Photos by Anne FishbeinLos Angeles has its virtues as a restaurant town, this much cannot be denied. Within the metro area are concentrations of restaurants from every part of Asia that dwarf anything of their type in North America, Latin restaurants of every stripe, and a few of the best Italian restaurants in the country. Fancy French restaurants? We’ve got ’em. New American cooking was invented here. We’ve got definitive hot dogs and hamburgers and tacos, and world-class sushi.
But there are some kinds of restaurants that have never quite made it here, despite what one would think would be insatiable demand. There has never been a really good brasserie in my lifetime, for example, or a real old-line Italian-American restaurant or beer garden worthy of the name. East Coasters yearn for brick-oven pizza, Argentines for a decent parrillada.
Wedged into a rear niche in the Sunset + Vine complex, hidden behind an entrance to Borders and occupying a slot right where the Schwab’s powder rooms should logically be, The Hungry Cat is the restaurant many of us in Los Angeles have been waiting for, a local answer to Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco or New York’s Pearl Oyster Bar, a place to drop into for a dozen oysters or a bowl of shrimp, a boiled crab or a bowl of chowder, a glass of Riesling or a mug of beer. The restaurant is open late and on Sundays — perfect for those of us who would rather chew our arms off at the elbow than drop into a Cahuenga velvet-rope restaurant after a movie at the Arclight — and the music on the sound system tends toward Coltrane and Wynton Marsalis rather than the deep-house flavor of the month.
The wine list is tiny, but includes a ton of obscure seafood-friendly bottles — Picpoul anyone? — and everything is available by the glass. There are raw oysters and clams, a bacon-and-avocado cheeseburger for the piscophobes, and a single dessert, a chocolate bread pudding with a crisp skin of burnt sugar like a crème brûlée, that packs enough buttery goodness to satiate a table of five.
It’s not a perfect restaurant by any means. For one thing, it can feel sometimes as if you are eating dinner at a construction site. Ducts, wiring and insulation are bolted to the unfinished concrete high above your head, and you are separated from a half-finished shopping mall by only a thin, insubstantial-looking screen, a chic version of the plywood barricades that separate pedestrians from the hardhat zone. And if you have spent much time at places like Pearl or Swan, you may find the menu is a bit unfocused.
But the restaurant, run by David Lentz, former chef of the wine-friendly Melrose restaurant Opaline, and his wife, Suzanne Goin of Lucques and AOC, is new, and food is definitely the priority here. After a half-dozen littleneck clams on the half-shell, a plate of cold peel-and-eat shrimp marinated with lemon and beer, and a plate of squid salad, it would be hard not to be happy.
The crab cake is tasty — if modestly portioned — made from what the waitress claims is a 100-year-old Baltimore recipe, more crab than cake, gently crunchy at the edges and served with a smear of mustardy mayonnaise. There is a manly, vaguely Portuguese oyster chowder, a gumbo of a soup thick with diced vegetables, emphatically laced with chiles, and flavored with crumbles of chorizo. That chorizo shows up again in what is almost certainly the spiciest bowl of clams in town, the oily broth tinted a bright neon red, the peppery heat so intense that it is all but impossible to tell whether the chunks of grilled bread have been rubbed with garlic or not: delicious.
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Finfish isn’t really the point at the Hungry Cat, but it tends to be pretty good: crisp sautéed skate wings, glazed with brown butter, draped over a mound of herbed lentils and a slightly superfluous wash of puréed squash; a whole boned trout with a sort of apple-enriched sauerkraut; a slab of braised sea bass with vegetables.
The primary object of desire here is the lobster roll, an abstracted rendition of the New England beach-shack standard: lobster meat bound with mayonnaise, seasoned with chopped herbs and a few drops of lemon juice, and spooned into a split, crisp, rectangular object about the size of a Twinkie. A lobster roll is a rather specific sandwich, served in Maine lobster pounds and a few select places on the Cape, and the Hungry Cat’s diverges in several important ways from the norm. A proper lobster roll is a huge, sloppy, generous thing; the lobster here looks as if it were measured out in teaspoons. Lobster rolls are supposed to be made with Hellman’s mayonnaise and only Hellman’s mayonnaise, and the richness of the lobster salad at the Hungry Cat would seem to betray a more housemade dressing. A lobster roll, without exception, must be made with a top-loading Pepperidge Farm hot dog bun toasted in butter; the Hungry Cat’s roll is several times more precisely engineered than that (I’m guessing it is some variant of brioche) and is so beautifully crunchy that it may well have been deep-fried in a vat of boiling dairy fat, like one of Elvis’ sandwiches stuffed with shellfish instead of peanut butter and bacon.
In Kennebunkport or Cape Porpoise, I suspect this wee lobster roll would be sniffed at as a mere canapé by the locals, condemned for its size, density and extraordinary cost: $22. In Cape Porpoise, $22 gets you a lobster the size of a small pony. But we are in Hollywood, where the closest acceptable lobster roll may be 2,800 miles away. If you have a working Visa card, the Hungry Cat’s magnificent lobster roll, bolstered with celery root slaw and a pile of fries, just might be worth the expense.
The Hungry Cat, 1535 N. Vine St., Hollywood, (323) 462-2155, www.thehungrycat.com. Open Mon.-Sat. 5:30 p.m.-midnight, Sun. 5:30-11 p.m. Weekend brunch. Mastercard and Visa accepted. Full bar. Validated parking. Weekend brunch. Small plates $8-$22. Recommended dishes: peel-and-eat shrimp, Chincoteague oyster chowder, clams with chorizo, lobster roll, skate with squash and lentils.