Pig trotters, pig ears, sweetbreads, oxtail and headcheese have made an explosion in the Los Angeles food scene this past year. A restaurant these days is not complete without offering at least one of these items on their menu. It took a long time, but I’m ecstatic to see that Angelenos are finally starting to appreciate and enjoy these once dismissed animal parts that used to be tossed to the hounds. The pig’s ears at The Lazy Ox Canteen and Church & State have been the talk of the town in previous months, making it seem like a novel concept, but the one restaurant that’s been way ahead of their times is Animal. Chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo opened Animal restaurant in June 2008 to widespread acclaim after they’ve already stirred up a mountain of awards, a TV show and a cookbook.
Ever since they first met in culinary school, this male duo has practically been attached at the hip. They’ve worked together in various restaurants in Florida, Colorado and California, and after they established themselves in the culinary world they opened a catering business called 2 Dudes Catering. They had a TV show on The Food Network by the same title and eventually published a book called Two Dudes, One Pan. They fought hard in an eggplant battle against Iron Chef Cat Cora, only to lose by 1 point. Is there anything that this talented duo can’t do? The only thing left for them was to open their own restaurant, and Animal restaurant has been consistently getting rave reviews. I’ve checked out their menu before, and I knew that this was my kind of joint- one stop shopping for hard core carnivores and offalvores where the food is actually really good.
We started our Animal adventure with a refreshing salad. Thankfully somebody in our party had the common sense to order this starter of baby kale with pecorino cheese ribbons, smashed croutons and lemon dressing because this ended up being the only vegetarian dish for the evening. The citrus flavoring added a mellow yet wonderful level of zest to the sharp kale, and in retrospect I wish that we had this dish halfway through our meal to revive our palates that gradually fatigued from too much animal fat.
3 rounds of chicken liver toast started off our carnivorous feast with a bang with its beautiful rich flavors. The creamy liver paste was paired with a seductive topping of sweet balsamic shallot glaze that almost tasted like vintage port wine. The wine list at Animal was pretty interesting, with sprinkles of rare Portuguese, French and Italian wines. After tasting a few options, we opted for the House Cabernet which, for $20 a bottle, was quite impressive. I can’t remember how many bottles we ended up drinking, but it paired really well with our meat-centric banquet.
Perhaps the most glorified, popular and symbolic dish of Animal is the pig’s ears with chili, lime and fried egg. Compared to the crunchy fried pig’s ear dish at The Lazy Ox Canteen, these cartilaginous delicacies at Animal had more of a porous and spongy consistency from soaking up all of the tangy flavors of lime and chili. It almost tasted like pure tabasco, and the fiery heat went amazingly well with the rich ooze of egg yolk.
Barbeque pork belly sandwiches were so good that we ordered 3 rounds. Close your eyes and imagine yourself picking up one of these sandwiches in slow motion, caressing the pillowey softness of the warm brioche bun that yields under the grasp of your supple fingers. The chunks of pork belly are so delightfully fatty that they’re barely maintaining their solid state, and begging for you to release them into liquid form. As your long silky hair cascades behind you from the blowing wind that’s coming out of nowhere, you sink your teeth into the food in one bold determined bite. The thick cut of savory pork belly squirts hot fatty juice onto your cheeks which slowly oozes down your chin and onto your wrists. You lick this animal sap in an upward motion with your quivering tongue as it runs down your forearm. The sweetness of the tender pork entwines with the creamy cabbage cole slaw inside your mouth in a tantric dance and your eyelashes flutter every so slightly. You finish off the bite with a circular lick of the tongue to sweep off that rich glob of brown sauce dribbling out of the corners of your mouth. You cock your head back as the tension in your muscles melt away and you let out an uncontrollable moan. That’s what we were all doing at the table, and yes, it was really that good.
Crispy quail fry was served on a bed of grits and swiss chard with a wedge of bacon and a generous drizzle of maple jus. The quail halves were perfectly deep fried to a crunchy exterior and steaming hot moist meat. I loved the smooth creaminess of the grits which were some of the best grits that I’ve ever had. As if we didn’t need any more reminders that we were in a meat house, there was a slab of juicy bacon to accompany the quail.
A majestic portion of duck confit was served just the way I like it, with tender meat that fell right off the bones and crispy crunchy skin that was fully injected with juicy fat. A cheerful blend of apples, pecans, sweet dates and arugula balanced out the oleaginous cut of bird.
Foie gras with biscuit and maple sausage gravy was one of those dishes that we couldn’t resist ordering. Who can refuse foie gras, or sausage, especially when served in the same dish? After the pork belly sandwiches, this was the second most popular dish of the evening. I was flabbergasted by the generous and enormous hunk of beautifully seared foie gras that arrived at our table. It was like the Garden of the Gods Balanced Rock in Colorado Springs, a massive formation of (un)naturally occurring liver that somehow sat perfectly calibrated and poised on a flaky buttery biscuit base. Coupled with the richness of the creamy gravy, this was one spectacular but hearty dish that should be served with a garnish of crushed aspirin and Lipitor for anybody over the age of 40.
A few at the table were squeamish about sweetbreads, but I put my foot down and insisted on an order. The deep fried sweetbreads were crispy and light on the outside with that characteristic creamy burrata-like consistency inside. Hen of the woods mushrooms and creamed spinach paralleled the earthy flavors of the thymus glands while capers, chopped parsley and citrus wedges livened things up with their snappy flair.
Animal’s version of the classic Hawaiian loco moco also came with a liberal serving of foie gras. The Animal guys don’t hold back on the good stuff, and for what we were paying I appreciated their generosity and wondered if they were breaking even. The combination of rice, hamburger, fried egg and gravy in a traditional Loco Moco usually fatigue my taste buds into a state of overload, and the addition of Spam and foie gras in Animal’s version was definitely too heavy, knocking us all into a saturated food coma state.
The flat iron steak with sunchoke hash and truffle parmesan fondue that we ordered medium rare came to us well-done, and we had to send it back, but the parmesan cream was thick and luscious.
We ended our carnivorous feast with a rack of balsamic pork ribs. The glaze could have been a little less sweet, but the meat was incredibly tender and moist, effortlessly falling off the bones.
Our meal ended with a fantastic bacon chocolate crunch bar dessert with salt and pepper anglaise. Sweet and savory united in a loving embrace as they coalesced to created beautiful flavors. The contrast of the crunchy bacon toppings with the soft chocolate tickled my tongue, and on that delectable note, our impressive meal came to an end.
By the end of our meal at Animal, I think I was starting to grow a tail and a snout. I wanted to roll in the mud and plop down for a nice snooze. This is one serious restaurant where carnivores are put to the test, and the true alpha males of gastronomy will prevail. It’s definitely about the animal in all its glory, preparing its meat, fat and connective tissue with utmost respect and revelry, but it’s also about flavor, essence and creativity. It’s no wonder Shook and Dotolo have won so many awards, from Food & Wine Best New Chefs of 2009 to a James Beard nomination for Best New Restaurant. Except for a few dishes that were too heavy for us to handle, the overall meal was masculine, inventive and downright good. Given the restaurant’s name, I hope that the chefs will take their concept even further and do true snout to tail dining. I would love to see these 2 dudes prepare more offals and delicious preparations on their menu.
435 N Fairfax Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90048
Random trivia: Did you know that sweetbreads are thymus glands? The thymus gland is an organ that produces T lymphocytes which are necessary for immune function. Traditionally the sweetbreads that are used for cooking come from lambs and calves (ris d’agneau and ris de veau in French). In the novel (and film) Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, Dr. Hannibal Lecter served human ‘sweetbreads‘ at a dinner party, excised from an orchestra flautist whom he killed.