4/18/2007

The Hungry Cat

On Day 2 of LA trip, it was decided that we would go to the Hungry Cat. Its specialty? Chesapeake-style seafood. In Los Angeles.

I'm originally from Maryland. Whenever I go back to Baltimore, people there want to take me to someplace that is "really New York." Here I was all the way across the country, and my friends wanted to take me to someplace with an East Coast seafood. There must be some universal human instinct to offer up your city's own "authentic" food from the diner's home state. I was reminded of Pete Wells' entry in Diner's Journal. When he offered to take a Texan to an NYC barbecue place, the Texan threatened to take him out in Texas for "Houston pizza."

Very well. Houston pizza it was. Of course, I was halfway through the meal before I remembered Hungry Cat was supposed to be like Baltimore. Minimalist and sleek, set in an industrial space with an open kitchen and patio seating under heat lamps, the Hungry Cat is unlike anything Baltimore has ever seen.

There aren't a lot of fancy drinks made with fresh-squeezed juices in crab shacks along the Chesapeake. Hungry Cat's were damn good. The Hemingway Daiquiri could have been flown in from Key West. The mixologists here even feature a cocktail special of the night, which that night was a blood-orange-infused vodka drink made with vodka they had infused in house.

As they say in DelMarVa, we gots lots of ducks down on the wuter, but we don't got no duck like Hungry Cat's. The surf & turf special that night was crackly-skinned duck overlaid with creamy bread pudding mixed with smoked trout, served alongside a frisee salad. As our knowledgeable waiter put it, it was on the "extreme" end of the menu's offerings, but also amazingly good. The salty crispness of the duck went surprisingly well with smoked trout. It was an impressively creative dish.

According to many an LA Chowhound user, Hungry Cat's oysters are some of the best in town, so we ordered up a dozen of these. There were no Kumamotos, and only one variety, the Hama Hama, was West Coast, so I would have to order East Coast oysters here. This was initially disappointing until we tasted the Chincoteague oysters, which were large, plump and briny - definitely as good as any I've had in Maryland.

When our theatrical waiter delivered an enticing monologue about the lobster rolls, I turned to the Kobra, who lived in Boston.

"Are you going to get that?" I really wanted him to order it so I could see what he thought. The instinct to get someone to eat his hometown food somewhere else was kicking in.

"No," the Kobra said. "I never order lobster rolls outside of Boston."

And I passed on the crab cakes, since I never order crab cakes outside of Maryland. Wooed by the waiter's reenactment of removing the cheek of an especially large deep-sea halibut, I ordered this dish. The fabled halibut cheek arrived as lightly breaded and fried hunks of fish tumbled onto more bread pudding. N.B. that I have never once encountered bread pudding on a Maryland menu, yet it was a recurring theme at Hungry Cat. I imagine it was a staple on the Eastern Shore around 1820.

Nevertheless, the bread pudding was quite good, as was the halibut. Presumably this was the fish version of Batali's obsession with beef cheeks. As with beef, the cheeks were an especially tender and light cut of the halibut, and Hungry Cat's were expertly prepared. The one disappointment was the morels on top. Though they added a lot of flavor to the sauce, the reconstituted mushrooms were still a little tough and chewy.

Oddly for a seafood place, the Hungry Cat is especially famous for its PUG burger, so named because one of the owners has a pug. He sure tastes delicious. A debate ensued about what made the PUG burger so good, other than that naughty dog that got sent to the hamburger factory.

"It's the bacon," Fellow WASP's husband said.

"No, it's the blue cheese," Fellow WASP said.

The smoky flavor of the slow-cooked, chewy, fatty bacon - could it be applewood smoked, like the bacon from Huntington Meats? - was the first thing that struck me too, until I started to deconstruct the taste and wondered if the tang of blue cheese was the key. The sharpness of the cheese kept the whole thing from derailing into absolute fattiness. Each element was absolutely essential. Maybe burgers should never be made without blue cheese and bacon from now on. Unfortunately, we can't credit an East Coast seafood place with inventing this dish either.

California Girl's salmon dish looks intriguing, but I didn't get to it until some of the key ingredients were gone, like this poached egg on top. The salmon itself was a little overcooked, but the buttery noodles that came with were good.

To anyone who grew up eating seafood on the East Coast, there might be something charmingly amusing about the Hungry Cat. Rarely have crab cakes been paired with fava bean puree and harissa aioli. Peel 'n' eat shrimp don't usually appear on the same menu as caviar. Things that are plain and simple out East are a little more complicated here. Lest you think that the Hungry Cat is trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, however, you need only note that their respect for the ingredients, however plain or fancy, is absolutely sincere. And by elevating them to a new level, the staff could even teach East Coasters a trick or two.


The Hungry Cat
1535 North Vine, at Sunset
323-462-2155

Also in Santa Barbara



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