Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Let's eat: I seafood, I eat it

Recent dining plans have taken me to casual seafood joints on either coast, giving me the opportunity to (drum roll) compare and contrast!

In Hollywood, The Hungry Cat is a venture of David Lentz (that's Mr. Suzanne "AOC" Goin to you) that faces towards the east coast but now seems a little more west-facing despite the persistence of the lobster roll (and that's not a complaint). It's a mini-empire, with a Santa Barbara outpost opening sometime soon.

Recently, C and I had a fishy feast there, beginning with a shared half dozen oysters: Stingray (named because that's what critter likes to eat them) and Old Salt from Maryland, as well as Malpeques from New England (forgive my not remembering their exact address). The oysters were distinctly flavorful, each memorable in its own way; the bartender's description (without reservations, you eat at the bar) was helpful. We then shared the dungeness crab w/ black rice and spicy blood orange sauce. This was my first experience with the western crustacean of choice, and it was a tasty one. We also tried the chorizo stuffed squid, which I'd rate at a B; tasty, but dressing squid up too much is, to me, not worth the effort. Like my grandfather told my brother when he bought his starter house: Don't overbuild.

The dessert of assorted cheeses with walnuts and honey was a great finish. Generally, Hungry Cat has gourmet ambitions that it generally fulfills, with the lobster roll and Pug Burger as delicious exceptions. As it expands into the former Schwab's space, including an oyster bar, we'll see how those ambitions play out.

On the other coast, in Cambridge, Jasper White's ambitions have always been clear -- he is the Cooking from New England guy, an early friend-to-Julia-Child who has long been a presence (both physical and theoretical) on the Boston food scene. Half a decade ago, White opened the first of four Summer Shack locations at Fresh Pond circle, across from the historic former location of Joyce Chen (I know my Boston food history) and in what was for years the Polynesian party joint Aku Aku. With one of Aku Aku's Easter Islandy heads recast as an old salt, White created a casual seafood place that's a cross between Legal Seafood and any lobster pound in Maine.

Summer Shack had a long specials list of raw oysters, with more variety than Hungry Cat, plus littleneck and cherrystone clams. All were fresh and perfect. The steamers, an east coast staple, were sweet and not at all sandy. The fried oysters were very good, as was the lobster roll, and our youngest guest enjoyed his fried calamari (not overbuilt, this squid) after he polished off umpteen raw clams. If the fries were undistinguished, well, the fries at Woodman's, up in Essex, aren't anything to rave about, either; the seafood is the point. The one gourmet excursion, a sauteed sea bass on top of garlic mashed potatoes with lobster bearnaise, was good, but monochrome in appearance (browned fish, white mashed, deep brown sauce) and possibly out of place on the menu. And the dessert selection, which includes soft-serve ice cream, is just what's needed. Summer Shack also offers a full clambake; east coast lobsters of various sizes, from modest to gargantuan, are offered steamed or cooked in less simple ways.

So where's the compare-and-contrast? It's not rocket science: east coast seafood is better on the east coast. West coast seafood places, like the Hungry Cat, like the phenomenally good Water Grill, are their own creatures. All together, class: Comparisons are odious. When I seafood, I eat it, wherever I happen to be.

photo by sooz via Flickr.

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