Monday, February 2, 2015

Animal: Man’s Best Friend (Los Angeles)

If you’re looking for a sign - don’t.

There isn’t one.

Animal was the Katherine Hepburn of restaurants – a plain face that eventually took your breath away. At a first glance, unnoticeable, but within minutes her comfortable spunk unraveled into a contagious, atmospheric smile that crackled through the air. I felt an automatic sense of kinship in a space that boasted maybe 20 tables and a back bar that squeezed in six or so. There was a certain comfort that laced itself around the room like a favorite pair of Chuck Taylors, which probably made sense as a shoe choice here, considering whom the owners were.

I’d taken a liking to Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo from the time they had a short stint on the Food Network with, Two Dudes Catering, where they showed up as wet behind the ears, long haired kitchen punks making their way in the culinary world. Now about a decade later, they were big wigs (hair pun intended) in the LA restaurant scene with hits like Animal, Son of a Gun and their collaboration with Chef Ludo Lefebvre at Trois Mec (where admission tickets were taken instead of reservations).

If hard booze was your bag, then you needed to grab a cocktail at The Dime across the street because Animal only served beer and wine, which meant a light, fruity bottle of Beaujolais for my mom, Edna (aka Eddie) and I.


White nectarine, radish, agretti, local goat cheese, almond vinaigrette ($8)

Eddie had an unhealthy obsession with goat cheese, so we’d made it a rule that whenever it appeared on a menu (which was a lot), we’d order it. This time, I was definitely taking one for the team, since the idea of a fruit salad didn’t exactly make my mouth water.

But in one trippy mouthful I was out of my seat and in my head, churning through my brain’s nostalgia. I think it was the agretti - a Mediterranean succulent (not often seen in the US) – with its lightly bitter, refreshing aftertaste that conjured up memories of freshly cut lawns on a summer evening.

Mixed with the fragrant, silken texture of rose petals, discs of raw radish, and the nutty grit of almond vinaigrette, my palate plucked at more memories of loam, and grass, and flowers.  The earthiness was countered by the sweet squish of ripe nectarine and threw me back to Jersey circa 1980’s - Matthews fruit stand, where we’d stop most days on the way back from the beach.

Summer. Youth. Innocence. Happiness.  

Poof! I arrived back at my seat disheveled, still trying to wrap my mouth around the complexities that had just torn my brain in two. There were no words. Just admiration and awe.

Roasted figs, hazelnut, buttermilk, blackberries, crispy ham ($12)

*Pursed lips* Hmmm….this wasn’t what I’d pictured at all. It arrived foaming at the mouth and I hadn’t prepared for that, but I guess I’d let it slide since this foam was of the buttermilk variety and wasn’t much more than a visual effect anyway. The real feat was the figs, and I assumed the foam was used as “edible fog” to pull off the trick that was about to be played on the senses.  

A small amount of crispy ham brought an underlying salty component (though actual ham was scarce) and released some of its flavor into the figs. The addition of hazelnut added another layer of hearty, protein-like depth and however the figs had been cooked, they had an almost meat-like quality to them (in the same way a Portobello could seem meaty).

I was reminded of a science experiment back in grade school where a student was blindfolded and the teacher held a slice of apple under their nose, while they bit into a piece of raw, peeled potato.  The mind, sensing the apple’s scent and similar texture, fooled the palate into thinking an apple was being eaten instead of the potato.

Here, the ham’s essence was transfused into the figs and invoked a similar illusion. It reminded me of Dr. Frankenstein bringing life to the monster – “It’s alive!” – turning fruit to meat! But just because you could build a monster, didn’t mean it always made the most sense after it was completed. The experiment was impressive, but I probably wouldn’t order this again.

Chicken wings, orange gastrique, mango amba, cilantro ($11)

I was always a little gun-shy when it came to ordering wings. I'd been there before. Hung my heart on a wishbone and had it broken to pieces. The heartbreak came when the promise of crispy skin and succulent meat was met with flabby, undercooked outer-parts and dried up, inner tendrils. It was almost impossible to get the right equation of crunchy skin + moist meat, but Animal knew how to handle these birds – ain’t no thang.

Wet naps appeared as a prelude to the sticky, orange glaze that glued my fingers in place for precise crunching into a translucent, candy shell, giving way to plumped, succulent chicken meat that still had a ton of integrity…so much integrity,  I would still respect this chicken in the morning. And ask for more.

Pig ear, red chili, lime, maple, duck egg ($16)

Eddie was a little worried when she heard me order the pig’s ear…and then she wouldn’t stop hogging it! This was hands down, my new favorite version of bacon and eggs. Crispy slivers of pig’s ear were wound like brambles of bacon sticks beneath the white cape and golden emblem of a sunny side up, duck egg.

My knife and fork went to work shredding it to pieces, letting the yolk flow as a gooey, viscous sauce around the browned, salty edges of sliced ear. Thin lines of Sriracha and maple syrup encircled the bowl’s interior, so that when the egg and ear were lifted out, it bumped a bit of heat and sweet. I can’t tell you how much I loved this dish – its look; its feel; its interactiveness – this was worth coming for alone. Forget the silk purse, I’d rather keep the sow’s ear.

Balsamic pork ribs, crispy potato, lemon chili vinaigrette ($26)

These ribs were teeth-tender (who needed a fork?) slabs of cooked perfection, but unfortunately the “acid trip” I experienced here was nothing like the out-of-body epiphany I had with the nectarine salad. The balsamic wasn’t fully cooked out of the ribs, so a strong, vinegary steam rose up to clog the nostrils and taste-buds with a bitter cloak.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if the beautifully crisped, coin-shaped potatoes beneath weren’t drenched in lemon as well.  But even though it contained more acid than Timothy Leary, I’d probably give it second chance since I truly believed in my heart, it had been an accidental overdose.

Bacon chocolate crunch bar with salt and pepper ice cream ($9)

Hunks of bacon flexed in wavy curls like meathead versions of chocolate chips between layers of dense dark chocolate – I was smitten. The salt and pepper ice cream also intrigued me, as my mind imagined all of the toppings I could pair with this: nuts, fruit, candy, jams, use it as a daily condiment for pies and cakes!!

My only issue was that it became salty squared (and I love my salt!) when both the ice cream and bacon bar were eaten together, but as separate components, their novelty was an endearing end to a noteworthy meal.

Service with a smile

Easily, some of the best service I’d ever had.  There was a genuine, unadulterated enthusiasm from all of the wait staff, hostess, runners…every single person we encountered. There was nothing but good vibes and pride flowing through the room. Our table was visited by multiple people, multiple times, but we never felt rushed or intruded upon. In fact, it was exactly the opposite. We left feeling well-cared for, well-fed and frankly, loved.