For my final meal on this trip to Los Angeles I decided to finally accept the hype and make a reservation at Animal. As I’ve not been living under a rock for the last three years I was obviously aware of the restaurant, present since 2008, and its substantial acclaim but all things being equal I just couldn’t bring myself to eat there on previous visits to the City of Angels because it seemed like just another one of those places taking every piece of offal, gussying it up, and serving it to hipsters – a formula I’ve seen and whose food I’ve enjoyed, but a “formula” none the less. “What changed your mind?” one might ask and to that I think the answer is three-fold – first of all the most recently posted online menu looked great, second of all it was Sunday and my plane was leaving at 11:00pm, and finally my dinner at Avec only a week prior where I rekindled my love for both the food and atmosphere Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook have reportedly been serving up since day one at the unmarked restaurant on Fairfax.
With reservations made for 6:00pm and confirmed the day prior by the hostess via phone I was fortunate to find free street parking only perhaps 200 yards from the restaurant and despite my lunch at Jitlada I was actually quite hungry after spending nearly four hours wandering the LACMA when I arrived at Animal just moments before they opened the doors. Standing and chatting for a bit with a local couple who referred to themselves as “regulars” it would not be long before the front door was unlocked and held open for us and on stating my reservation I was greeted with a smile from the hostess before being led to my table; a sturdy two-top with a good view of the bar and more than half of the long and narrow room.
Having read a bit of Dotolo and Shook’s story in the past, a rather fortuitous meeting in culinary school followed by restaurant work, catering, TV stints, and finally the opening of Animal (followed by the recently opened Son of a Gun) I was glad to see both chefs present on my arrival – Shook in the kitchen and visible through the cut-away while Dotolo stood at the bar chatting with the two regulars and bartender before himself returning to the back. With the restaurant soon to fill – literally at capacity perhaps fifteen to twenty minutes after I was seated – I would first be greeted by a young woman who would server largely as a runner throughout the evening and with water filled and a menu delivered it would not be long before I would next meet James, my server for the evening.
With the menu explained as “sort of small plates, but some actually quite substantial” James suggested that two-to-four plates would suffice most appetites and that they generally recommended anywhere from 4-5 for a table of two. Asked if I had any questions I inquired about portion size of the poutine as well as for James personal recommendations and telling him I’d take a bit to decide I perused the options while surveying the space; as mentioned quite narrow and deep with concrete floors, taupe walls, lots of wood, a bit of metal, and retro lighting – kind of an amalgam (or perhaps inspiration for) the design at ink, Red Medicine, and Gjelina. With tables closely spaced and the room loud but not deafening James would return shortly and placing my order for four plates he commended my choices stating “Nice – I hope you’re hungry.”
Leaving the Chef’s at liberty to send out the dishes in whatever order they deemed best I was a bit surprised when my first course arrived twenty or so minutes after ordering as it was certainly the heaviest dish and actually the one I expected last, the famous Foie Gras, Biscuit, Maple Sausage Gravy. Certainly not subtle or dainty in flavor or portion this dish was actually one of the reasons I came to Animal and considering the ample praise it has received over time the dish really did turn out to be a stunner; the Foie Gras itself seared flawlessly with a caramelized exterior and butter soft center juxtaposed against the pillowy buttermilk biscuit and all soaked in thick smoky gravy with just a hint of syrup. Sweet but not too sweet, large but not too large, and all-in-all quite like biscuits and gravy anywhere else with the foie gras as a lovely bonus justifying the cult status and price tag.
For the second course of the night I opted for one that I was told was “something new the chef’s have been working on” in the form of Coconut Sweetbreads, Raita, Mango, Tamarind and with the influence clearly coming from Indian cuisine I really liked what this dish had to offer. Beginning first with the sweetbreads, a large gland cut into nine bite-sized pieces and fried golden with a sweet exterior giving way to the expected creamy tones within the crunchy bites were then paired with sliced and cooked cucumbers and mangos providing a nice vegetal interplay while the use of cumin scented yogurt added a touch of sour. Already delicious a final topping with edible flowers and a smear of rich tamarind reduction added yet another layer to the dish further impressing me by making a generally dense ingredient seem quite light.
Having considered also ordering the foie terrine James talked me out of it suggesting instead the bone marrow or the pig’s ear and while I probably could have ordered and enjoyed all three I eventually settled on the ear when I found out it came with an egg. Another signature dish that has been on Animal’s menu since day one, “Pig Ear, Chili, Lime, Fried Egg” would prove to be a nice follow-up to the hefty liver and dense sweetbreads and packing quite a punch in the spice department I also understood why the kitchen opted to send it later in the meal. Light and tasty despite the pork and egg constituents this dish felt a lot like breakfast with the crispy ears quite like well done bacon and the creamy egg doing a nice job to help mellow the spice. A great balance, particularly with the mild citrus tones this reminded me a lot of Chicago’s Purple Pig though I still think the one in the Windy City remains the best porcine ear dish I’ve yet encountered.
Still not getting close to full and having seen the table next to me order both the terrine (plate envy!) and another dish that immediately became a must try I flagged James down and asked to add another savory course to which raised his eyebrows and said “sure thing, but it will take a bit of time to prepare” before heading back to the kitchen to place the order and to pick up my next dish of “Pig’s Tails Buffalo Style, Celery, Ranch.” Probably the least successful dish of the night for me, this plate arrived precisely as billed with the fatty tails nicely cooked and falling off the bone while paired with celery leaves, radish, a bit of carrot, and plenty of hot sauce. Using the ranch as a bit of a balance but still quite hot from all the cayenne I must say I did enjoy the texture of this dish, but overall I just found the taste a bit too one dimensional – especially after the complexities of those prior.
Having thankfully opted to add on one more course as I’d have not wanted the Pig’s Tails to be my last taste of Dotolo and Shook’s food my final savory of the evening was Melted Petit Basque, Chorizo, and Grilled Bread – a simply delightful porcelain dish of the mildly-pungent sheep’s milk cheese still bubbling hot and layered atop crisp and savory chorizo. Still in its molten state on arrival and paired with crunchy bread lightly brushed with oil this course was nearly a spoonable fondue with each bite full of savory notes and a touch of spice over the cheese’s unmistakable nutty tones; a perfect cheese course before dessert.
With James returning and asking if I’d “like a coffee or dessert” I told him both sounded good and as a matter of fact to make it a double – two desserts (refills of the coffee, as it turned out, were complimentary) – and with that he returned to the kitchen to place the order and returned moments later with my first of three cups of coffee, a relatively standard blend with a smooth body and clean finish but nothing to write home about (and hence, probably, the free refills.)
Moving on to the sweets I’ll admit I’d only planned to order the restaurant’s signature chocolate bar on entering but the moment I saw the words sticky pudding I knew two desserts would find their way to my table by the end of the night and sure enough the first to arrive would be “Sticky Toffee Pudding, Mascarpone, Orange,” a dense steamed pudding in the traditional fashion with plenty of dates and butter plus ample notes of brown sugar and cinnamon within. Small but intense and topped with a sort of orange marmalade infused toffee adding a citrus tone to the otherwise buttery and creamy sauce I particularly enjoyed the use of mascarpone as a base not only for the light cloudy texture, but also for helping to balance the overall sweetness.
For my final dish of the evening, and my final bites of Los Angeles for 2011 actually, Animal’s famous “Bacon Chocolate Bar, S&P Ice Cream” would arrive along with my third mug of coffee and every bit as decadent as one would figure it to be given its ingredients this dish did not fail to impress. Reportedly inspired by the Kit-Kat, much like Michel Richard’s signature dessert, this triple layer slice consisted first of a layer of thick ganache sprinkled with and infuse with bacon resting atop a layer of dark chocolate riddled with nuts and finally a crunchy chocolate cookie base. With a dehydrated milk powder decorating one half of the plate and a ball of creamy salt and pepper ice cream balancing the other I really enjoyed the various flavors, textures, and contrasts of this dessert but in the end it was the quality and nuance of the chocolate that stole the show even if the bacon gets all the headlines.
With a small line awaiting at the hostess podium and on the street James stopped by after my plates were bussed and after joking about how he wasn’t sure “where I put all that food” he asked if I would like anything else – another coffee refill perhaps – and declining as the hour was just after 8:00 I requested the check, nearly $100 after tax and tip. Thanking my servers and taking a quick look at the signed copies of “Two Dudes, One Pan” before making my way to the door and subsequently to my car I will simply conclude my thoughts on Animal by saying that yes, it does indeed fit a formula but taking into account all things from the design to the service to the food to the food it does the formula very right and I’d not hesitate to return…at least after I pick up the cookbook and visit Son of A Gun.