Most memorable meal of our USA trip? It was at Animal - without a doubt. If you're the kind of person who relishes having your brain befuddled while your tastebuds party, then boy, this is the place for you.
Animal isn't about fine dining, fancy plating or expensive pricing. In fact the restaurant at number 435 North Fairfax Avenue doesn't even have a sign out the front. The facade on the street is a nondescript gun metal grey, although there is a view of the dining room inside.
Animal dining room
This no-nonsense approach extends through to the dining room - plain walls and simply furnished with wooden tables and chairs.
The menu is a different story. Pigs tails, beef hearts and veal brains leap off the page. The entire menu - changed daily - is a roll call of everything offal. Pigs head? Check. Pigs ear? Got it. Bacon chocolate for dessert? Now we're talking.
Clos Normand brut cider US$18
When co-owners Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo first opened Animal in June 2008, they were determined to cook the food that they liked, focussing on meats, particularly under-utilised and cheap cuts - food that was far removed from the dishes they prepared for their successful catering company.
It was a ballsy move that paid off. Nine months later, Food & Wine magazine awarded them "Best New Chefs" for 2009, "because the duo have created a no-holds-barred meat-centric restaurant that has made L.A. excited to eat fried chicken livers". They were also nominated for Best New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation.
The duo's second restaurant, Son of a Gun, opened in February 2011, specialising in all things seafood. This month (July 2013) they opened Trois Mec - meaning three guys in French - with Ludovic Lefebvre (aka Chef Ludo from The Taste), a French bistro that offers a set multi-course menu with tickets purchased in advance online.
Chicken liver toast US$3 each
Needless to say, I have high expectations when we visit. We turn up at 6pm on the dot hoping to score a seat at the seven-seater bar (no reservations required and a full menu is available) but serendipitously manage to score a table from a last minute cancellation. Win.
It's hard work trying to decide what to order, tossing up between the 25 dishes on the menu. Not everything is offal. There's a grilled quail with cherry char siu, charred octopus and Mexican street corn plus several vegetarian dishes like asparagus with pistachio and green strawberry or yellow nectarine with radish and pig weed.
The chicken liver toast is a no-brainer. It's a heartier thicker puree than the creamy fluffiness we'd eaten at Bouchon, but I prefer this version with its earthy meatiness and oomph. A landing strip of shallot jam with balsamic vinegar adds sweetness.
Pig ear, chilli, lime, fried egg US$12
Pigs ears are one of the most under-rated parts of the pig, offering contrasting layers of gelatinous skin with crunchy cartilage. We have to tease out the pigs ear pieces on this dish, hidden beneath a blanket of fried egg, sunny side up. The pigs ears are deep-fried so they become chip-like, tossed through with lime and chilli and made even better when dipped into runny egg yolk.
Pig tails, "buffalo style", celery, ranch US$11
Who needs a chicken wing when you can deep fry a pigs tail? When pigs tails do pop up on menus, all too often they're shredded and the flesh reformed into a less intimidating crumbed croquette. Here we breathe a sigh of relief as we swoop down onto a plate of battered pigs tails, bones and all.
The buffalo sauce is spicy, sweet and sticky, making it all too tempting to fossick as much flesh as you can, sucking and scraping with your teeth until all you have left is a little pile of odd looking bones on your plate and a grin of satisfaction across your face.
Marrow bone, chimichurri, caramelised onions US$10
Bone marrow. Oh. My. God. This is fatty-licious bliss. Need more fat with your fat? Here, have a side of toasted buttery brioche. Now go on. Spread it good.
We scoop out the pale and quivering marrow from the bone and relish its fatty globules. This stuff doesn't glide down the throat - it trembles and shudders across your tongue with its buttery richness as your eyes can't help but widen in carnivorous joy.
But wait. There's more.
Poutine, oxtail gravy, cheddar US$15
Poutine has been a mystery for so many Australians because of our inability to access fresh cheese curds. Cheese curds are the solid remains from soured milk, characterised by their mild flavour and unmistakeable squeak when eating. Poutine is originally a Quebec dish, made from french fries, curds and puddles of hot gravy.
The addition of oxtail gravy makes this an even heavier dish - a little too much, given that the temperature in LA at the time was 28C during the day - but it's something you'd definitely want to cosy on up to in the dead of winter.
Spicy beef tendon chip, charred onion pho dip US$7
The spicy beef tendon chips were a last-minute addition, ordered when we watched it sail past to an adjoining table. Every head in the room swivelled to admire the towering shards of crackers heaped high in a bowl.
Biting into one of these puffy crackers was one of those life-changing moments. Confusion. Surprise. Then unabated joy. It's meaty and fatty in flavour yet it comes via a dry and air-bubbled cracker. On the side is a dip described as "charred onion pho" but it tastes more like an intense star anise dip.
The star anise gives an Asian amplification of the beef tendon, and although the chips are incredibly rich, I can't stop eating them. The chips are fluffier than a prawn cracker, with a sticky fattiness that adheres to your lips with every bite. We ask our server how they're made and he says they're thin slices of tendon that are dried and then deep-fried.
Braised rabbit legs, snap peas, morels, potato puree, mustard jus US$32
For someone who's never really been a fan of rabbit, this dish is a revelation too. The flesh is incredibly succulent, with none of that teeth-sticking dryness that commonly afflicts this delicate meat. Headily aromatic morel mushrooms, a silky potato puree and an elegant meaty jus lift this rustic dish to extreme classiness.
Iberico pork secreto, marinated onion, garlic scapes, Peruvian mint, yucca US$13
The Iberico pork secreto is our first encounter with eating cooked Iberico pig, instead of jamon. Although we can't quite taste the acorns from its last days of feasting, the meat is wonderfully fatty and flavoursome, accented with charred and smoky garlic scapes and Peruvian mint leaves (also known as huacatay) that leave an aftertaste of lime.
Crispy pig head, short-grain rice, bulldog sauce, soy egg US$16
The crispy pig head has been deboned and remoulded into a crumbed patty but this was the cleverest dish we encountered of the night, unravelled only when you ate all the components together. A bit of soy egg, a scrape of pigs head, a splash of bulldog sauce (a Japanese condiment commonly served with pork tonkatsu) and a spoonful of rice are stacked in the middle of a bowl.
It's only when you pull your forkful of components towards you that you collect the nori paste painted around the inside of the bowl and an entourage of hitch-hiking sesame seeds too. It all combines to transport you instantly to Japan, with memories of pork tonkatsu colliding with a seaweed-wrapped sushi roll and a tamago egg without the ramen.
The dish is a thoughtful harmony of sweet and salty, fried and saucy, soft and crunchy with the irresistible lure of umami uniting everything.
Tres leches, dulce de leche US$8
Tres leches cake translates as three milk cake, a reference to the evaporated milk, condensed milk and heavy cream that the cake is soaked in. Animal throws another leche into the milk, upping the ante with dulce de leche or milk candy caramel. It's a comforting dessert, best savoured slowly as your fork sinks into the milk soaked sponge, but the dulce de leche isn't really needed, adding a little too much sweetness.
Bacon chocolate crunch bar, s&p ice cream US$8
The bacon chocolate crunch bar is one of Animal's signature desserts and it's a winner, marrying a rich terrine of bittersweet chocolate with salty bursts of bacon. There's no mistaking the porkiness in this dessert, and the sweetness is tempered by a scoop of smooth salt and pepper ice cream on the side.
As a party of three who ate ourselves stupid, we came away with a bill of US$80 each including tax and tips - terrific value given the thought and creativity behind each dish, I thought. Perhaps what I loved most about Animal was its lack of pretension and elevation of good food - food that includes offal and offcuts that are celebrated for their own unique deliciousness in a way so few of us think to comprehend.
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435 North Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles, California, USA
Tel: +1 (323) 782 9225
Sunday to Thursday 6pm-11pm
Friday and Saturday 6pm-12am
>> Read the next USA 2013 post: Tamales, cactus and pozole - eating Mexican in LA
<< Read the first USA 2013 post: Cronuts at Dominique Ansel Bakery, NYC
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7/22/2013 01:58:00 am