BeetleCat in Inman Park sets a course for seafood adventure

After spending 5 minutes inside BeetleCat, I found myself expecting to run into Julie McCoy, Capt. Merrill Stubing and bartender Isaac Washington carrying one of his froufrou tiki drinks.

“Love, exciting and new / Come aboard. We’re expecting you.”

Entering Ford Fry’s new Inman Park restaurant is like being transported to an episode of ’70s sitcom “The Love Boat.” The set is replete with sails and ropes, plus nautically-themed nonserious stuff like bathroom wallpaper.

Walking down the wide white stairwell that connects the upstairs dining room to the low-ceilinged, lower-level bar area is a lot like descending into the berth of a ship. But, whereas a beetle cat is a small, single-mast sailboat, the design and atmosphere of this restaurant is throwback Pacific-Princess-luxe, down to the shag carpet hanging on the bar wall.

The anticipation of a fun-filled food adventure was high. After all, BeetleCat is located in one of the hottest dining areas in town. And it’s Fry’s fourth concept (and third in Atlanta) to open in the past six months.

I arrived at BeetleCat on a weekend to find a sea of people. It was 6:30 p.m. and the wait for a table at this no-reservations spot was already one hour. Time enough to head downstairs and get familiar with the bar.

Choices to fill the glass are many. Yeses include beer, with craft and local labels present and accounted for; a solid by-the-glass DOC prosecco; and the Fish House Punch, a spin on a Philadelphia punch, with rum, brandy and whiskey, that offers a balanced bitterness from tea.

I’m down with the progressive offering of sustainable wine on tap; BeetleCat has a handful, but none worth a repeat order. Among cocktails, Bamboo — white vermouth, fino sherry and a combination of bitters served “up” — holds potential for the serious cocktail sect, but the drink warmed quickly (a problem endemic in Atlanta bars; rarely are the glasses chilled for drinks that warrant it).

The party pleaser may well be the Bay Breeze for two, a mix of Absolut’s top-of-the-line vodka Elyx with fruit juices in a festive copper pineapple drinking vessel. If only I had taken a snapshot of the giddy fellow who handed this cruise sipper to his date. Good luck, mate!

For the plate, get to the heart of what BeetleCat wants to be — an oysterette (a little clipper to its seafood-centric sister, the Optimist, on the westside) — with an order of oysters.

The night I slurped oysters, there were 14 on the menu. The seven I sampled hailed from British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, Maine, South Carolina and Alabama. All were very fresh, yet only two were outstanding: the petite Conway Pearl, with its buttery finish, and the Pacific Orchard, with its deep cup (so pretty I kept the shell) and surprising watermelon notes. One, the Katama Bay, was described on the menu as “pleasantly briny,” yet downing that oyster liquor was like gargling salt water.

I’m a sucker for octopus, and this tentacled creature of the sea was the best snack on the menu. The octo was combined into a salad of sorts with garbanzo beans, olives, chiles and pistachios, served with warm pita. However, the dish could have used some dialing back on the heat from jalapenos.

The salt and pepper squid was perfectly fried, but too salty to be finger-licking addictive.

Fish meat is the focus or the accent on everything, from crudo to hot small plates to mains and sides — but only a few dishes stood out. The trio of baked oysters topped with bacon, Parmesan, Swiss chard and butternut squash was delicious, although that seasonal iteration has since changed to feature the flavors of toasted garlic, butter, horseradish and lemon. Steamed mussels were fine on their own, but they sat in a pool of kimchee cream with a heat level a notch higher than I would have liked. The order came with a piece of toast so saturated with butter it didn’t serve for sponging up much kimchee cream.

On each visit, a knowledgeable and friendly staff pointed out that many of the dishes here are intended to be shared.

I didn’t want to share the smoked salmon, delightfully deconstructed lox and bagels, whose carbs come from rye bread crumbs, served on a marble platter. And I wanted to hoard the tempura okra, so exceptionally seasoned that the veg tasted like a barbecued potato chip.

I was less selfish with the cobia, muted as it was by avocado, and the revered Kumamoto oysters with their distracting, tongue-numbing topper of pickled red onion ice.

I can’t speak to the tuna with salsa verde, green papaya, peanuts, jalapeno and crisped shallots. That order never arrived.

Less shareable were those mussels that come with just one piece of toast or moqueca stew with a meagre bowl of rice, especially since this Brazilian fish stew traditionally would be consumed with equal portions of both.

Dessert was hit or miss. Lemongrass cheesecake was outstanding on its own, but the addition of aloe gel made it unappealing. However, a pineapple upside-down cake with hot buttered rum made the final run fun — especially with the savory balance of star anise ice cream.

I’ll return to BeetleCat because the staff and décor set a course for a relaxing adventure. It’s enjoyable to unwind most anywhere here — upstairs, downstairs, inside or out. Like a cruise, BeetleCat offers plenty of choices. But the menu needs adjustments to make the trip truly exciting and new.

Take a first look at BeetleCat here.

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