Call me Animal. That's my Name!
The room at Animal is much smaller than expected, and with little to muffle the sound, it is a cacophony of voices, with music cranking as hard as it can to keep up. In a strange way though, the environment matches the intensity of the food. This is not the kind of place where you insist they turn down the music or turn up the heat. It's not the kind of place where you insist on the best table in the house; you are grateful to get any table at all. It's not that the place is hoity-toity, it's just that the demand exceeds the supply. Everyone wants in.
Animal is the creative ground for Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook. The two chefs met in culinary school in Florida, where they started their culinary career moving as a unit from one restaurant to another, then to Vail, and finally Los Angeles. After a short stint at the doomed Chadwick, they got an odd job painting Ben Ford's house, which eventually led to a job cooking for Ben's father, Harrison Ford (yes, that's why Ben Ford is such a babe). Then on to catering, The Food Network and finally Animal, where we can only hope we can keep them.
Many items on their menu sound like they couldn't possibly work. It's as if the chefs made them up while totally blazing. And therin lies the magic. Animal takes innovative ingredients and somehow balances them to explode with flavor. Nothing is "off". Nothing is trying too hard. It's just damn good.
Take for example, their trippy Foie Gras served on a Cream Biscuit with Maple-cured Gravy. It was a dish that could go terribly, terribly wrong, but if they had the balls to serve it, I had the balls to try it. Not only was the foie cooked to perfection, but the maple added that touch of sweetness that foie needs without being cloying. There was a spicy-hot sausage in the rich gravy that added a little spark. Then as the final coup de gras, the biscuit was the fluffiest, most heavenly biscuit I have ever tried. And I am a seeker of the perfect cream biscuit.
I not only cleaned the plate, I placed another order. Luckily they made an exception to their usual rule -- you have to order all of your food at the same time. That rule drives me insane, because I want to treat Animal like a tapas bar, ordering again and again until I'm full. So instead I tend to order 5 small to medium plates and that is usually about right. Sometimes I even share.
It's hard to recommend dishes because beyond a few staples, the menu is constantly rotating. One standard you have to eat before you die is the Oxtail Poutine. For anyone who doesn't know, poutine is like the national dish of Quebec, if it were a nation (and don't you dare tell them they aren't). Cheese curds and gravy on fries - the quintessential drunk dish. It's one of those things that can be made really, really badly and often is. It is an eye-rolling joke to the rest of Canada, but I will go to the mat for poutine now that Animal has elevated it to heavenly status.
Animal's Poutine gravy is so rich -- first they make a veal stock, then use that to make a Bordelaise, then use that to make a foie sauce. All that hard work definitely shows. The meat, which braised for hours and hours, was flavorful and falling apart. The minor change to a quality cheddar cheese makes all the difference. It almost seems like they magically worked out a formula so that every single fry had the perfect bite of cheese and meat instead of falling all over the place in a big mess. Let's give these boys a "Hell, yeah!"
Another must-order dish is Pork Belly Sliders. the pork was light as air. and they made the extra effort to make sure the bread was also light as air. did not need teeth to eat it. only coleslaw was there to add crunch.
Pig's ear with chili and lime was topped with a fried egg. I was curious to see if the ear would be chewy like in Paris, or gelatinous like in Monterey Park. It was neither. It was more like shredded beef jerky, with a fatty carnitas-style fry. It was extremely fiery and I would prefer it as a bar snack with a cold beer.
Another dish to order when available is the marrow. Normally marrow is almost liquified with a thin fatty skin on it. Not at Animal. Their marrow was like custard through and through. The use of Chimichurri instead of the standard parsley was a stroke of genius.
The Grilled King Crab is fresh and doused with melted butter spiked with Tabasco. The only main dish I have ordered is the Hanger Steak. The hanger steak, knows as poor mans filet, was just as good as a filet. A generous topping of Gorgonzola balanced well with a demi glace.
Animal also serves dessert, but we have only managed it one time, for a birthday, The Tres Leches cake was moist without being soggy and hard not to fight over. They are known for their Bacon Chocolate Crunch Bar with S&P Anglaise (Wait, s&p? salt and pepper? What?)
Besides their ability to make impossible-sounding dishes not only possible but delicious, they also excel at attention to detail. Even the fois gras where they could skimp they dont. Even the cream biscuit is at the top of its form. Every element is carefully controlled. if there is so much as a baby potato on your dish it is going to be the best baby potato possible. Really, you have to love these guys. How about this quote from Food and Wine when they were awarded in the category of Best New Chefs of 2009:
On the L.A. food scene:
Vinny: “People out here eat like kids: hamburgers, hot dogs, doughnuts. You can tell: So much fast food started out here.”
Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook are like the garage band of the culinary scene. As Bobzilla put it, "I wish they were a band. I would buy every album."