I’ve just returned from a late afternoon slot at Hungry Cat’s “Crab Fest,” their annual celebration of the Maryland/Chesapeake Bay blue crab in all its steamed, Old Bay-crusted goodness.
For the uninitiated, the consumption of “hard shells” is an anthropological right of passage for generations growing up around the Chesapeake Bay (like Chef David Lentz, I understand). By way of background, I am a Washington D.C. native and a self-professed but otherwise unlicensed connoisseur of authentic Maryland crabs. This was my first Hungry Cat Crab Fest.
Let me start by saying that the atmosphere at the Hungry Cat was absolutely amazing this afternoon. Normally a concrete canyon defined by the Borders bookstore and the defunct Schwab’s deli, the restaurant this day was transformed into a little slice of Chesapeake roadhouse, complete with a pumping stereo (mainly Allman Brothers and Meters standards) and profuse smoke from a couple of giant barbeques.
The crab fest is prix fixe for $45 and includes crab soup, corn bread, corn grilled over the aforementioned smoky pits, a crabcake sandwich, all the steamed Maryland hard shells you can eat, and capped by a plum shortbread dessert. Add on a couple of cans of ice cold National Bohemian beer (an old-time Baltimore staple) or one of the Hungry Cat’s proven cocktails, and you figure that the afternoon is pretty much taken care of.
In my opinion, the results of the crab fest were hit and miss. The hits were out of the park and the misses were unfortunate.
On the plus side you can tally the overall atmosphere, especially on the smoky outdoor patio. All bluster, swagger, charcoal smoke, and cheap beer, the Hungry Cat seemed to authentically recreate the feel of an unpretentious Maryland crab house in the heart of otherwise trendy Hollywood. No small feat.
Similarly great were the series of courses created in the Hungry Cat kitchen, including the richly crabby soup and an outstanding crabcake “sandwich” that was really more of a giant, meaty crabcake on top of a smoky slice of grilled bread with a tangy, caper-rich relish. Both dishes preceded the actual crab feast and both demonstrated the competence of Lentz and the Hungry Cat kitchen. In my experience, this restaurant puts out dishes of this caliber on a nightly basis, crab fest or not.
The real disappointment of the meal for me was the crab course itself. If you’ve ever had a real feast of steamed Maryland blue crabs on a messy table covered with newspaper and armed only with a mallet and a knife, you know very well that the reward for an eternity of smashing, poking, dissecting, and picking at a mound of crabs is sweet, succulent knobs of firm, fresh crab meat. It’s a real chore, but fortified with enough cheap beer and surrounded by like-minded friends, the labor is the party and the rewards are just.
Maybe it was the fact that I arrived later in the day. Maybe it just goes to show that flying bushels of blue crab from the fertile waters of the Chesapeake to a restaurant in a concrete canyon in Southern California takes a considerable toll on the product itself.
In any case, these crabs were a sad, mushy imitation of the real deal. I could put up with a slightly inferior product, but the crabs I picked – from three separate deliveries to my table – were sadly small and truly second-rate. The meat in both claws and body was definitely redolent of salt and Old Bay, but unfortunately gooey and water-logged. Again, I realize the toll that time and distance takes on a little blue crab just plucked from his happy home – but still, this stuff was just NOT the real deal.
I have a great deal of respect for Lentz and his restaurant. The prepared dishes they sent out tonight were excellent. Unfortunately, the star of the event did not live up to these standards. I accept that I might have gotten a bad crab or two -- it happens. Or maybe I need to go earlier in the day next year. But the crabs I had tonight were simple not up to par.
Certainly no fault can be laid for putting on the event in the first place. The atmosphere alone is (almost) worth the price of admission. (And it got a little brighter later in the evening with the quiet arrival of Lentz’s celebrity chef wife Suzanne Goin and the couple’s twin babies, there to enjoy some excellent soup and mushy crab.)