Monday, October 13, 2008

Eating Animal

Fairfax’s evolution has accelerated in recent years with the Orthodox ceding territory to the peculiar phenomenon of the Turtles. A multiracial niche of young consumers, embodied by the Entourage schnorrer, they ritualistically queue outside designer haberdasheries on Saturday mornings in anticipation of the latest fad in “urban” wear. The result is that Fairfax’s sense of style is disjointedly informed by both the ghettoes of Prague and Watts.

It is no surprise then that, in this Los Angeles mishmash, a restaurant called Animal shares a valet parking stand with its glatt kosher neighbor, Schwartz Bakery. What remains unclear is whether our subject’s name, “Animal,” refers to its food’s principal ingredient or to the co-chefs, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, the self-proclaimed Food Dudes. This is a compliment, mind you. These are guys who adorn the bar with a lunchbox depicting Animal, the classic drumming Muppet.

One day after our seriously enjoyable meal there, we could not figure out if Animal was a stoner’s paradise or an absurdist, Norm McDonald-esque joke. (I’m not referring to a stoner’s paradise as a commune in Mendocino, but as a den in a Sigma Chi house, say, in Ann Arbor, circa 1994, with a subliminal penis painted on the ceiling.) After all, Animal is the restaurant equivalent of a fraternity party. On a recent Friday night, the scene inside was frenzied, while supplicants outside, like freshmen, smoked cigarettes and tried in vain to finagle a table.

To wit, Shook and Dotolo are positively gleeful about stacking a Brobdingnagian hunk of sautéed foie gras on top of a johnnycake, ham, bacon, and cheddar cheese and then pouring maple syrup all over it. This is not refined food. There are few subtleties, playful nuances, or rethinking of anything. They are not challenging us to eat some esoteric, but rewarding piece of offal. The whole thing may be a joke to them with the diner as the fool, just as Mikey from Top Chef Season Two, enjoyed watching Suzanne Goin eat his “Cheetos Dick,” (made with Cheetos, Snickers and Corn Nuts.) I couldn’t distinguish one ingredient from another, and yet this artery-closing mess tasted really good. It shouldn’t, but it did. As annoyingly earnest as I can get about food, I was disarmed in one bite.

Then these guys served up a pungent crock of hot, melted petit basque cheese with sliced chorizo and shallots. This undisciplined dish is practically an insult to the cheesemaker. The essential attributes of petit basque are lost in a blunt hammer of richness, and the fancy Fra’Mani chorizo is indiscernible. Nevertheless, the temptation was too potent, and I could not stop shoveling in this wonderful, gooey mess. The dish does put into perspective the true achievement of the similar queso fundido con chorizo at La Casita Mexicana, which is a great success on textural and flavor grounds. But Animal’s version is nothing if not fun, and the burnt crust of cheese and shallots proved irresistible to the Ever Sagacious Gravida.

Shook and Dotolo show some touch with their tender pork ribs. Roasted for ten hours, the meat literally fell off the bone when I brought a rib to my mouth. Since we weren’t in Hill Country, I used a knife and fork, perhaps betraying the animalistic element, but then again the restaurant provided the utensils. The ribs were sweet from their balsamic glaze, though not cloyingly so. Consequently, the heirloom tomato and bread salad accompanying the ribs was superfluous, even if the seasonal tomatoes possessed a robustness of flavor that allowed them to stand out among the fat and pork of these appetizers.

The supposed complement to the farcical level of pork and force-fed duck’s liver on our table was a plate of grilled romano beans, which are longer and wider than the basic green bean. Yet the kitchen must have felt that beans lacked cholesterol because they saw fit to throw in a poached egg and shaved grana. They dressed the dish with a “pancetta vinaigrette,” which consisted of vinegar and scores of pancetta microcubes. If anything, this dish proved Nate’s adage that everything is much better with bacon.

As is so often the case, the entrées lacked the appetizers’ vitality, though they were enjoyable. The Ever Sagacious Gravida and Nate ordered the deep-fried quail, with grits, chard, and what the menu calls “slab bacon,” in yet another maple jus. While the quail was tasty— it was deep-fried, after all—the grits were unremarkable, and the several pieces of “slab bacon,” which I define as a bold swath of fat, were too rich to eat. Like flourless chocolate cake 15 years ago, one bite (albeit delicious) was enough – and I am one who enjoys putting away saline, deliquescent lardo.

My flat iron steak was the generic centerpiece of a conservative meat-and-potatoes dish. Served in a bordelaise not enlivened by the supposed addition of oxtail, the inclusion of delicious grilled torpedo onions in a potato and corn hash saved the dish. But unfortunately, neither of the two entrées we ordered demonstrated the appetizers’ humorous outlandishness nor their flavor.

The desserts were a return to appetizer form. A tiny jar of chocolate pudding was a pleasant tip of the hat to the Old School, and the bacon chocolate crunch bar was a whimsical success. It was a restaurant-quality version of Vosges’s Mo’s Bacon Bar, layered with dense ganache, topped with delicious bacon bits that had the subtle texture of toffee, and sitting in crème anglaise. The people of Schwartz Bakery next door must not know what to do with themselves.

The wait staff set an affable, informal tone through their relaxed demeanor, which bordered on insouciance. But their quiet attention to polite and efficient service never wavered. For example, our waiter, pondering Nate’s request for a cup of coffee after dinner, answered honestly: “I’m not sure if we have clean mugs or espresso cups. But I’ll bring you something.” The waiter returned a minute later with a coffee in a discolored mug lacking a handle.

A restaurant in the ‘hood like Animal—with its irreverent fun and good food—is always welcome, especially since, in Oliver Schwaner-Albright’s words, the “nameless neighborhood . . . is emerging as the culinary heart of Los Angeles.” Albright’s assertion is correct, but sometimes we want to forgo the culinary ambition. Sometimes we’d rather be tipsy while getting down on some tender ribs and foie gras-topped johnnycake with ham, bacon, and cheddar.

Animal Restaurant
435 N. Fairfax Ave.
Los Angeles
(323) 782-9225


Brooke said...

wow. what a great review. masterful. brilliant. laugh out loud funny.

thank you for giving me the chance to go back to animal--without ever having to step inside that cacophonous den of bacon.

Josh said...

Great entry, fressers. I'll have to hit it when I next come out. Great seeing you two weeks ago. Wish it could have been for longer.

With regards to bacon/pork, I went to Momofuku Ko tonight. That David Chang can do a thing or two with Berkshire pork.

tonyc said...

the grease tasted half-decent going down but the fried quail made me queasy / ill the remainder of the nite.

excellent post but we're not going back anytime soon.

Steve said...

Tony C -

Thanks for reading and your comment. I don't know anyone who is rushing back.


Anonymous said...

Nice Room 4 shout out.