My mom and her friend, Katie were in town last week. Mom was hell bent on seeing Michael Pollan speak at UCSB, so that's what we did. 8pm, Saturday night, Santa Barbara... But where to eat beforehand? This decision actually had me dithered out for a few days. I am not that familiar with Santa Barbara. I have only driven past it on the way to Los Olivos with the exception of one afternoon, last Summer, where I did tool around the city on a bit of a driving tour. But we moved onto Ojai by dinnertime. I heard of a fantastic taco stand which actually sounded like a really cool idea. However about halfway through the drive there in rush hour traffic on the 101 I realized wherever we were to dine I was going to need at least one glass of wine. The taco stand idea wasn't going to work. Then I remembered that the good, ole Hungry Cat had opened up a sister restaurant in Santa Barbara. Fresh seafood in an oceanside town, great wine list, in a central location, perfect. So we programed our little GPS (whch Mom and Katie named Serena) to guide us to our meal and that - ever growing with importance - glass of wine (or two).
The Hungry Cat here in LA is good. Wonderful, fresh oysters, innovative and seasonal menu, great wine list, and ZERO ambiance. In fact while we were dining there once my mom commented that she felt as though she was IN an oyster. It's very cold, hard and sterile. A lot of concrete. But the food and the cocktails (made with top shelf liquor and fresh squeezed juices and fruit) make it a worthwhile destination regardless. The Hungry Cat in Santa Barbara is another world altogether. It's lovely! In an old building on a corner lot, lots of (casement) windows, beautiful lighting, and much more intimate, this Hungry Cat was already the perfect choice.
We began the way I always begin at The Hungry Cat - with a dozen mixed, raw oysters on the half shell. They always have very fine and fresh oysters and tonight was no different. I could easily have a meal of only dozens of oysters and wine. Yum. I noticed on the fruits of the sea platters there was sea urchin (Uni is my most favorite item to order at sushi) but it was nowhere else on the menu. After inquiring I learned that for a mere $16 a sea urchin could be mine to enjoy! I've never had it served any way except over rice, wrapped in nori. Wow. This crazy, spindly, imposing creature appeared in front of me served over ice with house-made crackers, lemon and sea salt. It was so fresh and so delicate - such a contrast with it's armored and dangerous exterior - so decadent, so wonderful. Also such an experience! Both my mom and her friend, Katie were fascinated and impressed, had never had sea urchin before. I am so Team Sea Urchin...
I paired the oysters and the sea urchin with a glass of Chateau Durasse Bordeaux Blanc ($38, $9) which was nice if a little powerful for the food it accompanied (I should have just had a glass of prosecco or Sancerre).
I then ordered the grilled flatbread, smoked veal and confit tuna remoloulade ($15), my mom had the local halibut ($12) and Katie ordered the famed Pug burger ($14). Honestly my flatbreads were kind of heavy, salty and oily, Mom's halibut was fresh and delicious but the portion was tiny - almost a sashimi-style presentation. Katie's Pug burger was great. It's really a fantastic burger - enormous, and served with avocado, bacon & blue cheese. This burger, named after chef - owner David Lentz's dog, Pug, is hugely popular and has received much press as one of the best burgers in LA.
We all enjoyed our experience and our food quite a bit. I still think The Hungry Cat is most ideal for raw bar items and cocktails, but this branch in Santa Barbara has the ambiance factor down as well.
The Hungry Cat
1134 Chapala St
Santa Barbara, CA 93101