Hungry Cat Santa Barbara
The long-awaited Santa Barbara outpost of Hungry Cat opened this week on Chapala Street at Anapamu, and last night my wife and I checked it out. The place clearly has kinks to work out.
Some of us who know the space have wondered why and how an operation like Hungry Cat would make do in such cramped quarters. Well, they do, although it felt very cramped and loud. It was like a college party in a studio apartment. There is literally no entry space, and indeed no free space anywhere inside. A person simply cannot stand tactfully and survey the scene, wait for a bar seat, sip a drink, wait for the hostess, etc. They apparently do kitchen prep in a basement space that does not connect to the kitchen from the inside, so several times a chef came barreling through the front door with a tub of ingredients, shooing customers and wait-staff out of the way!
With that said, I think they did a pretty nice job building out the space and optimizing it for their purpose; I just think the space is pathetically narrow and small for a quality restaurant operation.
They have some creative seating in the small space, including bar seating and a row of seats at a low counter that faces Chapala Street. I highly recommend sitting at one of these two areas. The main table area seemed very crowded, whereas the folks eating at the bar and at the counter had plenty of room to maneuver. We ate at the bar, which gave us the pleasure of watching and talking to the chefs prepare the dishes (which we enjoy). The trade-off, of course, is that you are sitting next to and not across from the person you are with.
Hungry Cat has a reputation for its creative drinks, which we were eager to try. I had a blood orange margarita, my wife had a caprainha. My margarita came off far too sweet for my taste, ironically giving the false impression of being made from concentrate. The caprainha was good, although not distinguishable from other serviceable caprainhas we've had.
I felt the drinks were too small for the price (around $10 per drink), a complaint that also applies to the round of wine by the glass we ordered later. We were very disappointed in the paltry pours of wine, given the double-digit price per glass.
We ordered a small pour of the Craftsman lager, which I need to single-out for praise. It was an extraordinary lager, maybe the best lager on tap I've ever had.
Now the food:
We started with "peel and eat shrimp," which we peeled ourselves (they'll do it for you for $2.00). I was surprised when the shrimp arrived cold, as I had envisioned them as being served hot. Still, they were terrific, generous size (each piece that is, not the whole order), wonderful fresh non-briny taste and crunchy. You might want to have them do the peeling though. Peeling is messy (they do provide a bowl of water with lemon for you to clean up), but also, most of the herbs that cover the shrimp come off with the shell. A little pricey ($16) for the size of the portion.
We moved onto the tuna tartare, which was also quite good. The quality of the fish was obvious and the preparation was subtle - nice accent from lucques olives.
We also had the crab cake, served with frisee, pancetta, and fried quail eggs. I'll have to try this again, I think. I liked it (hard not to like the ingredients) but somehow it didn't seem to add up to the sum of its parts.
We moved onto the fish stew, which was corvina in a garlicky broth with garbanzo beans, fennel, and a poached duck egg. I was not wowed by this presentation. Not bad, it just didn't knock my socks off. This dish was severely undersalted, which we remedied. That got me thinking that it might need to be tweaked by the chef in order to reach its finest expression.
We also tried the clams with chorizo, sofrito, and grilled bread. I have always enjoyed the idea of chorizo with shellfish, and this worked for me. The sofrito is a reduced broth with a prominent red pepper taste, nice and sweet with the clams and chorizo - I enjoyed it.
We finished with the lone dessert offering - chocolate bread and butter pudding. Nice, although another option or two would have been appreciated.
Hungry Cat has a very risky menu, particularly in a place like S.B. where, in my opinion, palates can be pretty bland and unsophisticated. Other than raw bar items and a hamburger (easily the most-ordered item last night, I would note), there is nothing simple or comfort-foodish on this menu. The dishes are all complex and mostly seafood-based, requiring an adventurous palate and an open mind. The menu says "no modifications or substitutions," which makes perfect sense but also suggests an approach that might be off-putting to people who might not agree with everything that goes into a particular dish.
As I general impression, I thought the dishes we had last night could have been better seasoned. This will probably work itself out in the days and weeks ahead.
The pricing and portioning was, in general, fairly reasonable - with the exception of the drinks.
I'll be curious to hear other locals' impressions about H.C.
My turn with Hungry Cat and we both ordered the "Pub Burger" as a test to see if there was anything they could do to a hamburger that would show off their level of culinary inspriration - cut to the chase - it was tastefully superb ........ but also some things not to like:
--did not like being hit right away if we wanted to order bottled water
--did not like asking if we wanted any thing more as "starters"
Both obvious signs of "selling up" when it was clear we knew what we wanted, studied the menu and intended to start with a classic, which was too much food in the first place.
--another gripe - why bother giving us a small bag of oyster crackers as an "amuse bouche" - cheap shot
-- also did not like at all the fact the burger was way too thick to be an easily eaten sandwich - was told most people ate it as an open-faced sandwich which would have destroyed the wonderful combination of flavors that resulted when musching the whole thing together with their proffered: garlic mayoniase, dijon mustard and kethup side dishes.
It was described with bacon, avocado and bleu cheese and it was the cheese please that turned this classic into magic - wonder which "bleu" cheese they used because it tasted like the finest roquefort which I assume they would have labeled as such if they were using the premium stuff.
So it was way too big to seriously eat easily, but the chopped meat (medium rare) was superb and the mixture of the accompaniments including the side onion really made the combination an addictive taste - served with a pile of fried onion rings which had a slightly over-sweet almost donut-y batter taste.
Bottom line - it was a d*mn fine $14 burger and I made a mess of myself trying to eat it, but I would not have wanted to miss a juicy, tasty bite and next time I will either ask for a smaller patty or slice it out a bit to make sure it can actually be eaten.
This burger NEVER should be eaten as an open face sandwich. So one has to ask the question -- what were they thinking -- why the gimmick of overkill size if they are a serious eating restaurant. That super-size un-edible joke is something for the chain restaurants.
Over all, a loud, lively, crowded scene - a mid 30's or so "trendy" crowd but fun street action to watch from the window seat copper bar (which could have used a good scrubbing because it was sticky to touch)
Also had a very nice draft dark beer - Telegraph Brewing Co - quite perfect with the burger.
I'll be back and happy to have it in the neighborhood - a good place for any of the single items for a limited meal and definitely when you are hungry and dressed for a really good hamburger.
I was also curious what treatment we would get when it became clear we would not "order up" and were going to get out of there for under $50 for two. Food was good so no complaints and we opened up the seats quickly for more servings, so they should not complain either.
Wow, these are all very on-the-mark comments so let me just scribble a short note - I had dinner there tonight and I like the place better than their Hollywood location - friendlier, more neighborhoody. I agree about the oyster crackers in packets - maybe it's an inside joke? I really enjoyed the food but I thought the portion sizes from entree to entree were very uneven. Oyster presentation with ketchup and mini bottles of tabasco (no horseradish in sight) was no bueno. And sorry, but if I'm shelling out for oysters (sorry for that), what about some nice brown bread and butter? Wine selection was intelligent, menu interesting, service was attentive and friendly - I could see being a regular as a single or a couple at the bar, watching the kitchen action and talking to the staff . . . the place is small and energy was great - I hope it finds the support it deserves.
Went past the place this evening (Wednesday) and the place was full of happy diners - a feat for a week night in this town. Milk and Honey across the street also full and lively. Welcome to the block, Hungry Cat. Your presence is very welcomed and when those huge new condos go online on Chapala Street, things should pick up on these side city downtown street considerably. It will be nice to have this area become the arts and entertainment dining center of SB. For the older crowd. Take that, Joe's!
Thanks for the first report - did you notice if Milk and Honey across the street was still pulling them in. Trattoria Victoria on East Victoria was packed Friday night and all the other standard high end places in this State/West Victoria area except Downey's were packed to the gills. Overflow in this area may help sustain the newbies looking for a niche while they grow customer loyalty. What was your final bill for two?
SB is such a fickle town - there seem to be few second acts in this town if a restaurant does not grab with quality right away. And there is a funny notion of quality in this town - witness Joe's Cafe - nothing fine about dining here, but has one of the best track records in town for any restaurant.
Noticed that upscale, austere looking sushi place on lower State ( started with a T) has folded.
Final bill at Hungry Cat was $160, including tip. We ate and drank indulgently though (5 dishes, 1 dessert, and 3 rounds of drinks for two people), so it is possible to eat there more reasonably.
Taiko was the Japanese place on lower State. Initially enjoyed the food, if not the microwave oven interior. Then the food slipped noticeably and the interior webt from bad to worse when they redesigned it to install a sushi bar. Went there once thereafter, swore not to return. Apparently others were of like mind.
Agreed on funny notion of quality here. Joe's and Harry's are scenes, somewhat pathetic, where stiff drinks anesthetize the patrons so that the dismal quality of the food offerings and execution are overlooked. I'm all in favor of tradition and local color and bars with character - just not at the expense of decent chow.