Animal: Boys in the Hood
Anne FishbeinThree dudes, one pen: Chefs Vinny Dotolo (front) and Jon Shook; in back, kitchen helper Chad.
Fairfax Avenue, as it slumps from Canter’s Delicatessen toward the Silent Movie Theatre, is a testosterone-soaked patch of turf that might as well be called the Dude District, a strip of dive bars, gear shops and expensively retrofitted storefronts empty but for a rack or two of $175 T-shirts; art galleries less arty than the shop displaying carefully curated vitrines of baseball caps; rare-sneaker emporia where it is easier to find the DJ than a salesperson. (Are there even shoes for sale at the joint dominated by a giant skate bowl?) The entire street, with the possible exception of a holdout Judaica store or two, is a living, drooling Thrillist entry, bros before hos, PBR by the six-pack.
The house restaurant of the Dude District is probably the new Animal, which raises Boy Food to the level of a genuine cuisine — a farmers-market-intensive version appreciated, it must be said, by a clientele that skews at least two-thirds female: women, after all, are the keenest connoisseurs of testosterone. The chefs, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, who call themselves the Food Dudes, are the Jay and Silent Bob of the food world, perpetually red-eyed and rarely seen outside one another’s company, preparing food or talking about it, slapping up massive catered feasts at Hollywood parties or scheming World Media Domination. Their cookbook, due out this week, is called Two Dudes, One Pan, a title with considerable nonculinary implications, and their various shows on the Food Network, what Dotolo once accurately described as “Jackass, but with food,” were once as ubiquitous as Paula Deen’s.
Shook and Dotolo have a pretty hardcore personal vision for Animal, and the place is small and packed enough that they seem to be getting away with it. The only thing you might call décor in the restaurant is a lunch box featuring Animal, Oscar the Grouch’s friend on Sesame Street, stuck above the bar. They recently added some anti-noise baffling, but it is only toward closing that you can start to differentiate the Stooges from Bad Religion on the restaurant’s sound system, and anyone older than 45 or so will probably need glasses to read the tiny cursive print on the menu in the dim light. The short, flux-prone wine list is unlikely to feature more than a couple things you’ve heard of — when the waiter praises the Austrian Blauberger or hints that the Moulin de Gassac is a good bacon wine, you’ll just have to take his word for it: I’ve never seen the Gassac outside Toulouse, where it is, in fact, known as a damn fine rillettes wine. Everything on the list is available by the glass, the carafe and the bottle, and you are bound to discover something you really like in the course of an evening — only a snob could fail to be charmed.
But the operating principle at Animal is neither the aggressive clams-in-ham philosophy of so much avant-garde cooking nor the Rabelaisian head-to-tail approach, but pleasure: a simple, howlingly good plate of crisp, assertively salted hominy; a bubbling crock of melted cheese spiked with a few slips of thinly sliced chorizo; a summer salad of tomatoes, roasted beets and feta that is probably one of their catering favorites; a plain bowl of Persian mulberries in the weeks of the year that it would be criminal to modify the pure, musky taste of the fruit. A salad one night of wild arugula, fromage blanc, almonds and sliced pluots was exactly right — one week earlier or later and the fragrance of the pluot would have been either too acid or too sweet.
When you have a good slab of roasted pork belly, you don’t need to do much more than heap it with a tablespoon or two of tart, spicy cabbage slaw, more like a Salvadoran encurtido than like kimchi, to cut the richness of the meat. Chefs have been serving seared foie gras with syrups and compotes for centuries: Animal’s version of that is to put it on a sweet version of the truckstop standard of biscuits and sausage gravy just because, and the aesthetic of fat-on-fat-on-fat mysteriously works. Every restaurant in Los Angeles has a seafood tartare on the menu at the moment, but Animal pushes the form a bit farther with a Hawaiian-influenced poke of diced, raw amberjack tossed with orange, mint, chile and ripe, seasonal stone fruit, whose soft lusciousness rhymes with the texture of the fish.
Are there problems with Animal? Well, yeah. The restaurant is more expensive than you might expect, although I suspect that relatively few of the diners are ordering full three-course dinners (dishes tend to be set out to share, family style). And the sweet, balsamic-roasted spareribs are less to my taste than traditional barbecued ones. I might wish the main courses to lean with the seasons as often as the appetizers do, although I would be sad if the menu was ever without crunchy, whole, grilled branzino; brined pork chop with black-eyed peas, or the Southern-fried quail with grits, a thick slice of house-made bacon and a mess of collard greens funky enough to please Snoop Dogg.
A line on the menu reads, “Changes and modifications politely declined,” and they mean it. If you’re going to order the flatiron steak, it is going to come with crunchy nuggets of fried sweetbreads whether or not you enjoy rocking the thymus. If you want the shaved asparagus (in season), you’re going to have to deal with the bacon vinaigrette. When I stopped by with a group that included a practicing Muslim, the kitchen refused to leave the pancetta garnish off a dish of long-cooked Romano beans with pecorino, a dish she would have loved, even though I ordered it for her after we had just polished off a plate of the vegetable done in the preferred manner. In theory, I admire chefs who refuse to compromise their food, but in practice, it can be kind of a pain. Animal is also not a good restaurant to take vegans, the lactose-intolerant or celiac-disease sufferers.
For the rest of us, there is the bacon-chocolate crunch dessert, a lead-dense bar of bacon-infused ganache heavy enough to use as a blackjack, and frosted with handfuls of crushed Nueske’s bacon where lesser chefs might have used toffee. A manlier dessert is difficult to imagine.
Animal, 435 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 782-9225 or www.animalrestaurant.com. Sun.-Thurs., 6-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Beer and wine. Valet parking. AMEX, MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $90-$147. Recommended dishes: fried hominy; raw amberjack with peach and mint; foie gras with biscuit and gravy; turbot with shell beans and tomato; quail fry; bacon-chocolate crunch bar.
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