Hungry Cat: Downtown, with fishnets flying

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

A huge, purple-black sea urchin with glossy, lethal-looking spines lands on the table, looking like some improbable fur hat set on its side. It must be 6 inches around. The waiter passes out spoons and sets down a plate of crisp handmade crackers. "Spoon out the roe," he says, "put it on a cracker, squeeze some lemon over and add a sprinkling of sea salt." My friends have never eaten raw sea urchin straight from the shell before, but we follow orders. The taste is fantastic, briny and complex, with a mineral salt tang, lit up by that squeeze of lemon and the salt. This is a little bit of heaven on a plate: Small wonder the Japanese pay big money for these Channel Island sea urchins.

We're at the Hungry Cat No. 2, the Santa Barbara outpost of the hip East Coast-style seafood joint in Hollywood from David Lentz, chef-husband of Suzanne Goin, herself the chef-owner of Lucques and A.O.C.

Talk about timing. The couple had their first children -- twins -- two weeks before the new restaurant opened in April. And though the glamour couple were around at the beginning, they haven't been sighted much recently here in Santa Barbara, understandably. The kitchen is run by Dylan Fultineer and two fellow cooks he brought with him from Blackbird in Chicago. Though it has had its shaky moments, by now, a few months into it, the Hungry Cat has got its groove, acquiring a loyal following for its casual seafood menu, which features truly local seafood. There's nothing like it in Santa Barbara.

Right now the Hungry Cat is featuring whole steamed local rock crab, the body hiding under the cleaned-out carapace. It comes with metal nut crackers, but the legs and claws have been given a couple of whacks in the kitchen to make it easier to get at the delicate, fine-textured crab meat. It's served with a refreshing and crunchy celery root slaw. And I'm completely in love with the fiery remoulade for dipping.

Fresh approach

The one-page menu changes frequently according to what seafood they get in, and though you could commandeer something all to yourself, it's much more fun to share. On the local front, the whole fish one night is something I've never encountered before -- gold spotted sand bass in charmoula, a Moroccan spice marinade specifically for fish, available in either 1-pound or 1 1/2 -pound sizes. I go for the smaller, which arrives head and tail intact, moist underneath the crisp, crackling skin in a lovely haze of cumin and other spices on a bed of basmati rice dotted with figs and almonds. For plainer tastes, there's always a simply cooked fish of the day, such as black bass or local sea bass topped with fresh corn kernels.

The top of the menu has raw bar selections. Littleneck clams from the East Coast have a crisp mineral snap and are served on the half shell, by the half or full dozen. On any given night, you have your choice of four or five oysters from the Northwest or the East Coast, all pristinely fresh and served chilled on beds of ice with a full complement of sauces.

But the giant seafood platter may be the way to go. By the time four of us polish off the largest of three sizes, we're completely sated. It includes some of Hungry Cat's prized peel 'n' eat shrimp, a dozen oysters, a dozen clams, a whole steamed Maine lobster, one of those rock crabs and way up on the third tier where I could barely see it, a serving of paddlefish caviar and a bowl of Bay scallop ceviche drenched in lime. Quite a feast for $125 for four, requiring finger bowls, napkins, wedges of lemon. It's messy, delicious stuff.

Another sweet little appetizer is caviar by the half or full ounce. Trout caviar is the same gorgeous coral color as salmon roe, each bead glistening and translucent, but the roe are smaller; whitefish caviar looks like tiny pale yellow glass beads spilled from a necklace. Each comes in a small bowl on a bed of ice, along with a crock of crème fraîche and chopped egg white, the better to spread on warm, freshly made potato blini the size of a silver dollar. What a treat! We spoon the caviar on top and savor the taste of the cool fish roe and crème fraîche against the warm blini.

My friend Chuck, who lives in Santa Barbara, must eat at the Hungry Cat once or twice a week. His wife, Marsha, doesn't eat fish, but she's quite happy to order either the burger or the noodles, the only two things on the menu that are not seafood. The Pug burger is a classic, served with onion rings the size of Bakelite bracelets. And those floppy house-made egg noodles are 1 1/2 inches wide and tossed with sautéed baby chanterelles, halved gold cherry tomatoes, parsley and fat lardons of pancetta to make a fine pasta dish.

Dinner on the menu encompasses all sorts of dishes, small and large, that you can mix and match. Those noodles, yes, and grilled flatbread with boquerones (white anchovies), caramelized onions and skinny wild arugula. One piece of flatbread comes, inexplicably, sans anchovies, which is perfect, because one person in our party doesn't eat them. Silvery and firm, the boquerones have a terrific vinegar bite. Tuna tartare is hand-cut in half-inch dice and accented with preserved lemons and Lucques olives (the ones that gave Lucques in West Hollywood its name). The quality of the tuna, like all of the ingredients here, is top-notch, and it's delicious scooped up onto thin homemade crackers.

Early bird gets the table

Getting into the Hungry Cat is the problem, since it has a confusing no-reservations policy. If you go at 7 or 7:30, you could easily end up waiting for a table for an hour and a half. Seats at the counter or tables for two seem to be in bigger supply than tables for four. The trick is to go at 5, when the restaurant opens, but if you're not used to dining early, this may not be so appealing. Otherwise, you can call ahead and ask to be put on the waiting list for a table. However, if there are any tables open, you can't get on the waiting list and have to take your chances that one will still be free when you get there.

Standing outside waiting, I watch as people hurry toward the restaurant like figures in a speeded-up silent movie, one man hurrying across the crosswalk, somebody else sprinting from down the block, all with the idea of beating out the other folks intent on getting a table, or at the very least, the next slot on the waiting list.

Service can vary from energetic to surfer laconic -- the waiters sometimes don't think about changing the plates or forget to bring water glasses when you order a bottle of Pellegrino. But it's always good-natured and pleasant. The room can be chaotic and incredibly loud, with newcomers squeezing past the tables to their seats and Sturm und Drang in the tiny kitchen.

With tables and seats packed closely together and limited tabletop real estate, I can understand why they decided to go with stemless wineglasses -- those well-shaped bowls with flat bottoms, which don't tend to tip over as easily. This isn't the place to be drinking important wines anyway. It's loud and boisterous, not meant to be fine dining. But it's full of life.

And the wine list doesn't have many pretensions either. Though there are better examples of some of the wines on offer, the list is eclectic and full of interest for anybody but the most jaded wine buff. I like that the sparkling wines include not only Prosecco but also the Gruet rosé from New Mexico and a dry sparkling Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley, along with some Champagnes from small growers. Whites include wines from Austria, South Africa, Galicia in Spain, the Rhône Valley and the nearby Santa Rita Hills. For that burger, there's a Chinon from the Loire Valley or a Santa Ynez Valley Merlot. And for those who simply have to drink a big important red, even in a place such as this that specializes in seafood, consider Ojai Vineyard's splendid "White Hawk" Syrah if you have some money burning a hole in your pocket.

Cocktails are an enticing option too, made from freshly squeezed juices. My fave has always been the Pimlico, a tart blend of Early Times bourbon, orange juice, lime juice and mint. There's a refreshing cucumber martini too, made with freshly squeezed cucumber juice and lime and served on the rocks. And every night, some new concoction for a drinker's delectation.

Fultineer and his crew are furiously cooking up a storm in the cramped open kitchen. Execution is mostly dead-on, and every dish has a surprising twist. I loved, for example, the hamachi sashimi with slivers of dark purple plums, hearts of palm and a spunky chile-ginger vinaigrette. Or the Monterey Bay squid with fat limas, sweet peppers and a juicy salsa verde.

The one real disappointment is the three-course barbecue dinner on Sunday night, which promises oak-grilled tri-tip. Sounds good, we open a bottle of red in anticipation, but it's actually an open-faced sandwich, not the beef extravaganza we'd anticipated.

But with or without Lentz and Goin keeping an eye on things, this Hungry Cat purrs along.

The Hungry Cat

Rating: ** 1/2 stars

Location: 1134 Chapala St. (at Anapamu Street), Santa Barbara; (805) 884-4701.

Ambience: The Santa Barbara outpost of Hollywood's the Hungry Cat from chef-couple David Lentz and Suzanne Goin. No reservations for this small, crowded bistro, with seats at the bar and tables lined up along a banquette. Have a cocktail made from fresh-squeezed juices while you wait.

Service: Genial, but sometimes distracted.

Price: Oysters, $27 dozen; clams on the half shell, $2 each; caviar, $14 to $56; seafood platters, $45 to $125; dinner items, $9 to $24; three-course Sunday barbecue, $35; dessert, $8.

Best dishes: Corn and Bay scallop chowder; peel 'n' eat shrimp; sea urchin with homemade crackers; steamed local rock crab; Roots Farm lettuces salad; grilled Monterey Bay squid with limas and salsa verde; boquerones with grilled flatbread; hamachi with plums and hearts of palm; seafood platters; chocolate bread pudding.

Wine list: Eclectic and suitable for the food. Corkage fee, $15.

Best table: The back corner table or a seat at the bar.

Details: Open for dinner 6 p.m. to midnight Monday through Saturday and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Sunday brunch starts Sept. 9 from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Saturday brunch will be added starting Sept. 22, from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Full bar. Parking in a nearby city lot.

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.

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