Sunday, April 6, 2014

Animal (Restaurant) - Los Angeles

For Christmas, Judy gave me a great book, Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture by Dana Goodyear (Riverhead Books, 2013). Part III is labeled "Discomfort Food" and one of the three chapters in that part is labeled "Guts". She writes about how, psychologically, Americans have gotten around the repulsive issue of eating dead animals by "extracting the muscle and selling it apart from the animal," then cooking it. But even then, "only the meat of a limited variety of animals is eaten, while that of many others is avoided as disgusting." Then she goes on, "Offal - the parts that 'fall-off' when you hang a piece of meat - generally occupies a dubious space in modern Anglo food culture." Shen then spends three plus pages taking about the restaurant "Animal" in Los Angeles. 

The owners and chefs at Animal are Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, who had a Food Network show called "Two Dudes Catering." Goodyear notes, "Shook and Dotolo embraced whole-animal cookery...Grappling with the product in its least-processed form appealed to them...; the economics of using every part spoke to their thrift." The first words after the discussion of Animal were, "Before Animal, there was Incanto, in San Franciscio, the first American restaurant devoted to...the whole-animal proposition." Incanto is one of my favorite restaurants, so Animal was added to my "have to" list. 

For Judy's birthday we met Andrew at Animal. It is located on Fairfax, four doors up from Canter's Deli, very near Fairfax High School, in a Jewish neighborhood that is a very LA eclectic mixture of closed store fronts, graffiti everywhere,  homeless people on the sidewalk, skateboarders whizzing by, and chic restaurants with BMWs parked out front. While we waited for Animal to open at 6:00 p.m., when we had our reservation, we walked up several blocks on Fairfax and then back. A fire truck, siren blaring, pulled up outside an assisted living facility and we got to peer inside and see old men slumped over in wheel chairs with yarmulkes on their heads. 
The birthday girl and our LA son. 
Animal is impossible to find without an address. The store front is not marked. It is quite small and the unadorned tables are squashed together to provide the maximum seating space. I'm glad we got their early. By the time we left near 8:00 p.m. it was so pulsatingly loud and crowded inside that I needed a break. 

We ordered our dishes and then shared them communally. Judy, a little dubious at first, was a convert by the end. She proclaimed the gnocchi we had the best gnocchi she'd ever had. When our first round of ordered dishes were finished, it was she that suggested we order a couple of more plates. Not that I needed much encouragement. 

Animal, like Incanto before it, has entered my own list of one of my favorite restaurants. Virtually every dish was unusual, visually appealing, often with ingredients that would send some people running, and that actually tasted amazing, not just good. 

So, on to the various dishes.

We got two orders of chicken liver toast. The toasted bread came with pureed chicken livers spread over the top with a mohawk cap of dark green shallot and onion jam right down the center. To my surprise, the jam was very sweet and I initially was taken back by it, wanting to enjoy the full flavor of the chicken liver which I really love. Judy and Andrew really liked the jam. I had to be converted. For me it was two different dishes. One dish was toast with chicken liver. The other dish was toast with jam that masked the chicken liver taste. I liked both, but probably preferred the former. 
chicken liver toast with shallot and onion jam
Beets, avocado, pita, feta, and creamy sumac was one of the few vegetarian offerings. Sumac fruits are ground into powder and provide a lemony taste. The green leaves on the dish may have be sumac, which can be simple leaves, but is usually pinnate, that is, identical feather-like leaves emanating from both sides of a stem. The rounded white slices covering most of the dish were likely daikon, or white radish. What really stood out in this dish were the small pinkish and orange beets which were soft and slightly sweet, perhaps the best beets I've ever tasted. I would love a bowl of these. A nice, light, creative dish.
Daikon radish slices hide the ingredients.
The stars of this dish: small pinkish and yellow beets.
Veal brains, vadouvan, apricot puree, carrot. Vadouvan is a blend of spices derived from Indian curry with added spices such as shallots and garlic. It is blended together with the brains into a very light, almost marshmallowy, but maybe more foamy texture, covered with a crisp outer Mcnugget-like shell. The apricot puree covers the Mcnuggets and plate and small yellow and orange roasted carrots are intermixed. Andrew's first response was "it tastes like French toast" and he'd had enough. The mixture of crispy, with frothy-like foam smoothness, with sweet, was kind of weird. And I guess that wild combination is what really makes the dish. I think I would like it more savory, than sweet, but I did enjoy it. It gets very mixed reviews on Yelp. For some their favorite dish, for others, just repulsive (the "mind" thing). 
The brains look innocent enough.
The carrots are small and tasty.
The mysterious and completely surrounded offal revealed: white brains surrounded by a crunchy skull.
Marrow bone, chimichurri, caramelized onions. Chimichurrie is a green sauce used for grilled meat which originated in Argentina. It traditionally is made of chopped parsley, minced garlic, olive oil, oregano and white or red wine vinegar. Additional flavorings might include lemon, basil, cilantro, bay leaf and tomato or red pepper. I've had buffalo marrow bones several times at The Fort in Colorado and loved them. Incredibly, this may be better. I assume this is a cow bone, but the mixture of chimichurrie and caramelized onion on top of the marrow blend with the richness of the marrow and make it more moist and enhance the rich marrow flavors. I could order three of four of these for dinner and be happy. Extremely good. 
Sometimes great packages are contained inside a hard outer shell. 
Savory bone marrow spread on toast. 
Duck egg, "toad in a hole," truffle, english pea, french ham, gruyere. This dish really got my attention for some reason. I love "toad in a hole" and I think that, with a mixture of ham and gruyere just really sounded wonderful. I can see the sweet peas in the dish, the small slices of ham and obviously the broken duck egg yoke. The question is what is in the white froth on top - perhaps whipped truffle and gruyere cheese? I pictured this in my mind as kind of a heavy, sloppy dish. It was surprisingly airy and light. I liked it, good flavor, but I think I would have liked it more sloppy and blue collar. Very fun presentation. 
I love the toasted hole on top and the pieces of green sticking out cross-like. 
Remnants of the duck yoke coat the plate. Lots of colors and textures.
Ricotta gnocchi, six-hour bolognese. Here is where Judy can wax poetic. I've heard for years about the gnocchi she had in Rome, with Gorgonzola. She did say the ricotta gnocchi she had at FIG in Charleston was better and I thought the shrimp gnocci with Parmesian-Reggiano cheese we had at True in Montgomery earlier this year was better than the gnocchi in Rome, but I do agree with Judy that this gnocchi was the best gnocchi we've ever had, and it was not even close. Bolognese sauce originates from Bologna, Italy and is slowly cooked with several techniques including sweating, sauteeing and braising. Ingredients include onion, celery and carrot and different types of minced or finely chopped meat, including beef, pork, such as pancetta, wine and tomato concentrate. Our waiter said this bolognese had three types of meat. This dish was thick, almost a sludge of meat bits, with soft, compact gnocchi. Rich, rich, rich. Judy said she could have just had this dish all by herself for dinner. 
The new standard for gnoochi. All-star in a bowl. 
A peak inside the ruptured meat mound - there, a few gnocchi to be found. 
Barbeque pork belly sandwiches, slaw. I really liked this, but of all the dishes, except perhaps the turkey leg, this was probably the most normal and mainstream. The pork belly was good, but I'm not a huge barbeque sauce fan and prefer pork belly more crisped and more true to its original flavor. The slaw was good, strong, it came together as warm and juicy and soft and very strong flavored. But I had enough of it before I was finished. If I had to leave off an item, this would probably be it, but that said, I still really enjoyed it. 
Now this looks like traditional Food Channel stuff.
De-capped, the slaw in its glory.
Hamachi tostada, herbs, fish sauce vinaigrette, peanut. Hamachi is the Japanese word for yellowtail fish. It was raw, sushi style, and buried under a mountain of  cabbage and leaves and little blue flowers, small slices of raw jalapeno and peanut halves. This may have been the most surprising dish. It looked kind of airy and insubstantial, but it had a kick-butt sauce that was salty and vinegary and strong. The cabbage bits, which I imagined would be fluff, were as good as the bites with the sushi.  
This looked real frou-frou. But we dug in and unmasked a punching powerhouse.
The hamachi was nice, but the fish sauce vinaigrette was killer.
Japanese uni, heirloom cucumbers, za'atar, fried cheese, hard boiled egg. Uni is Japanese for sea urchin, actually sea urchin gonads, the long, light-brown, tongue-like items on the plate. Za'atar is a condiment from Middle Eastern dried herbs such as oregano and thyme, mixed with sesame seeds, dried sumac and salt. The heirloom cucumbers were pickle-like, must have been brined. Another interesting combination of textures and tastes: the crunchy fried cheese was almost like toasted bread crumbs, the different textures and tastes of the egg yolk and white, the pickled, soft and springy cucumber/pickle and the soft, liver-like quality of the uni. Not my favorite dish, but fun to try. 
Sea urchin gonads hidden on a plate by things that are not so offal.
A little more broken down into its various parts. 
Smoked turkey leg, celery root, apple, white barbeque. I enjoyed the turkey leg, but like the pork belly sandwich, was more like something to be found in a Texas bbq joint. Except, that it really had some things that set it apart. It was so smoked that the taste was almost ham-like. The outer layer was somehow very crispy and flavorful, quite different and apart from the smoky insides. The white barbeque sauce in a small jar was vinegary and strong, the perfect counter-weight to the strong smokiness of the ham-like turkey. 
Finally, part of the animal that is quite common and traditional.
Celery root was good, the crispy skin was killer and the white barbeque sauce was weirdly wonderful and biting, a nice counter-point to the strongly smoked meat.
Tres leches, dulce de leche. Tres leches is a sponge or butter cake soaked in three kinds of milk: evaporated, condensed and heavy cream. Dulce de leche is a confection of slowly heated sweetened milk that becomes caramelized and changes color and flavor. Judy thought it was ordinary. I thought it was fantastic. The cake was just absolutely saturated with the three milks and dulce de leche and so it had another one of those texture/taste things going on that Animal is so good at. Very rich, very good. 
A horrible picture of the tes leches, dluce de leche, but by this time it was so dark it was hard to see. 
Would I go back to Animal? Absolutely. Would I order the same items? Probably not. I would like to try other menu items. After all, we did not have a bad one in the bunch. We missed out on things like: (a) spicy beef tendon chip with charred onion pho dip;  (b) pig ear with chili, lime and fried egg; (c) crispy sweetbread with black sriracha, variegated lemon and sesame; (d) crispy pig head with rice, bulldog sauce and soy egg; (e) veal tongue with salmon roe and black mustard; (f) grilled quail with plum char-siu, pear, yogurt and apple; (g) fried rabbit legs with gold rice, lemon pepper and sour cream gravy; (h) poutine with oxtail gravy and cheddar; and (i) santa barbara rock crab with shallots avgolemono and sourdough. And the menu changes frequently. I think I would have a hard time keeping Judy from more gnocchi and I would find it hard to pass on more marrow bone. 

Note, I did not even mention (until now) the 18 oz. rib-eye steak with bone marrow butter, sauce royale and aligot potato. We saw a couple near us that got one of those each. Why order something like that at a place like this, that is so good at offal? 

An event dinner. Loved it. 

2 comments:

  1. Definitely a birthday dinner to remember. We can't go back too often or we'll have to sell our house, but you just have to say Animal Gnocchi and I'm going to have a hard time saying no.

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  2. Who cares what it tastes like--these dishes are beautifully presented. I'd try them just for their looks.

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