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.

Animal Restaurant

435 N Fairfax Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(323) 782-9225

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.


The Curious Palate

This is a long overdue blog entry about one of my favorite joints in Los Angeles, The Curious Palate.  It’s a very special and sacred place that my friends Mark Cannon and Elliot Rubin opened in Mar Vista last December.  Constructed with reclaimed material and  ‘green’ engineering, and designed with eco-friendly paints and antique flea market decor, this farm-to-table concept eatery represents everything that I love about food.  They can tell you exactly where they got all of their ingredients, whether from the local farmer’s market, a select fishmonger, a certain butcher, or a specialty cheese producer.  Their menu changes to incorporate seasonal specialties and flavors.  They offer an incredible selection of gourmet chocolates, oils, jams, cheeses and sodas.  They will welcome you with a warm smile and give you the best personalized loving service you could ever dream of.


The newly opened beautiful patio

The newly opened beautiful patio

I’ve always been a huge fan of Mark’s cooking.  I’ve known Mark for many years now, as he is married to one of my childhood friends Emi who I’ve known since the 6th grade.  I could tell that he had an electic and refined taste in food by the dishes he ordered at our outing to Grand Sichuan when they still lived in New York City many years ago.  I was impressed when he cooked an elaborate 10 course meal for 14 people in their Brooklyn apartment.  I was touched when he roasted a delicious leg of lamb for us at his wife’s mini slumber party.  I was intrigued by the selection of exotic seafood that he bought during our stroll through Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo when we met up over one winter break.  So you can imagine, I was ecstatic when Mark and Emi decided to leave New York to move back to Los Angeles a couple of years ago to open a gourmet market and kitchen.

Chef Mark in the kitchen

Chef Mark in the kitchen

The Curious Palate is the brainchild of best friends Mark and Elliot.  The Curious Palate offers a wonderful selection of salads, some of which are dressed with Elliot’s famous balsamic vinegar dressing.  The vegetables soups and hearty double pork chili will nourish your soul.  The signature dish here is Mark’s Famous Mac and Cheese.  It’s made with Gruyere surchoix, goat cheese, blue paradise and sharp vintage cheddar.  Beware- it’s highly addictive!

IMG_3251They offer several main courses, of which I am a huge fan of the Bratwurst with cumin carrots and onions, and the Lamb Lasagna with spinach, roasted tomatoes, ricotta and fresh mozzarella.  They’re both absolutely delicious.  Next on my list of items to try are the Yucatan pork stew and the Miso braised short rib stew, but they always change up their menu to offer new innovative flavor combinations using fresh seasonal ingredients.

The Curious Palate is perhaps most famous for their wonderful sandwiches.  They have about 20 to choose from, and it is always a huge dilemma for me every time I step into that restaurant.  I’ve tried pretty much everything on their menu, but every time I go to the restaurant, it seems like their list of menu items written on big hanging blackboards keeps expanding.  My favorites are….

The Cubano: slow roasted pork, Fra’Mani ham, house cured pickles, cheese and mustard which they sell in the store, on a pressed rustic roll. The succulent slow roasted pork and Fra’Mani ham give the sandwich a wonderful smokey flavor.  The house cured pickles are just incredible.  This used to be my favorite sandwich until they introduced the pastrami reuben.

IMG_3246The smoked salmon sandwich: locally smoked salmon (they can tell you the names of the people who smoked it!), avocado, cucumber, sorrel and mustard seed oil on 5 grain bread.  The thick slices of smoked salmon are extremely tender and simply melt in your mouth.  I love the slight kick of the mustard seed oil and the citrus tanginess of the sorrel.  A wonderful play of flavors!

IMG_2110Sloppy Giuseppe (Italian version of the Sloppy Joe): slow braised lamb shoulder ragu and white bean puree on a brioche roll.  Absolutely tender and melt in your mouth good.  I’m actually a bigger fan of the Sloppy Jiao (asian version of the Sloppy Joe) with slow braised pork, scallions, shiitake mushrooms and spinach in a soy ginger sauce on a brioche roll.  It’s not currently on the menu, but I will start a petition to bring it back.   Here’s a photo of that delicious Sloppy Jiao that I so dearly miss:

IMG_3249Another wonderful sandwich is the BBQ Pork: Berkshire pork braised overnight, with BBQ sauce on a brioche roll.  It paired nicely with their homemade coleslaw.  Succulent tender pulled pork with its savory juices and drippings penetrating into the soft buttery brioche bun.  Mmmm…divine!

IMG_9006Other sandwiches that I recommend are the prosciutto panini (prosciutto, mozzarella, baby artichokes and red peppers on a pressed rustic roll), the meatloaf burger (their signature housemade meatloaf to die for, lettuce, caper mayo on brioche), and the blue paradise (flat iron steak, arugula, pickled scallions, blue cheese spread on a baguette).

For dessert you can try the chocolate chip cookies, scones, choco vivo brownies, or tarts made with house made pate-sable dough and organic custard with farmer’s market berries.  Accompany it with Intelligentsia espressos, lattes and teas freshly brewed in-house.  My choice beverages at The Curious Palate are their freshly squeezed orange juice and strawberry juicy.  Afterward, browse through the market to see their amazing selection of gourmet goods.  They have chocolates from Eclipse (12 types, including sweet basil-mint, sea-salt nib and blackberry sage), Lula’s, Bovetti, L’oven, Chocovivo, Michel Cluizel, Michael Mischer, Coco luxe, Café-Tasse and Kshocolat (try the Orange Cardamom).  Their fridge is stocked with drinks like Vignette wine country sodas, Fizzy Lizzy fruit sodas, Mill Road apple cider and flavored Kombucha.  Go home with any of the Breakfast in Paris preserves or Vila Vella honeys.  Or better yet, try the Curious Palate housemade raspberry, blueberry and strawberry jams.

IMG_9007Press your nose up to the cheese and charcuterie glass cases and admire the selection.  What will you have tonight with your bottle of wine?  Angelo and Franco ricotta and mozzarella?  French Brebirousse, Italian Blu di Langa, or Canadian super sharp vintage cheddar?  Shall we pair it with Fra’Mani salamis, guanciale, bresaola or Bratwurst?  And don’t forget the balsamic glazed strawberries, marinated beets, and marinated artichokes, all made with love and care by Mark.

The Curious Palate is now open for breakfast, and the citrus perfumed French Toast and smoked salmon omelette are to die for. 

Intrigued?  CURIOUS?

Then go!!

The Curious Palate

12034 Venice Blvd, Los Angeles 

 (310) 437-0144

Random trivia:   Rou Jia Mo is China’s version of the Sloppy Joe.  It’s chopped stewed pork stuffed inside ‘mo’, a type of flatbread.  Rou Jia Mo could be the world’s oldest sandwich or hamburger, since the history of the bread dates back to the Qin Dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC) and that of the meat to the Zhou Dynasty (1045 BC to 256 BC).