Review: Animal, Los Angeles

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Photo by Brian Leatart

“We’re definitely not going to be having sex tonight, are we?” the voluptuous Brit asks, rhetorically, as she grabs her knife and sets about carving another hunk of steak from its enormous bone. Our foursome is just starting to realize that maybe we’ve overdone it. We’ve already emptied two bottles of wine. The table is cluttered with dishes. A pan-fried pork chop has been whittled down to a single remaining bite, streaked with the remnants of creamy grits. The monkfish, braised with artichokes and tomatoes, is long gone, as are the melted leeks topped with a poached egg (overcooked, sadly, but we devoured it anyway). There is still a hunk or two left to be extracted from that steak, though. It’s clear where this is headed.

“I’m not doing anything after dinner except crawling into bed and watching TV,” groans the New Yorker, no longer obsessing over the Led Zeppelin album that’s been playing. She reaches across the table to help herself to another scoop of mashed potatoes, unctuous with butter and cream, then ladles the last spoonful of melted foie gras sauce over the top. She sighs, then digs in. The Blonde and I pick through the leftovers, looking for another bite of anything, even though we’re already full and dessert is on its way.

Animal is a hot new restaurant a few doors down from Canter’s Deli in the Fairfax District, a neighborhood that has evolved into a funky melting pot of Hasidic Jews, hip-hop skater punks, starving actors, Hollywood suits and Japanese tourists. And the only ones not checking this place out are those who adhere to the scripture of Leviticus. (The menu is riddled with bacon. There’s even bacon in a chocolate dessert, which is sublime.)

Basically, Animal is just a concrete hull that’s been polished to a sheen and outfitted with wooden tables and chairs and bare Edison lightbulbs. There’s no sign or name out front, and the place doesn’t look like much—a refreshing change for a city that has, for way too long, been obsessed with overly designed interiors—but the food’s terrific. If Led Zeppelin’s not blaring, expect Johnny Cash, Bob Marley or Feist.

Chef/owners Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo began their paths to chefdom in the kitchens of some of Florida’s top restaurants before moving west, where they worked at Chadwick under Govind Armstrong. Later, they branched out with their own catering business, which they parlayed into a Food Network TV show called 2 Dudes Catering. I never saw it, so when bloggers began buzzing about these guys opening a restaurant here, I initially paid no attention. But I’m paying attention now. (I’ve since caught a couple of clips of the show on YouTube, and they’re really fun to watch.)

These guys cook in a spirit similar to that of Mario Batali or England’s Fergus Henderson (hearty, macho flavors, with no apologies for the excess testosterone), but with a firmer grasp on Americana and a keener appreciation of California’s market-driven sensibilities. The menu changes slightly each day, but one thing you can usually count on is some sort of pork belly appetizer. The version I’ve liked best is the one that came with a tempura-fried soft-shell crab. The pork was slow-roasted to a crisp, its flavor intensely concentrated, and served with a light, Thai-style sweet/hot chili sauce. Both the pork and the crab were phenomenal. Another version was also roasted, but the skin and texture were completely different— more like the golden, fatty outer edge of a baked ham, only softer, served with a succotash of summer beans. A week later, it came with kimchee.

Shook and Dotolo make a tremendous fondue out of Petite Basque (a slightly sweet, nutty sheep-milk cheese from the Pyrenees), which is melted together with slices of dried chorizo and served with char-grilled slices of country-style bread. (Aside from this one dish and a bread salad that comes with the pork ribs, the restaurant doesn’t serve bread. However, if you want some with your salad or entrée—and, believe me, you do—the kitchen will grill a few pieces with some garlic for a couple of dollars.)

 

Had someone tried to tell me (or had I read in a review) that a slab of seared duck liver served on a Southern-style buttermilk biscuit smothered in cream gravy with pork sausage could be delicious, I would have laughed and called the messenger a rube. So you can take my word for it—or not. The biscuits-and- gravy appetizer with foie gras is simply something that everyone needs to try. I can’t get enough of it. The night I dined with the Blonde, the Brit and the New Yorker, we had one of those moments where we were all trying to be polite and let someone else have the last bite, but then the Blonde stopped playing nice and just went for it: “Oh, screw it! That last bite’s mine!” 

For every three or four dishes that are hearty and rich (the foie gras, the pork belly), there’s one that’s equally light and elegant. The raw amberjack preparation is a cross between crudo and tartare, and it is outstanding. The hefty portion of fish—cut into large, pinkish-pearlescent dice and tossed with nectarines, serrano chiles, a few pieces of citrus and a drizzle of olive oil—is as pristine as anything you’ll ever find at Asanebo or Mori. And then there’s the tomato salad: perfect heirlooms, roasted golden beets, fluffy feta cheese and strands of “pig weed” (aka purslane), the ultimate expression of summertime in California.

Another menu item that has thus far remained fairly constant is the roasted branzino (sea bass), which is presented whole and filleted tableside in a curiously upscale move for such a casual place. “You look like you know what you’re doing,” I say to my T-shirt-clad waiter as he’s swiftly deboning my fish.

“It’s my first time,” he says. “And how would you rate your performance?” I ask. 

“You should probably chew each piece about 16 times,” he answers. I dined here five times before this review, but, on two occasions, I almost didn’t come back, because the people answering the phone were downright inhospitable. The restaurant’s name is Animal, sure, but that doesn’t make it cool for the staff to bark and snarl like wild hyenas at their prospective customers.

In person, though, the servers are really nice, normal kids who are never disinterested or consumed with attitude—even if they are easily distracted or confused. Each time, they showed a genuine, youthful enthusiasm in whatever the chefs were cooking, as well as in the wines on offer. On one visit, my waiter was particularly excited about the fresh mulberries and cream being served for dessert. And I was smart to heed his suggestion.
The berries were so ripe, they were leaking (almost squirting) their juices. They were these amazing little flavor bombs—perhaps the simplest dessert I’ve had all year, but also one of the best.

The wine and beer lists appear to constantly evolve along with the menu. Anywhere from 20 to 30 wines might be available nightly by the glass or carafe, and rarely does a full bottle cost more than $45. It’s really good stuff, too: white Riojas and Gruner Veltliners and red Minervois, Primitivos and Haut-Médoc. But for some terrible, inexplicable reason, the red wines are all served ice-cold. Not cellar-cool—ice-cold. The beer selection one week includes Pabst Blue Ribbon and Fly Dog “Doggie Style” Pale Ale, while the next it includes Miller High Life and Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout.

The guys from the sneaker shop up the block, who are seated next to me one night, seem to love this, calling out: “Hey, can we get another round of 40s over here?”

 

ANIMAL
435 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A.
323.782.9225

RATING
3 stars

HOURS
Sun.—Thurs., 6pm— 11pm; Fri.—Sat., 6pm—2am

WHO’S THERE
Skater punks, DJs, young studio execs, The Grove shoppers and neighborhood penny savers

WHAT TO WEAR
Hand-painted sneakers, baggy shorts, $300 hats, tailored suits, little black dresses with visible tattoos

ABOUT THE NOISE
Quiet early and on mondays, but loud and raucous from 8pm onward most nights

WHAT IT COSTS
Appetizers, $5—$22; entrées, $22—$70 (steak for two); desserts, $8—$10; valet parking, $5.50

What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
1 = fair, some noteworthy qualities
2 = good, above average
3 = very good, well above norm
4 = excellent, among the area’s best
5 = extraordinary in every detail
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service. 

 

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