Every review starts with great expectations. Or at least some informed hope that the new candidate is worthy. This pick flouts our tradition, since it’s not a new restaurant. But The Cat & the Custard Cup in La Habra has a relevant pedigree, is seasonally alluring for winter dining, and most important, is likely to succeed where it matters: food, mood, and setting.
The Cat, as it’s known by fans, doesn’t need to go viral for attention. After nearly 40 years, the building with a tile roof and butter-yellow walls on Whittier Boulevard remains one of option-lean La Habra’s scant choices for finer dining.
It has been 10 years since my last meal here, so of course things have changed. I’m happy to report the past decade has been kind to The Cat. The cozy tavern surroundings ooze warmth and welcome. Even better, a quick scan reveals this menu isn’t frozen in time. The single-page carte brims with modern takes on classic, mostly American fare. Long the domain of chef-owner Creed Salisbury, the menu and kitchen are now in the practiced hands of son Caleb after three years as sous chef.
Dinner is the only meal you’ll enjoy here, as there is no lunch or brunch. Mondays and Tuesdays are dark. That says this place has the luxury of focus without the distraction of juggling various menus and staffers. No wonder the rambling 120-seat venue with three fireplaces often hums at full capacity. I say hum because even when packed, it’s not irksomely noisy—a marvel of decibel management.
Consider toasting the holidays with the vodka-based Basil Grape Refresher “cat-tail” for a bright and quenching aperitif. Prefer wine? Choose by the glass or bottle from the menu or peruse the adjacent boutique for value-priced interesting bottles you add to dinner for a $10 corkage fee (standard corkage is $20).
Starters appeal to every hankering. Go light with gem-lettuce salad dressed with scratch green goddess dressing, a recipe that is often unfairly eclipsed by routine creamy ranch nowadays. Shellfish makes for a rousing kickoff, and the meaty crab cake with crispy panko crust comes through with marvelous backup from citrus aioli, grapefruit, and avocado. Lobster bisque is usually an option, but it’s overly salty on my visit.
Timing couldn’t be better for the deliriously lovely French onion soup draped with melted aged Gruyère. The sweet glazed pork belly, which I’m told is a top-seller, is impeccably rendered to juicy-chewy excellence and comes atop a lively Thai slaw fine-tuned by Fresno chiles and crispy shallots. Both starter dishes are also offered during happy hour, from 5 to 6:30 p.m.
If you’re a venison fan, this is your place. It has become a signature of sorts—the lean, finely grained red deer seared to retain earthy flavor and tender texture. Dark fruits such as blackberry and currants are classic partners for game meats, here in a sauce with port wine and a side of tangy blue cheese gnocchi. Sweet scallops get ace treatment, their pearly flesh edged golden by an expert sizzling. Grilled ribeye is a steak lover’s dream, complete with Roquefort butter, bordelaise, roasted fingerling potatoes, and asparagus. It took two days to finish the juicy, hefty pork-rib chop resting on an irresistible poblano cornbread pudding.
The best way to play dessert here, if you have room, is to share the bountiful apple crisp. Roasted Honeycrisp apples are a flavorful upgrade from green apples, and cinnamon-rich streusel supplies harmonious crunch while rivulets of oozy vanilla-bean ice cream cinch it all together.
Alas, it was added too late to review, but I’m racing back soon for my idea of winter fare: Muscovy duck-leg confit with tender cannellini beans, spicy La Quercia prosciutto, and roasted tomato. It sounds like a novel cassoulet, an uncommon dish be it modern or traditional. Booking a reservation is always smart at this treasured under-the-radar gem, but the holiday season is extra busy here, so book yesterday if you want in this year. I’m already giving thanks that I rediscovered this December miracle.
800 E. Whittier Blvd., La Habra
5 BEST DISHES
➜ Pork belly
➜ French onion soup
➜ Pork chop
PRICE RANGE: Happy hour, $8 to $14; dinner, $11 to $46
FYI: For maximum romance, ask for Table 5 or 6, beneath the staircase.