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Monday, July 22, 2013

Animal Restaurant, Los Angeles

bone marrow with toast at animal restaurant los angeles by jon shook and vinny dotolo

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.

dining room at animal restaurant los angeles by jon shook and vinny dotolo
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 at animal restaurant los angeles by jon shook and vinny dotolo
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 at animal restaurant los angeles by jon shook and vinny dotolo
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.

pigs ear at animal restaurant los angeles by jon shook and vinny dotolo
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 at animal restaurant los angeles by jon shook and vinny dotolo
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.

bone marrow with chimichurri and toast at animal restaurant los angeles by jon shook and vinny dotolo
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.

bone marrow with chimichurri and toast at animal restaurant los angeles by jon shook and vinny dotolo
Marrow me

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 with oxtail gravy and cheddar at animal restaurant los angeles by jon shook and vinny dotolo
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 at animal restaurant los angeles by jon shook and vinny dotolo
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 at animal restaurant los angeles by jon shook and vinny dotolo
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 at animal restaurant los angeles by jon shook and vinny dotolo
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 at animal restaurant los angeles by jon shook and vinny dotolo
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 leche with dulce de leche dessert at animal restaurant los angeles by jon shook and vinny dotolo
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 dessert at animal restaurant los angeles by jon shook and vinny dotolo
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.

entrance to animal restaurant los angeles by jon shook and vinny dotolo

View Larger Map
Animal on Urbanspoon

Animal Restaurant
435 North Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles, California, USA
Tel: +1 (323) 782 9225

Opening hours:
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

Related Grab Your Fork posts: 

USA 2013
Austin - BBQ tour - Franklin, Ruby's, Green Mesquite, Salt Lick & La Barbecue
Austin - Gourdough's bacon donut, Hoover's, Whole Foods and Biscuits + Groovy
Chicago - Deep pan pizza, Al's #1 Italian beef & Cheesecake Factory
Kansas City - BBQ: Gates, Oklahoma Joes & Arthur Bryant's

LA - Animal Restaurant
LA - Boiling Crab
LA - Bouchon Bistro and Bouchon Bakery
LA - Donut tour of LA's best: Randy's Donuts, Bob's Doughnuts & The Donut Man
LA - In-N-Out, Roscoe's Fried Chicken & Waffles, Kogi food truck & Pink's Hot Dogs
LA - Mexican: Loteria Grill, Tamales Liliana's & El Flamin Taco
New Orleans - Willy Mae's fried chicken, Felix's Oyster Bar & beignet

NYC - Cronuts at Dominique Ansel Bakery
NYC - Doughnut Plant, Carlo's Bakery, Baohaus, Lobster Joint & Clinton St Bakery
NYC - Jewish food tour: Katz's Deli, Russ & Daughters, knish and bagels
NYC - Momofuku Noodle Bar fried chicken, Ssam Bar & Milk Bar
NYC - Motorino brussels sprout pizza, Best Pizza and Big Gay Ice Cream
NYC - Shake Shack, Tom Colicchio's Craftbar and Union Square Greenmarket
21 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 7/22/2013 01:58:00 am


  • At 7/22/2013 2:51 am, Anonymous chocolatesuze said…

    MARROW ME HAHAHA yes indeed that was one fabulous meal! (let's go again)

  • At 7/22/2013 6:02 am, Blogger Ramen Raff said…

    This is hands down my favourite restaurant in the planet! We went here twice within a span of 4 days. Love how the pig tails give the effect of chicken wings but juicier! Errmahgerd that bacon chocolate crunch bar with s&p ice cream was just sublime!

  • At 7/22/2013 7:58 am, Blogger Tina @ bitemeshowme said…

    This was one of my most memorable meals to date as well. I couldn't fault anything. I was in love with the chicken liver toast.. we may have had 2 each. Actually, I loved the entire meal! So glad you were able to check this out!

  • At 7/22/2013 10:24 am, Blogger Milktea Eats said…

    omgsh everythign looks devine! i love pigs ear and pigs tail!

  • At 7/22/2013 11:08 am, Anonymous ChopinandMysaucepan said…

    Dear Helen,

    Your description of the bone marrow is like an orgasm on a plate. I hope you kept the bone so it will marrow you :)

  • At 7/22/2013 11:52 am, Blogger Felicia @ Next Stop: Food said…

    HAHAHA! I thought the post title was just some play on words or something!
    I must say, I think if I go - I may not look at the menu and have others just order ... I need to get my head around it, it's all in the head! hahaa!!

    But man, that bone marrow!!
    the desserts!!
    Guess they're presenting of such "parts" may not be AS hard to get my head around :P

    - Cassie

  • At 7/22/2013 12:13 pm, Blogger Sherrie @ Crystal Noir said…

    Wow that bone marrow dish!! The bacon dessert looks fantastic as well. Big fan of bacon used in a sweet way :D

  • At 7/22/2013 1:13 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This place looks awesome for both people who pay respect to the whole animal and people who truly like offal. I am in both categories. Animal is in my wishlist now.

  • At 7/22/2013 1:45 pm, Anonymous Hannah said…

    Oh Helen. You make all of this dance off the page towards me. Yes.

  • At 7/22/2013 2:07 pm, Anonymous Eha said…

    Absolutely fantastic: there is not a dish shown I would not have loved to taste: especially the marrow!! [Oh, the nutritionist in me is on holidays, it seems :) !]

  • At 7/22/2013 2:12 pm, Blogger Jacq said…

    Looks like an amazing meal - I'm totally intrigued by the tendon chips!

  • At 7/22/2013 3:05 pm, Blogger Unknown said…

    LOL! My first thought when I read about all the offal was that I really didn't think I could enjoy this style of restaurant. But looking through the description of the dishes with the images has changed my mind :)

    I think I would be game to give it a go, thanks for sharing and opening my mind a little :)

  • At 7/22/2013 6:34 pm, Anonymous john | heneedsfood said…

    You're killing me with these glorious photo's and descriptions. I've had this on my list for when I next visit LA, but something tells me the other half may not appreciate it so much.

  • At 7/22/2013 6:58 pm, Blogger Mel said…

    The food is much more refined and less offaly than I was expecting -- it looks GREAT. I'd love to try those tendon chips. I've never see anything like that before.

  • At 7/22/2013 8:00 pm, Blogger Sarah said…

    Oh wow, just wow! What an amazing meal! I've loved following your trip across the States!:)

  • At 7/22/2013 10:04 pm, Blogger Unknown said…

    Why on earth have I never heard of this place before. Bone marrow and brioche and poutine and tendon chips? All in the same place? Wowzaaa

  • At 7/23/2013 10:40 am, Blogger Vivian - vxdollface said…

    Amazing feast! mm that brioche would be even better if it was cheesy like the cheesy toast at Sizzlers haha, smeared with marrow oh baby :9

  • At 7/23/2013 2:16 pm, Anonymous msihua said…

    Super swoon! Love a place with a good offal menu.. we need more places like this here in oz!

  • At 7/23/2013 3:06 pm, Blogger Roo Food said…

    This meal sounds amazing! The tendon chips have me very curious and the bacon choc dessert like sublime!

  • At 7/24/2013 9:58 pm, Anonymous Iron Chef Shellie said…

    I have only heard amazing things about this place. I'm planning on going to NYC next year, but I might have to extend my trip just to go here on the other side of the country :P

  • At 8/15/2013 6:10 am, Anonymous Dan said…

    Food looks amazing, I'd love to come here some day


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