We were driving east on Sunset Boulevard on Sunday night, and as we approached the intersection, I was still waffling. It was now or never. If I pick Lucques, then we have to turn right, right now, down La Cienega. The light turns green, we zip through, so I guess a return visit to Lucques would have to wait.
It’s now down to two, and Fairfax Avenue is only a few blocks away. When I called in, she on the other end of the line told me that it wouldn’t be a long wait before we could sidle up to either the wine bar or the cheese bar. Will tonight be my first lucky night at A.O.C.? Analysis paralysis has gotten the better of me, so we’re off to Hollywood to gamble on relatively new, The Hungry Cat, the latest bet in Suzanne Goin’s trifecta of Los Angeles restaurants. It wasn’t until later in the evening actually, that I realized I had unconsciously narrowed my Bar Fly options down to Chef Goin’s three restaurants. Must be a sign. Of what, I don’t know, but it must be a sign.
The Hungry Cat is located on the corner of Sunset Blvd and Vine Street, right in the heart of Hollywood, but as we round the corner to the parking structure, I’m a little wary. It’s in the somewhat flashy commercial-y looking, and trendy-tagged-with-a-plus-sign, Sunset + Vine Plaza, with a Borders bookstore and Baja Fresh facing the street. Hm. But this is David Lentz and Suzanne Goin, so I brush off my qualms for now.
But the uncertainties came back, as we entered the complex from the parking garage. All the shops are closed for the evening, creating a somewhat eerie (un)ambience for us as we treaded carefully along the polished concrete floors. The complex is not the typical retail shopping mall set-up, rather a big unfinished-on-pupose-for-design-value marketplace. The individual shops are more like booths that open up to the high, warehouse-y ceiling overhead, and are “closed” with heavy curtains or light-weight gates, not doors. We followed the voices and tinkle-clink of silverware to the end of the corridor, but only came to an empty restaurant, Schwab’s. The dining noises were coming from the Hungry Cat, but where is it?
We stepped through the doors into the center courtyard, now facing Borders, and spy what look like patio seating. Tucked in the corner, this is it, we think, but we have to confirm it – there’s just the tiniest, un-lit sign in the window. After the pseudo-prowl through a rather hollow, empty echoing space, the small but full, lively restaurant was a relieving welcome, and we were more than happy to wait a few minutes on the patio for out seats.
Though the long-ish low bar is almost third of the seating in the restaurant, there is no raw bar. We found out later that California doesn’t allow for it in the true sense of a “raw bar.” But it doesn’t matter – they simply pluck and shuck in the kitchen that’s open for everyone to watch. We sat down, ordered a half dozen oysters without even looking at the menu.
Both the wine list and the dinner menu are small enough enough to fit on a half sheet of paper. The wines, with helpful descriptions and suggestions, are all available by the glass, so I order the Muscadet to go with the oysters. Light and very sweet, but not syrupy. The chunky little glass cup it was poured in was fun, and well, with all the little dishes that were to be flying on and off the table, stem-less is safe. Already, there was a heavy chowder bowl with packages of oyster crackers. *snap* up a package, *crackle* trying to rip it open, then *pop* those hexagon babies.
The oysters were delicious – my compliments to King Neptune – though I didn’t quite care for the vinegar disguised as mignonette. It tasted like only vinegar, was way too tart, and killed any taste of the ocean. So for the rest, I *shlouped* them down naked and chased them with the muscadet. Perfect. Again, I marvel at how people know which wine makes certain things taste better and vice versa. Meow.
One of the things “you have to get” at the Hungry Cat is the lobster roll, but I don’t really care for what I call scorpions of the sea. The horror, the horror! Right? *eh* I don’t love crabs either (the spiders of the sea – they’re all just big bugs to me.) The people sitting right next to us had one at their table, so I admired from afar. As far as presentation, it was as beautiful as a lobster roll (usually lobster salad in a hot dog bun) could be – huge chunks of creamy lobster on top of what looked like properly grilled bread. If it’s the same bread that was in the braised clams and chorizo that we ordered, it must have been delicious.
The clams were in their shells, falling over themselves in a deep, dark red broth that left an oily crimson halo around the sides of the bowl. The thinly sliced, oily-crisp bread could have stood alone in the bowl, it was that good, and if not for the charring, I would have sworn it was deep-fried in garlic oil. First, dip bread and taste the spicy broth (not heat, but flavor), then to scoop out the bumpy bits of chorizo sausage that had not gotten caught in the clamshells. The garbanzo beans I left behind - they were a little tougher than I'm used to. I'm ridiculous - I like the soft ones from the can. I ate one clam. Two. Three. Eight clams. I couldn’t slow down, they were so good, and when the shells were all empty, I wanted to drink the broth from the bowl like leftover cereal milk. I didn’t, but I wanted to in a very naughty kitty sort of way. Purr.
I am put off by whole steamed crabs, which look like dismembered aliens when they come to the table. So even though I say I don’t love crabs, I have this secret crush on crabcakes, and order them whenever I see them on a menu. It irritates me when I order a crabcake and what I get is an enormous white plate the size of Utah, in the center a tiny hotel-soap sized crab droplet. Hungry Cat’s crabcake, topped with a dollop of aioli-let’s-just-call-it-wh
at-it-is mayo isn’t huge - it’s the size of sex-wax (for non-surfers, that’s wax for your board in the shape of a hockey puck), and though there is but one on the plate, it’s almost all crab meat, large chunks and flakes, held together, it seems only by magic and physics. Meow. Again.
We didn’t know what else to get, because the oysters, clams, and crabcake had been so good; anything else would only have been a let down. We were somewhat right. The whole boneless trout stuffed with either braised cabbage or onions (how’s that for being buzzed on shellfish?) was loosely flopped over a pile of apples. The fish was good, if not interesting with the apples and grainy mustardy sauce, but we probably should have ordered it first, and built upward.
There’s but one dessert on the menu – a chocolate bread pudding, but it didn’t “feel” right to have something so heavy-sounding. We opted for a dessert wine, Commandaria St. John from Cyprus; dark, sweet, and tasted like wine-poached prunes. Not too bad, and I could have had one more, but surprise! It was Chef David’s birthday that night, so the server brought us a piece of the birthday cake. Obviously, not a mark of the restaurant, but I took a bite, then put my fork down – it was dry and sort of tasteless. “Sarah, they wouldn’t give a chef a bad cake. This is what it’s supposed to taste like.” Alright, so I’m a little ‘burban bumpkin that only likes soft, moist, even gooey, cakes. *giggle* Nah, it was a bad cake.
We lingered for a while, softly singing along to “Uptown Girl,” the only song I could recognize all night. It was very close to the end of the night for the restaurant, and the staff didn’t need to shoo us out for waiting diners. We navigated quite ably now back to the parking structure, these cats, no longer hungry.
The Hungry Cat
1555 North Vine Street (@ Sunset Blvd.)
Hollywood, CA 90028