It seems only fitting that in working my way through a backlog, I should start with the entry that comes first chronologically. I'm surprised, actually, that it's taken me so long to write about this place, because it was one of my favorite dining experiences in recent memory. The Hungry Cat specializes in seafood - particularly raw bar items and fresh made innovative cocktails. They're also well known for their burger, called the "Pug Burger," but we'll get to that in a minute. I haven't been to the LA branch, so I can't compare - but I understand they are quite different.
One thing that drew me to the restaurant was the impression that they do few things, but with fine attention to detail. I've come to the conclusion - after dining in and observing restaurants a little more closely for the past couple of years - that the quality of a restaurant really hides in the details. Just about anyone can buy a good piece of meat and manage not to ruin it, but it's hard to keep the whole train on the track from beginning of a meal to the end without some little tidbit going awry. The ones that manage that and do it consistently - those are the special ones.
The first recommendation I will make, and I am very serious about this, is to sit at the copper bar. It's basically a chef's table, with the cooks at work in front of you - moving between a set of burners and a wood burning stove. To the left is the (liquor) bar, and to the far right is the area where they dish up the cold seafood. The tables, though only a few feet away - feel like Siberia, and the dining room is a bit small and bland, so you won't get much to look at. That might be fine if you're with another couple or want to chat privately, but if you're looking to be entertained, the guys at the grill will take care of you. They seemed to like the fact that we asked questions, and they really seemed to like cooking for someone interested in what they were doing. They were definitely proud of the whole endeavor, which may be the secret of their success in the first place.
I started my meal with a glass of Dampierre Champagne (which we encountered again a few days later on our trip up the coast - at Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn.) It is true Champagne - from that particular region of France, and very good - but not outrageously expensive. (If anyone knows where it's available for sale here in San Diego, please drop me a line - I've been keeping an eye out to no avail! )
For our first course, we split a small raw bar platter - which included some caviar with blinis and garnishes (including a perfect egg salad, some chopped onion and creme fraiche), as well as some scallop ceviche, oysters, clams, shrimp, tuna tartare and chilled crab. Not a limp, watery, recently-frozen specimen among them - unlike the offerings on the brunch buffet the next day at the Four Seasons. The shrimp were firm and sweet and had been poached in a court bouillon; the crab was pre-cracked, but still a little messy and difficult, as it should be. All in all, it was a pitch perfect beginning.
I was a little bit surprised when I looked over the specialty cocktail menu and discovered several gin cocktails. Generally I am a not a fan of gin because I find it too strong, but our very competent host and server (who turned out to be the manager and wine director) strongly urged me to try the "Proper Greyhound" - made with fresh squeezed grapefruit juice and a gin he assured me would not offend my sensibilities. He was right - it was absolutely delicious, and came garnished with a large strip of well-candied grapefruit peel.
For our main course that evening (I say "that evening" because we liked this place so much that we actually came back the next night too) we had the "whole fish" - which on the first night we were there was a sea bass, I believe. The next day it was a rockfish. It's one of their most popular dishes, and apparently one of their best. The fish is grilled whole over the wood burning fire, slathered with charmoula, and then served over a bed of basmati rice, with figs and almonds. It was the perfect size for sharing and made a fine meal for two along with the raw bar platter. The staff actually seemed proud of us for choosing so well.
The Hungry Cat serves only one dessert, but it's a doozy. They call it "Chocolate Bread and Butter Pudding." Baked in a charlotte mold, it's dense and rich - covered with a brulee crust that is figuratively and literally the crowning blow. It's sized for two to share, and you'll need the help. The dark chocolate is melted at the bottom, so the best way to eat it is to dip down and pull some up along with the souffled bread. They also offer cheeses, which we didn't have a chance to sample but I would bet are very good.
The next night, we had planned to walk down State Street until we found a place to eat. We thought about Cafe Zia, but it was closed, and I rejected every menu I saw (fried mozzarella sticks anyone?) until we arrived at Victoria Street, where Olio e Limone, Bouchon and Epiphany reside. Epiphany was depressingly deserted, and Olio e Limone too crowded, but Bouchon looked like they might have space, and the menu looked promising. They claimed they had several 8:30 reservations yet to arrive, but promised to call us if anything came available. We decided to walk around the corner to Hungry Cat to wait and enjoy another kick ass cocktail.
When we showed up, we were greeted as old friends by the guys we had chatted with the night before. They joked that Bouchon wouldn't call, and it turned out they were right - so we wound up enjoying another meal there at the bar.
This time we started with a salad, which I honestly don't remember much about, other than the fact that it was good. We then ordered two entrees to split - the spiny lobster with pork belly, swiss chard and sunchokes, and the Pug Burger.
The spiny lobster dish was new on the menu - that night I believe, and they were very interested in hearing what we thought about it. We really weren't sure what to tell them. The pork belly and chard worked well together, but the crispness of the radishes and sunchokes didn't quite go with either the pork or the lobster. It certainly wasn't bad, but it just didn't add up to more than the sum of its parts. It is still on the menu, and I'd be curious to know whether they tweaked it and if so how, since the first night it appeared.
The Pug Burger is so famous that I had heard about it before coming to the Hungry Cat. Stories of the lobster roll (served only at the LA location) and the burger, along with the killer cocktails, were actually what intrigued me in in the first place. The burger consists of a roughly ground sirloin patty the size and shape of a small fist, perched on a bun trimmed to fit and topped with blue cheese, avocado and crisp bacon. The process of making the burger is something to watch (especially when they're forced to grill one to well done - which takes about 45 minutes.) I'm not sure how one person could eat the whole thing, but it's perfect for sharing - especially once you add in the humongous onion rings. It was probably the best burger I've ever had - but it was so over the top in it's excesses that it almost doesn't seem fair to compare it to other burgers served elsewhere. It was worth the trip in and of itself.
Far too full after that indulgence to eat anything else, we bade our friends goodbye and promised to come back soon. Very soon, I hope!
The Hungry Cat - Santa Barbara
no reservations, but if you call ahead they will put you on their wait list - sit at the bar if you get a chance.
recommended dishes - the pug burger, the whole fish, the rawbar platters, the bread and butter pudding. What we didn't eat, we watched them make - and it all looked very good!