Restaurateur Vance Martin was an early fan of Magnolia Avenue when he opened Lili's Bistro in 2007. It turns out he was prescient, as the neighborhood is blossoming into a hip little district, with its quaint storefronts, bars and restaurants. Now he opens a sibling one block away: the fun, chic Cat City Grill.
Located in a historic building, it has an upscale yet down-home menu that bears a family resemblance to Lili's, but with a slightly groovier vibe. A nifty bar with some decent beers on tap and moderate prices on the food make for a fun night out, as long as you don't mind waiting for a table in this cozy spot. The wait is worsened by the fact that the place doesn't take reservations for anything smaller than a party of six.
However, once seated, dinner moves along efficiently. For a party of four that had chilled a long spell at the bar, the server had not only a clean table waiting but appetizers, too. That kind of hospitality makes a wait seem less oppressive.
Especially if the appetizer is tempura asparagus ($8), a signature item. An oval dish held thick green spears enclosed in a lacy battered crust, with wasabi cream sauce for dipping. The crust was light and crunchy, while the asparagus retained a green freshness, for an irresistible contrast. Other fried starters included lobster bites ($12), deep-fried pickle spears ($8) and gorgonzola waffle fries ($9), borrowed from Lili's menu.
Stacked spinach salad ($8) showed some thought in that the spinach was paired with mandarin orange segments, whose vitamin C helps your body absorb the iron in the spinach. There were also dried cherries, pine nuts, bacon, mushrooms and gorgonzola cheese, tossed in a sweet plum vinaigrette. The "stacked" referred to fried wonton skins, layered between the spinach leaves -- interesting, though not essential. My only request would be to clean the mushrooms carefully; they had a few streaks that gave one pause.
At lunch, there are sandwiches, quiche, and fish and chips. Dinner ran from steaks and chicken Florentine to King Ranch casserole. Meatloaf ($19) was made from ground filet and topped with a mushroom ragu. More mushroom distress: These tasted like they'd been dried and reconstituted in some off-tasting broth. But the meatloaf was thick and substantial, with a fall-apart tenderness.
You've seen chicken-fried steak and chicken-fried chicken; now you can see chicken-fried rack of lamb ($25), with four petite lamb chops encrusted in a crunchy batter, fun to pick up by the bone and gnaw. FYI: They were cooked extremely rare. Like all entrees, they came with whipped potatoes and buttery mixed vegetables that included the usual mix of zucchini and yellow squash. Like every dish at Cat City, the plate was dusted with chopped parsley, a device that seemed unnecessary.
Four seafood dishes included an unusual onion-crusted tilapia ($18), with a broad fillet coated with panko and dried onion that added oodles of flavor to this mild white fish. Sauteed bok choy, the white stems still a bit crunchy, made a good side. Ahi tuna nicoise ($22) was odd, with a broad fillet of extra-rare tuna set on a bed of pappardelle pasta with olives and feta cheese. The tuna seemed all wrong, plopped unceremoniously over the pasta, and its texture was stringy.
The atmosphere has a charming diner quality, with stainless-steel tabletops. Managing partner Martin Thompson, former chef at Grace and Del Frisco's, circulated the dining room in chef's clothes, checking with customers and picking up the occasional empty plate. And for sending people home with a good impression, nothing does it better than Cake and Coffee ($16), one of the excellent desserts. Four Italian cream cupcakes were topped with buttery pineapple coconut icing and accompanied by a French press pot full of good, strong coffee.