TO LIVE & DIE IN LA: ANIMAL, ONCE BITTEN...........
SERVER: Have you dined with us before?
SYBIL: I have, but he hasn’t.
SERVER: (looks at me as if such a thing were barely imaginable) Well, I am excited for you.
ME: Er, thanks
It seems that he was not the only one to be excited as the online reviews I have found for this meat driven restaurant in the Fairfax part of town range from the “squeal, OMG, squeal” to “this is my favourite restaurant of all times” with only a handful of people daring to question the majority opinion that this is one of the “must visit” restaurants in Los Angeles.
Far be it from me to douse the enthusiasm of the Angelenos, but walking out of Animal a little over an hour after our arrival, I had it firmly placed in the “expensive but blah” category I have reserved for most of my mid-scale West Coast dining.
Owners, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo are well known for their “Two Dudes Catering” show on the US Food Network and that, along with a menu designed for the unapologetically carnivorous has kept the local crowds coming back since it opened a little over a year ago. I had never heard of them, or the show, but the menu looked interesting and the pleasingly minimalist design of the dining room seemed to fit well alongside it in the same way the whitewashed walls of St. John do to Fergus’s nose to tail approach.
Our friendly server began explaining how the menu worked. I am always very wary of a menu that needs more explanation than “there is a list of what the chef can cook, you order and we bring it to your table” Here, there were small plates to be shared, well of course there were. It is almost impossible to escape the recent attempts of restaurants to gouge more money from their customers.
As they say Stateside “do the math”. Two normal starters @ $9 = $18, Three “small plates to share @ $7 = $21. Resulting in squeaks of Micawberish glee from the bean counters and wails of anguish from the punter as their bill climbs to unexpected levels.
Going with the flow for the sake of getting any food at all, we ordered three starters and one main course to share between us. The first two dishes that arrived told me just about everything I needed to know about Animal. The “Melted Petit Basque with Chorizo and Grilled Bread” according to the reviews was a “must try”. It is only a “must try” if you like constructing your own pizza. To all intents and purposes this dish brings you the ingredients for a slice (good quality ingredients admittedly) in a bowl with some toast so you can make your own. I loathe pizza and begrudge paying $12 to do what the kitchen should have done anyway, so after one unenthusiastic bite, I pushed the plate across to Sybil who seemed happy enough to continue with the task.
That left me staring down a salad of “Baby Kale, Pecorino and Lemon” one of the recommendations of the server and a very welcome simple salad again using excellent ingredients. Unfortunately, in being excited for me, our waiter forgot to tell me that they also added blood pressure threatening amounts of salt, which was redundant given the amount already in the cheese. Combined with the lemon, the end result was not a pleasant one and that plate too was pushed away after a few mouthfuls.
Things perked up a great deal with the arrival of our third starter of “barbecue pork belly sandwiches and slaw” These were two sliders (mini burgers to the uninitiated) comprising perfect slow cooked pork belly with creamy coleslaw in two bite sized brioche buns. This is the sort of thing they do really well in America. Good, hearty, messy fun and I sucked up my share and then stared at Sybil until she blinked and gave in, leaving half of her sandwich for me to finish.
It was just as well, because as soon as the main course arrived I returned the favour and said “it’s all yours honey” indicating that, apart from a small taste, 2009’s most ill conceived dish would be entirely for her enjoyment. A “foie gras loco moco, quail egg, spam, hamburger” was $35 worth of “what the fuck were they thinking?” An upscale take on the Hawaiian "classic" this Frankenstein’s monster of a dish, brought together well prepared ingredients in the most implausible combination since a Hollywood exec first used the words “Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito, Twins”
On top of the food tower was a glistening fried quail egg with a soft yolk. Lovely on its own and more than acceptable served with the next layer, a slab of foie gras (I am guessing from Hudson Valley, although the menu did not say) which was crunchy on the outside and soft and melting in the middle. But, the kitchen was obviously having too much fun there to stop, so underneath the foie was a slice of fried SPAM. Now, I like SPAM and am aware of its importance in Hawaii, but not in a dish costing $35 and not providing a barrier between the foie gras and the next layer, a meaty rare hamburger.
They had obviously used great beef for this and it would have been worth eating on its own, but in combo with the other ingredients it had little chance to shine. As if to make sure this expensive schizophrenic joke was lost on no one, the tower was placed on a bed of short-grained rice plumped up with the traditional brown gravy, spiked with Asian Sriracha hot sauce.
As ever with small plates dining, the final joke is really played when the bill arrives and ours, which included a glass of wine, a soft drink and a $15 tip for decent service, came to just north of $100, rather a lot to pay for three mini dishes and a culinary practical joke from two TV personalities.
Let’s just say that I was even more excited about leaving Animal than the waiter was about my dining there and many more meals like this and the offer in the last picture wont be necessary.