a pair of angel investors. Behind him, a group of college students blow off steam at the bar, downing their lagers as they sing along with the songs by The Weeknd playing in the restaurant. They are bordered by a table of Moderna executives having a heated business discussion as they partition a plate of crispy, golden squash rings. Nearby, a professor scarfs down his plump burger before plugging his laptop charger into the row of electrical outlets along the restaurant wall, placed conveniently for those who prefer a productive meal. As he returns to work, he glances at a waiter weaving adeptly through the crowded array of tables to deliver a flaming caramel apple dessert to a tourist family wriggling in anticipation. Founded by Chef William Kovel to resemble the modern American melting pot, Catalyst Restaurant has served a diverse set of customers who converge at the New American restaurant in Tech Square, the epicenter of Cambridge, to enjoy its expansive lunch and dinner menu. 

Three weeks ago, Michael and I took a brisk three-minute walk from Stata to visit Catalyst, which recently passed their 10th anniversary. Upon walking through the front doors, we found ourselves underneath a 20-foot-high ceiling and in a 10,000-square-foot spacious interior surrounded with dark wooden walls and large windows — certainly one of the roomier restaurants in Cambridge. The meticulously placed furniture and dim lighting at first screamed fine dining until we noticed the Billboard Hot 100 songs playing in the background.

We were further surprised after perusing the dinner menu and noticing the variety of dinner options from the classic Catalyst Burger, which has been a certified OG banger since Catalyst’s day one, to the fancy Block Island Swordfish, which would cost Michael 2.246 UROP hours to pay off. As Chef Kovel described it, “There’s an item on the menu for everyone to feel comfortable.” 

To start off the meal with some appetizers, we ordered the Local Bruschetta and Chicken Liver Mousse as well as the mocktail version of The Indicator cocktail. The bruschetta, consisting of whipped ricotta, Asian pear, and toasted hazelnuts on grilled bread, was a perfect balance of cripsiness, sweetness, and savoriness. The chicken liver, likely due to the tarragon mustard, was quite salty, though a good complement to the sweet and fruity flavor of the raspberries and blueberries in the mocktail. 

For our entrées, Michael and I decided to go with seafood. My choice was the Roasted Blue Cod, which was pretty good, especially since I’m a fiend for bacon and clams. Michael ordered the Block Island Swordfish, which was a fillet of fish sauteed in romesco sauce and lemon caper butter, resting on a bed of fluffy Israeli couscous. The Swordfish dish was a nice juxtaposition of textures with the soft couscous and dense swordfish fillet, in addition to being a dish that overall slapped. 

The appetizers were a solid start, and the entrées were pretty dope, but the specials that we were given after the appetizers were the true highlight of the night. The first special dish we sampled was the Hamachi Crudo, a plate of avocado and raw fish with soy sesame seasoning. The first bite was truly orgasmic: feeling the tender fish melt in my mouth was an out-of-world experience for my taste buds, previously unaccustomed to seafood of such quality. The second special was Grilled Octopus, which was cooked to perfection; unlike other restaurants, Kovel’s Catalyst does not fall into the trap of making their seafood too chewy. The octopus was warm and soft, creating a texture that complemented its lemony yet savory taste. Our recommendation? Ask for the specials!

After concluding our meal with the Pumpkin Swiss Roll for dessert, we talked with Chef Kovel, learning about his culinary journey starting in Jardinière in California, where he mastered the “French technique,” and continuing in London at the Michelin-starred Orrery and at the Four Seasons in Boston before settling in Cambridge due to the 2009 recession, which Kovel called a “catalyst” for his most recent culinary venture of the same name. Since then, Kovel has enjoyed the forward-thinking and entrepreneurial spirit of Cambridge, as well as the multitude of backgrounds and perspectives in the city, from professors to entrepreneurs to students and company leaders. He has loved watching the city grow in the past ten years, noting the crucial role MIT has played in fostering this growth as the intellectual hub of Cambridge, and thus has strived to fashion his restaurant to serve all types of customers in the region. 

Overall, it’s a pretty dope restaurant with some bangers for dishes as long as you’re fine with spending some cash.