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Caught Too Early

Prime location on prime Market Street isn't for the shy of heart. For months of build-out and preening, Catch caught the Castro's eye and finally in late 2002 opened its doors to curious neighbors. Think of the welcoming porch trademark to North Beach's "Enrico's," but spiffed up with a Spanish tile roof, inviting in the bustling street energy trademark to the Castro. Always intended as a comfy neighborhood joint, Catch continues to draw locals with its deliberate foot traffic-friendly, no reservation policy (honored for groups of 6+).

Cooler evenings find the veranda covered and fireplace going for those lucky enough to score one of the four surrounding tables. The inside seating trades in the glowing warmth for high ceilings and a backlit bar straddled by exposed brick, a tried-and-true formula motif of the reluctantly trendy. Seven nights of live music, alternately jazz quartets and piano, don't hurt either. All this, though, is a bit disjointed from the current menu. Contrary to its name's allusion, Catch under-represents seafood entrées - leaving room instead for too many staid pasta and sandwich selections. No doubt the menu reflects the legacy of the opening chef who had overseen the growth of the flotilla of Pasta Pomodoros. The recent entry of a new chef, Amy Dittmar, herself a veteran of higher-touch dining establishments like Café Kati, aims to be making her imprint on this ship.

For now, the menu continues to list several pasta dishes and appetizers coupled with red Italian sauce-types bearing the Pomodoro stamp and numerous non-seafood entrees (ribeye steak, steak sandwich, roasted chicken). Catch of the Seafood Clan apparently has yet to board this ship. The Tuna Nicoise salad ($14), though, should be complimented for very generous ahi portions and creative quartered layout. The special of the day, a mahi mahi, was special indeed: braised just-so, adorned with gentle snowpeas for texture and caramelized onions as anchor to both the mahi mahi and bed of mashed (nearly whipped) potato peeking out. The on-menu entrée of a Yellow-Tail Jack ($16) seems but second-class fare, a bit overcooked and lacking sufficient romesco sauce. Before leaving port, note the surprising menu standout of the Polenta Fries ($5). Given polenta's natural texture, they emerge much crispier on the outside than any potato simulant ever dared. Give them two years to overtake both fine eateries and PacBell Park alike.

Given the abundant red sauces floating around the sea, it is admittedly tempting to dismiss Catch as eating at the kids' table. The management, though, stands committed to remaining local-friendly with seven nights of lunches and dinners and full menu service at the bar. The chef equally emphasizes an imminent menu shift to focus more on fish and seafood, bearing less the Pomodoro machinery and more the artistry of her European-influenced training and dedication to California freshness standards. Such pledges seem plausible and likely, given the obvious investment into the well-executed space. Until then, calmly wait and keep munching on those polenta fries.