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Catch has caught on in Winchester

Exuberance: (1) The state or quality of being exuberant; great abundance; luxuriance (2) Action or speech showing high spirits. Catch is a slip of a restaurant, barely announced by signage on the outside and sparely decorated inside. It's noisy. In fact on a Friday night, the sound of conversations bounces against hard surfaces in the little dining room and the clamor of pots and pans swells up from the open kitchen; shouting becomes the only way to communicate.

But there's energy here -- a palpable enthusiasm from the hostess who greets at the door, checking to make sure a guest who called for directions found her way, to the customers at the counter chatting with the chefs, to the creatively presented food on the plate. It may be noisy, and the tables crowded together, but the diners have a look of being in this together and happy to be here.

Catch is Chris and Megan Parsons' first restaurant. He's the chef, after stints at Pravda 116 and Flour Bakery & Cafe; she's the manager. The restaurant, in the space that previously was Azafran, follows the pattern of suburban expansion: upscale cuisine in a town short on dining options. Parsons, who says in a phone interview that he is a fourth-generation fly fisherman, has chosen to concentrate on seafood, but this is no fried food place or clam shack.

His style combines French technique with a wide range of American ingredients. The menu, which changes often, sources everything locally from salad greens (Blue Sky Farms) to peekytoe crab (Rockland, Maine) to Vermont quail.

The exuberance shows up with the first appetizer. Lobster salad comes molded in a circle, layered with a creamy avocado mousse, jicama, and decorated with bits of mango and lobster claw meat. The dish is pretty and very intricate, the flavors perked up with a drizzle of lime vinaigrette.

Another starter of peekytoe crab cake gets the same treatment. Instead of the more traditional mounds of crab cakes on a plate, this one is layered above mild fennel puree and another of fennel salad. Crab cake is ubiquitous on local menus. Like many other beloved dishes, it all comes down to a few basic qualities -- good crab, done without too much breading, not overcooked. Parsons' version may be more elaborate in presentation than many, but the essentials hold true, and the flavors are fine.

Less appealing is an asparagus salad. Although the ingredients are artfully arranged and the colors of white and green asparagus and very pale pink and white chiogga lovely, the vegetables are too limp, and the beet vinaigrette too wimpy.

One could never fault Catch for skimping on main courses. There's a lot going on in each dish. Nicely roasted monkfish is nestled in among tiny periwinkles, spears of grilled asparagus, white beans and tomatoes, plus some bean puree, and nuggets of bacon. The fish is moist and flavorful; the accompaniments are complementary. Diver scallops are even better, fat and creamy in texture, each covered with a ravioli filled with beef shortrib. This combination of surf and turf works well here, mostly because it's subtle, with just a taste of savory beef in a fold of pasta to bounce off the scallop. When I check the menu description, I realize many other elements were on the plate -- from pineapple chunks to broccoli puree -- but they faded in memory and luckily the scallops still took the star role.

So much goes on with a whole roasted loup de mer that it takes two oval dishes to hold it all. One holds the fish, which is slightly browned, boned, and without the head. Another holds olive tapenade, lemon, drizzles of olive oil, and the tiny squiggles of arugula. Despite the abundance of it all, the flavors are austere, the tapenade embellishing but not overwhelming the fish. Strong flavors are also used to advantage, though. A vivid sundried tomato and shellfish sauce plays off the mild flesh of cod, and green olives and pancetta add to the pleasing medley -- plus clams, a circle of polenta, and sauteed Swiss chard.

Salmon has an entire gumbo under it with a thick spicy broth filled with corn, pickled okra, crawfish, and tasso ham. And in a departure from this mostly seafood menu, a sirloin steak benefits from a complex, rusty red and mildly spicy chili sauce; and a chili stuffed with Great Hill blue cheese. The large and tender steak can stand up to the strong flavors; it's a great dish.

In fact, the one disappointment is the prima donna of the sea -- braised lobster is stacked into a tower, but needs a little more oomph to the basil-flavored sauce. And the accompanying spinach and oyster mushroom egg roll is dull and a little stale-tasting in flavor.

The complexity of most of the dishes does explain one thing, though: There can be long pauses between courses, not surprising considering the size of the kitchen and what it must take to get those plates out. The waitstaff is friendly and competent, eager to explain dishes, and is knowledgeable about the wine list.

Parsons does his own desserts, saying that he tries to be consistent and to have them match the rest of the menu. A Scharffen Berger chocolate torte with dried cherries slumps in its almost-liquid middle. It's an endearing dessert, with sweetness cut by the bitter notes of the chocolate. A passionfruit pudding cake also blends tanginess with a creamy consistency. But a lemon pudding cake is overdone, its texture spongy and the flavor stodgy.

Catch, which has been open since mid-September, has obviously been found by those in Winchester and nearby towns. Parsons' cooking and the lively feel of the restaurant deserve an even wider audience.

Restaurants reviewed by the Globe's regular critic, Alison Arnett, are rated on a scale of one to four stars, four being the highest. Star ratings are not used for compilation reviews or pieces by guest writers. Full restaurant reviews may be retrieved from at

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Grotto Solid starSolid star 1/2 37 Bowdoin St., Boston. 617-227-3434. The imaginative and elaborate cuisine belies Grotto's cozy but rather bare basement ambience. Chef/owner Scott Herritt creates some lovely dishes such as a gutsy large bean and tripe soup, and fork-tender braised shortribs. (2/12/04)

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