It’s a balmy May afternoon, and I’m wearing a large bib and surgical gloves while sipping a daiquiri-style slushie, fighting what appears to be a losing battle with a crayfish.
Does this sound like an arcane springtime fraternity initiation rite at a Louisiana party school, or maybe a very specific fetish gone wrong? It’s simply lunchtime as usual at Grand Catch, Mac-Groveland’s newest addition to the fetching row of storefront restaurants that line Grand Avenue.
By aiming towards what chef/co-owner Sameh Wadi calls an “ode to Cajun seafood boils,” Grand Catch navigates uncharted waters for the James Beard award-nominated chef, who, with brother and co-owner Saed Wadi, also operates World Street Kitchen and Milkjam Creamery in Minneapolis.
“My entire career,” Sameh says with a note of wonder, “I’ve never worked with seafood.”
He’s making up for lost time after picking up a bit of lowcountry fever while becoming a regular diner at Brooklyn Park’s Cajun Deli, owned by another Grand Catch co-owner: Thien Ly. It was also during this time that Sameh––a self-proclaimed “Minneapolis guy”––found himself hanging out in Mac-Groveland at Leo and Beth Judah’s longtime neighborhood fixture Shish, which specializes in authentic Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes.
“After we closed Saffron, Shish became a place where I go to eat hummus I don’t make myself,” he grins. (If you were ever lucky enough to eat hummus at the dearly departed Saffron, you know this is no small thing.)
On those St. Paul pilgrimages, Sameh found culinary kinship with the Judahs. Suddenly, it was a party of five co-conspirator/owners––the Judahs, Ly, and the Wadi brothers––drawing upon global influences and obsessions that span from the North African roots of Creole and Cajun cuisine to Sameh’s travels around Southeast Asia, which took him to the ancestral homelands of Ly, who is Vietnamese.
When you arrive at their resulting collaboration, belly up to a sunlit table by the storefront windows or the curved wooden bar and peruse the card listing today’s catch. On my visit, you could take your pick from three types of crab (snow, Alaskan King, dungeness) and shrimp (head-on, peeled, jumbo), along with mussels, clams, and crawfish. It’s all served in a shallow bowl heaped with red potato and sweet corn swimming in your pick of sauce: garlic butter, Louisiana, or a signature mix of the two called, promisingly, “awesome sauce.” Or, go for the spicy isaan, which draws upon the kind of Southeast Asian flavors that Sameh Wadi discovered in tiny back-alley cafes in Hanoi, Vietnam’s atmospheric capital.
This far-flung globalism sounds exciting, sure, but are you saying to yourself, “I have zero clue how to peel a crawfish, much less eat one?”
Fortunately, the debonair Saed Wadi does have a clue. Expect him to magically materialize at your left elbow (or right elbow if you are left-handed—he’s nothing if not professional) and guide you through the crawfish decapitation process with the soothing, authoritative tones usually employed by hostage negotiators or hypnotists. He’ll even help you feel like less of a toddler for wearing a bib in public.
Is shellfish just not how you roll, and yet your wife/brother/best friend/co-worker/Tinder date is wild about it? (Here, just a word of warning: A seafood boil might not fly for a first date. It’s a tremendous idea for a third date, though, because if someone doesn’t love you smeared with awesome sauce, they don’t deserve to love you.) Thankfully, the menu is streamlined, but not spare. A choice list of sandwiches—cornmeal crusted whitefish, crispy fried chicken, a cold shrimp roll—offers worthy alternatives. Like the starters––cornmeal fried shrimp, fried green tomatoes, dry-rubbed wings, and a Chinese shrimp toast that the menu proclaims is “not that hipster kind”––the offerings are driven by what Sameh Wadi calls “craveability and deliciousness.”
The fun-spirited cocktail list (all about $10) adds to the sense of abandon, with tropical flavors of tamarind, coconut, hibiscus, and banana spicing up drinks with names that make you sound like you’re tipsy before you order. There’s “Susan? Susan? Hi.” and “Can I Pet Your Dog?” And just as in The Big Easy, you can order an alcoholic slushie on tap. No to-go cups, though, and please don’t take your shirt off––you’re still in St. Paul.
Unlike New England-style seafood boils, Sameh explains that Grand Catch sticks to a traditional Louisiana-style method: “We bless the broth with our spices.” Diners can further amp up the intensity by choosing their heat level, from mild to extra hot to “insane ghost.”
All that spice explains the crowning finale to the menu: Milkjam Creamery soft serve ice cream. “It cools the palate,” explains Sameh, who waxes nostalgic about his post-Cajun Deli ritual of shaved ice. To cool mine, I ordered up a dish of three milks ice cream twisted prettily with raspberry lychee sorbet ($6).
Before I leave, a New Orleans transplant named Sean sits down next to me and orders up two pounds of crawfish in Louisiana sauce, extra hot, with nary a peek at the menu. I watch his masterful crawfish technique with envy, then remove my own much-needed bib, and—palate cooled, shirt still firmly on—head back out into the streets of St. Paul.
Sadly, without a sippy-cup slushie.
1672 Grand Ave., St. Paul