Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sensuous, Luscious and Sexy! The Voluptuous Dishes of Animal

At its core, food provides sustenance, a means to nourish the body. It may or may not taste good, but it provides the energy you need to go on. Finding food that's "tasty" or even "delicious" is something that's even better; you're getting nourished and are genuinely enjoying the taste of each bite of a particular dish. But when you experience food that goes beyond "delicious", that is downright *luscious* and *heavenly* - something that moves the soul - that's one of the greatest pleasures you can find. Whether it's the legendary bowl of handmade Ramen Noodles, wonderful Broth, mouth-watering Chashu and the perfection that is the Hanjyuku Tamago at Menya Kissou, or the Grade A5 Hokkaido-Gyu at Urasawa, the list of restaurants that can deliver a dish that is truly sensuous and sexy is something worth celebrating, and we can now add Animal to that list.

Animal is the creation of Chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (who've appeared on Iron Chef and even had their own Food Network show, "2 Dudes Catering"). When approaching the nondescript entrance (painted a flat black), it might be hard to tell you've arrived until you see the valet parking booth for Animal: It turns out Animal doesn't even have a sign installed yet. According to Chef Dotolo, it's because when they first opened up the restaurant, they didn't have enough money to install a proper sign and they've never gotten around to it yet.

Stepping inside, it's a small, down-to-earth, rustic space. Clean, with simple wooden tables filling up a space that feels like it's only 1/4 the size of Canter's (just a few doors down). For Chef Dotolo and Shook, "Animal" was something they came up with one night as they sat around thinking of a name for their new endeavor. They finally ran across a word that embodies what they're all about at this restaurant.

Animal's menu changes daily, and during our first visit, the first thing that catches my eye is a dish that single-handedly, nearly stopped the entire Man Bites World project on Canada Day: Poutine. I've never had Poutine before, but after seeing what happened to my dear friend Noah, I had a morbid curiosity to see what this dish was like. (^_~) Animal's Poutine consists of French Fries covered in Oxtail Gravy and Vermont Cheddar and thankfully looks a bit better than what I saw on Canada Day. :)

The French Fries exhibit a nice crispy exterior with a fluffy, airy interior, and when dipped / covered in their housemade Oxtail Gravy and Vermont Cheddar, the result is a rich, beefy decadence! :)

Our second appetizer arrives at this point: Melted Petit Basque, Chorizo, Garlic Bread.

As the plate arrives, the fragrance from the melted Basque is wonderful. Dipping a piece of the slightly burnt Garlic Bread into the oozing concoction reveals another bit of goodness, that gets slightly undermined by the extremely salty Chorizo (and slight bitterness from the charring of the Garlic Bread). Still the melted Basque by itself with some of the nicer sections of the Garlic Bread makes for a great starter.

Their Roasted Marrow Bone, Parsley Salad arrives soon after.

It's perfectly executed with the Bone Marrow cooked through, but still retaining most of its volume, and only lightly seasoned (with a container of Rock Salt for those wanting more sodium). Animal's Roasted Marrow is like eating a savory, beef aroma-infused liquid butter: Just wonderful with a bit of the Parsley Salad and the Garlic Bread. :)

One of the more recent additions to the menu is Chef Shook and Dotolo's interpretation of the classic Hawaiian Loco Moco dish. Normally a hearty meal already - Spam, Fried Egg, Hamburger Patty, over White Rice and topped with Gravy - Animal's version is a Foie Gras Loco Moco, Quail Egg, Spam, Niman Ranch All-Natural Hamburger Patty, over Gold Rice.

And while the previous dishes delight the senses, it's this dish that manages to elicit a lust for food *and* satiate that lust a few moments later. Imagine an absurd amount of Foie Gras, and as you bite down, the Foie Gras is perfectly seared with a center that's *so* buttery and *so* creamy, that it starts to meld seamlessly with the Quail Egg Yolk that's been broken that adds more rich lushness, which then starts to mix in your mouth with a bit of the Niman Ranch Hamburger Patty - Juicy, Fatty All-Natural Ground Beef :) - and then it mixes with a bit of the Gold Rice that's absorbed the housemade Gravy with a touch of Sriracha.

Heavenly decadence! (^_^)

Finally, we try their Daily Special, a House Smoked Pork Belly, Lentil and Butterbean Salad.

The House Smoked Pork Belly is marinated in Animal's housemade BBQ Sauce, and as expected, the Pork Belly is fresh, buttery, fatty goodness! :) There's a nice crispy exterior and good char, and the Housemade BBQ Sauce is on the sweeter side but still tasty. The Lentils and Butterbeans are a touch too pickled. I understand the idea to have the tartness cut through the fat, but here, the pickling is too harsh and sharp. Still, the Pork Belly itself is wonderful.

On my second visit, I start off with their Braised Leeks, Chopped Egg, Cheddar, Crispy Duck Rillette.

The Duck Rillette bears an intense poultry angle, that's refreshingly bold, mixed with a great crispy crust that tastes of fresh oil (in all my visits the fried dishes have always tasted as if they were cooked in a new batch of oil). The Braised Leeks add just a touch of tartness (light) that balances the oiliness of the Duck Rillette but never overpowers the dish.

And then we get blindsided with another bit of wonderful goodness: Foie Gras, Maple Sausage Gravy, Biscuit.

By now I already know what Foie Gras can be like in the hands of Chef Shook and Dotolo, but just when I think the Foie Gras Loco Moco is beyond amazing, taking a bite of the Foie Gras topped with their made-from-scratch Maple Sausage Gravy results in my guest and I stopping everything and moaning out a hushed "Oh... my... !!!"

This is another giant slab of absolutely perfectly cooked Foie Gras. The silky, divine texture and flavor is like a match made in heaven with the made-from-scratch Maple Sausage Gravy! A *gorgeous* smoky, maple flavor combination bathes the Foie Gras and the buttery, light and airy Biscuit is the final touch of voluptuous absurdity. Our table is filled with the widest smiles I've ever seen since last year. (^_^)

At this point, I'm ready to ask for the bill and leave. The Foie Gras is so great that any dish that follows it would be set up for disappointment. That is, until the Pork Belly, Kimchi, Peanuts, Chili Soy, Scallion dish arrives.

While their House Smoked Pork Belly was good, but had some shortcomings, here, the Pork Belly is gorgeously crisped, which adds a nice textural counterpoint to the inside which is velvety, sexy unctuousness! The Pork Belly is *so* fresh and pure, and the meat is tender and juicy (along with plenty of fat :). The Kimchi is a great foil for the Pork Belly, with its light spiciness and sour pickled facets being just what's needed to cut through the heaviness. While I love a great Buta no Kakuni (Braised Pork Belly), Animal's Pork Belly Kimchi dish may just be my new all-time favorite version of Pork Belly in L.A.! (^_^)

Now our entree arrives and my senses are still in a state of awe, but I quickly refocus to see what their Quail Fry, Grits, Slab Bacon, Chard, Maple Jus is all about.

Quail is such an easy meat to overcook. I've had too many bad Quail dishes recently, so I'm not expecting much, but Chef Dotolo and Shook continue to astound: A beautiful, fresh-tasting, crispy batter locks in a completely moist and succulent whole Quail! The Quail meat is so juicy and tender, and the crispy batter makes this Animal's version of the classic Fried Chicken and Grits dish. I'm running out of adjectives to describe the goodness found here. :)

The Slab Bacon has a strong (but never dominating) smoky intensity, with a nice sweet glaze and balanced nicely with the Maple Jus.

On my third visit, we decide to start with a new menu item: Barbeque Pork Belly Sandwiches, Slaw.

This dish takes the crisped version of their Pork Belly and combines it with their housemade BBQ Sauce with a touch of fresh Coleslaw on a flaky, buttery bun. On this evening, only Chef Dotolo is in the kitchen, but he shows, once again, his mastery of Pork: Pure, fresh, buttery tender Pork Belly served slightly sweet with the light, fragrant bun. Simply outstanding! :)

Another new item is their Ling Cod, King Crab, Gold Rice Succotash, Tabasco, Cipollini.

The Ling Cod is cooked just right, with a great sear and yet still so soft, flaky and moist. The King Crab, however, feels like an afterthought. Not only is the portion of the King Crab a bit meager, but its flavors just don't match the Ling Cod very well. The Gold Rice Succotash is a nice interpretation of the old mainstay, doused in Clarified Butter, but in the end, this dish feels a bit disparate.

My guest this evening is a Sweetbreads fiend and insists that we try Animal's Veal Sweetbreads Grenobloise. :)

While not the most beautifully plated dish, the Veal Sweetbreads have a good, dense custard-like texture, with nice little accents of tartness from the Capers and a good fragrant interlude from the Garlic and Butter.

We finish off the evening with their homemade Pound Cake, Strawberries, Cream.

I absolutely adore Strawberries, and this dessert is probably the best Strawberry Dessert I've found in recent memory! (^_^) The Pound Cake is fluffy, airy and light, and the fresh Strawberries are so floral, fragrant and sweet; I love this dessert! :)

If there's one area that may be a negative for some, it would be their acoustics. For all three of my visits, Animal has been at full capacity, and its ambiance matches the connotations of its name: Loud, boisterous and energetic, it's fun, but the noise can sometimes get out-of-hand, depending on the clientele (the first two visits were slightly loud, but fun); the third visit had a large party who disrupted the entire restaurant with their random outbursts of yelling-level laughter and trash-talking to each other. Animal needs to invest in more acoustic dampening equipment (another aspect that Chef Dotolo mentions that they wanted to install, but didn't have the funds to pursue it when they first opened up).

Service has been just fine for all three of my visits, generally straightforward and casual; nothing outstanding, but nothing bad, either. Prices range from $5 - $37, and we averaged about ~$40 - $45 per person (including tax and tip).

If there was ever a restaurant that could make you stop whatever else you're doing and experience nothing but culinary ecstasy, Animal might be one of them. From their absolutely voluptuous Foie Gras, Biscuit and Maple Sausage Gravy, to their Foie Gras Loco Moco and Pork Belly and Kimchi appetizer, and more, I've never seen a new restaurant hit so many dishes out of the park. While they fall short on Plating, Service and Ambiance at times, and while some dishes aren't anywhere near as good as their stars, the reason to go to Animal is specifically for those rapturous dishes. This isn't overly fancy food, but it's food that makes you *feel*; food that resonates with the soul.

Rating: 8.8 (out of 10.0)

435 N. Fairfax Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Tel: (323) 782-9225

Hours: Sun - Thurs, 6:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.
Fri - Sat, 6:00 p.m. - 2:00 a.m.


Food, she thought. said...

I would have liked to see the inside of the Basque with horizo dish, and I would have been all over that bone marrow with parsley salad.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Food, she thought,

Thanks for the thoughts; I'll definitely try and capture more "enclosed" dishes next time. The Basque smelled so good, after the initial photos, we couldn't wait to dig in and try it (and then it was gone before we knew it :).

If you go, let me know how it turns out. :)

Pinkfoodie said...

Great review. I love all the Foie Gras!! :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Pinkfoodie,

Thank you. :) Yes, the Foie Gras at Animal is just... beyond amazing. (^_^)

WeezerMonkey said...

Yes, the pork belly with kimchi is definitely my fave pork belly in L.A., too!

Food Marathon said...

I barely remember to take any pictures before I dive in... especially when pork is concerned.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi WeezerMonkey,

Nice! :) Glad to hear it's your favorite Pork Belly dish as well. :) I can't wait to go back.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Food Marathon,

Hehehe. :) Yah, it's definitely hard sometimes when you go to restaurants where the food smells and/or looks so enticing! :)

Craig said...

You have the greatest food blog on the planet!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Craig,

Thanks for your kind words. (^_^; I think I have a long ways to go, but I'm glad you enjoy it. :)

Anonymous said...

Rarely do I moan when looking at the internet, but ....

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anon,

Hehehe. Yes, Animal's dishes are moan-worthy. Some really delicious items. :)

Anonymous said...

Oh Snap! That looks absolutely wonderful. Great review. The bone marrow dish really caught my eye as I've never tried anything like that. I'm intriqued and wouldn't mind trying it out.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi sellmoremeals,

Thanks. :) The Bone Marrow was pretty good, but their Foie Gras and Pork Belly is even better. :) I hope you enjoy your dinner there.

Atsuko said...

Hello Exile Kiss,
Thanks for your wonderful review. You blog site is great and very inspiring. My husband and I are finally getting around to dine there next week. Have you heard any updates or anything new to this restaurant since your last post? Thanks!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Atsuko,

Thank you for the kind words. :) Well, Animal just finished up Vegetarian Week (it ends today), with a guest chef formerly from Ubuntu in Napa Valley.

Besides that, they've been making a GREAT Pig Ear's appetizer that you should try. And all the amazing dishes I was lucky enough to try (listed here).

Let me know how the dinner turns out. :)

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