Beneath an old diving helmet straight out of Jules Verne, a couple seated at a corner of the raw bar feed each other oysters, clams, bites of lobster. They eat slowly, luxuriously, between sips of wine. He whispers in her ear. She laughs and pops a shrimp in her mouth. Behind the bar, a cook deftly shucks oysters, tucks a little more ice around a lipstick-red lobster and slides a plate of peel 'n' eat shrimp over to a guy at the other end of the bar.
This is Hungry Cat Santa Monica Canyon, the third iteration of David Lentz's wildly popular Hollywood seafood restaurant (the second is in Santa Barbara). Ridiculous how difficult it's been before now to find quality seafood a stone's throw from the beach. With the arrival of Hungry Cat, we no longer have to lament the lack.
While you can't exactly pull your chair up onto the sand like you can at some of the seafood joints in, say, Barcelona, Hungry Cat has definitely raised the bar with this appealing new spot. A terrific raw bar, a menu of classic and eclectic seafood dishes, fine cocktails, a quirky wine list and warm and unpretentious service add up to a restaurant I strongly suspect will be around for a very long time.
Funny how a particular address can seem jinxed. The bunker-like building on the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and West Channel Road sat empty for more than two years after Brass.-Cap., Bruce Marder's French bistro, shuttered. Before that, 100 W. Channel Road was home to another ill-fated seafood concept. And before that, does anybody remember? When the right concept comes along, it doesn't take long to recognize it. The crowds and the repeat diners — and yes, stars venturing out to dine, mean something is very right about Hungry Cat.
Walking in, you can see straight into the well-organized kitchen. Live lobsters: check. Chef and owner: check. Cooks with good knife work and speed: check. Manager at his station: check. Your reservation on the books: check. (The long bar and separate raw bar are reserved for walk-ins.)
Hungry Cat's decor signals serious restaurant too. No fishnets tacked to the walls or kitschy buoys. The look is breathtakingly simple. Wire baskets are filled with oyster shells or, at the bar, lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruit. Walls are the gray of an overcast morning, and windows open onto a minimalist view of sea and sky. The original Hungry Cat could fit in a mere corner of this space, and yet because of the way the space is divided, this much larger restaurant manages to feel cozy enough.
A big asset too is the warm, affable presence of general manager Nick Somers. Usually very casual, he donned a suit and tie the night he knew Tom Hanks was coming for dinner. There's something very sweet about that. This is not a jaded guy.
Four of us order the extravagant seafood platter one night. It takes a while to prepare, and when it arrives it's a three-tiered affair loaded with several kinds of oysters, clams on the half shell, steamed mussels, chilled, perfectly cooked shrimp and more. At the very top sits a lobster and some Dungeness crab. We dig in. The fellow next to us is so smitten he has to take pictures (without asking). When we tell him we'd rather not be photographed, he lets slip the fact that he's a restaurant critic. We still respectfully decline. He's a bit miffed. Don't you want to be in the paper? he asks.
We eat and eat, working our way from the bottom up, making sure everybody gets their fair share of the oysters, which are superb. The bottom layer is whisked away. Two more to go, finishing off with that lobster and crab. At $155, this extravaganza doesn't come cheap. But then again, it's dinner for four. There's a smaller version, or you can custom tailor your own from items from the raw bar. Keep in mind, though, that shellfish of this quality can never be inexpensive.
Lentz really knows his seafood. He grew up in Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay. (His annual blue crab fest at the original Hungry Cat is a must every summer.) And he knows how crucial freshness is. Seafood is delivered daily, which is why the soft-shell crab special could possibly run out later in the evening. It's essential to nab the specials as soon as you hear them.
The menu at this new spot features mainstays of the original Hungry Cat's menu — marinated peel 'n' eat shrimp, the hefty pug burger, etc. But here, with a generously sized kitchen with plenty of elbow room, Lentz has more room to indulge himself with specials. For the most part, they take an exotic Asian or Middle Eastern bent. That's explained by the fact that before moving to L.A., Lentz was executive chef at China Grill in Las Vegas.
One night, he's making his version of gazpacho. In the center of a shallow bowl of heirloom tomato water sits a pile of diced sushi-grade albacore with tomato, cucumber, basil and slivered red onions, an utterly refreshing summer dish. A chilled Dungeness crab salad is bright with the crunch of green papaya, slivered chiles and a pugnacious green curry vinaigrette.
Sweet and salty cured Arctic char is served on house-baked nan — and it works, brilliantly, as a sort of Indian take on bagel and lox. Soft-shell crabs are in season, and instead of the regular fried version, however delicious, Lentz opts that night to serve it on jasmine rice in a Singapore chile sauce with 17 ingredients. OK, the heat is a little toned down, but just. Balanced, poised between sweet and hot, the soft-shell crab is one terrific dish, albeit expensive at $24 for a single crab.
This is one restaurant where you can get a whole grilled fish, these days rubbed in a Moroccan charmoulah with pickled raisins and pine nuts on farro, green with herbs.
I appreciate that the wine list is built around the seafood with whites such as Metaireau's Muscadet Sur Lie, or Assyrtiko from Domaine Sigalas in Santorini. But the list seems awfully small for the subject. There are so many more wines that would be brilliant matches for the menu. I love, though, that the list includes "Boston," a Madeira from the Rare Wine Co.'s historic series.
Be forewarned: The noise level is high but somewhat mitigated now that they've installed sound panels on the ceiling.
Desserts are usually just two, the Hungry Cat's classic chocolate bread pudding and a fruit crisp, both excellent if you're not already sated on seafood. I myself would go for a glass of that Madeira.
I've got a new idea for a reality show: restaurant space in search of the perfect restaurant match. We don't need to film this episode. The once forlorn 100 W. Channel Road has found its mate, Hungry Cat, and we're all invited to celebrate. Bring on the oysters, crab and lobster, the inventive seafood specials and the hand-crafted cocktails. We've finally got a great casual seafood restaurant at the beach.
Location: 100 W. Channel Road (at Pacific Coast Highway), Santa Monica, (310) 459-3337, www.thehungrycat.com.
Price: Seafood platters, $50 to $155; caviar, $50 to $120; appetizers, $12 to $15; salads, $10 to $13; main courses, $14 to $32; cheeses, $12 to $20; desserts, $6. Corkage fee, $15. Brunch items, $10 to $25.
Details: Open for dinner 5 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday; 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 5 to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. And 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for brunch Saturday and Sunday. Raw bar and cocktails, 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Valet parking, $6.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times