When I was last in the Big Apple, three of the four high-end restaurants in Midtown where I ate specialized in seafood, the current restaurant craze. The first, Milos, where you can pick out your own fish from an ice table, is very reminiscent of restaurants in China, although there you can choose a snake. We also went to La Marea and Le Bernardin, two Michelin-star restaurants where the menus were dominated by fish dishes.
So on the way back home, I was complaining that there are no specialty seafood restaurants in our neighborhood. Yes, we have Gladstone’s, but that’s best for lunch on the patio overlooking the beach, not for fine dining at dinner. And I like Ocean Avenue Seafood, where the menu changes daily to reflect the day’s catch, but you don’t choose the fish while it can still see you!
With that in mind, imagine how pleased I was to receive an invitation the day after we returned to the new Hungry Cat in Santa Monica Canyon, and I was blown away by the menu, the wine list, and the quality of the food, as well as the prices. It sure feels good to be home.
First of all, it too specializes in seafood. But not only is it a seafood restaurant, it’s really two in one — cold seafood plates, and cooked fish dishes. The new owners have remodeled the old Beach House by putting the cocktail bar at the south end, a raw fish bar in the middle, and most of the restaurant tables at the north end.
On a weeknight the bar was jammed with young couples. The seafood bar was also full and looked like a really nice place for a light dinner with a glass of wine, especially if you are dining alone. We took a table for three in the restaurant area. It too was pretty full, and it was quite loud everywhere until late in the evening.
The restaurant features seafood platters typically seen in beach city restaurants in France. The one at the table next to us arrived with three tiers — oysters on the bottom, clams and mussels in the middle, and crab legs, urchin, and maybe some lobster on the top. Our neighboring diners were washing it down with champagne and having a wonderful time. OK, it costs $155 for the three tier platter, but it easily serves three or four people.
I ordered the grilled asparagus and the halibut. The grilled asparagus was a bit of a surprise as it arrived looking a bit like a salad. There were dark arugula lettuce leaves, the small green grilled asparagus, and a delicious sauce made in part from ground walnuts. And sitting on top was a breaded coddled egg! The flavors and textures went exceedingly well together, and it was a light and delicious beginning.
When the halibut arrived and I tasted it I knew I had gone to heaven. The texture was silky, the fish flavorful, moist and cooked just right. It was served on a bed of greens, peas (instead of the fava beans listed on the menu), and black trumpet mushrooms, in a light sauce. It was as good as any fish dish I had had in New York.
In general the prices are amazingly reasonable for the quality. A dozen oysters for $30 is less than most restaurants in town. The asparagus at $12 and the halibut $32 (it’s the most expensive dish on the menu). That’s about half what the Michelin-star restaurants charged in New York.
To end the meal we bravely turned down the delicious sounding desserts and ordered a cheese plate. The generous portions of both famous and less famous cheeses came with almonds in honey and was served with several slices of delicious, warm, grilled French bread.
The wine list offers about two dozen each of red and white wines at reasonable prices, with many in the $30 range, and, surprisingly, the list does not include the usual suspects.
Over the last 40 years, after seeing so many restaurants come and go in this spot, I’m convinced this one is here to stay. The staff is intelligent and friendly (especially Nicolas, the manager), the menu is interesting, the food preparation exceptional, the prices reasonable, and the wine list accessible.
And it’s obviously the time for seafood.
If You Go
The Hungry Cat
100 W. Channel Road
Santa Monica, Calif.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at email@example.com