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SANTA BARBARA HARVEST / RESTAURANTS: THE REVIEW

Downtown, with fishnets flying

The Hungry Cat hits Santa Barbara with a fresh attitude and a Hollywood reputation. Is it ready to settle in?

September 05, 2007|S. Irene Virbila | 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.

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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.

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