A private dinner at Wolvesden, Los Angeles

Wispy black clouds draw its shady curtains over the silver moon.  A lonely wind drags a broken beer bottle through the vacant streets of industrial downtown LA, its hollow echo resonating and disappearing into the urban abyss.  A howl echoes in the distance.  A macabre panorama on this frigid evening brings hungry pack mates together for a feast at the Wolvesden, a secret supper club revealed only to those who dare to step in.  The pack has convened at the den for a private dinner organized by the evening’s host and alpha male, Chuckeats.  It is a special occasion slightly different from the usual workings of the Wolvesden, where lucky strangers from a year long waiting list are brought together for one of Chef Craig Thornton’s dinners at his downtown loft.

It takes days for Thornton to prepare for these feasts, foraging the vast flat plains of Los Angeles for seasonal ingredients and hunting, patiently, for the ultimate fresh catch.  He works alone, diligently, wisely- taking no sous chefs nor brick and mortars that would constrain his independence- a lone wolf whose culinary creations are as wild and raw as his nature.  Live Santa Barbara spot prawns and fresh scallops large enough to eclipse the moon adorn the countertop of Thornton’s kitchen, ready for a sacrificial offering for the pack members who, one by one, gather around the fire on the stove top with bottles of wine and voracious appetites in tow.  The pups and vixens slowly circle the kitchen, admiring the hunt, panting breaths clouding the air, lips curled back to reveal their teeth and paws trembling with excitement as they hold back their instincts to pounce on their prey.

Thornton gives the signal and the sacrificial ritual begins.  For this special evening he has specifically hunted for impregnated female spot prawns, all the better to appease the  predators who have come for the Wolvesden festivities.  The prawns scurry across the hotel pans, making tiny scratching noises with their spiny little feet in a desperate attempt to escape their fate.  Their thin whiskers sway left and right, their black beaded eyes without expression.

One by one we take our turn at the cutting board to sink the knife into the occiput of the crustaceans, killing them as humanely as possible in one precise swift blow.  ‘Let me, let me!’ we all cry, amidst a crescendo of excitement, as we each experience the satisfaction of the catch and the kill.  The strike of the knife, a gush of green liquid, and soon we have a tray of butterflied prawns engorged with bright orange eggs and vivid green tomalley.  They are flash baked in the oven with a sprinkle of sea salt, just enough to sweeten the flesh and concentrate the bitterness of the innards.  After a twist of lime and a dash of coffee powder, we simultaneously rip the flesh out of the shells and sink our teeth into this delicious first course to start the feast.

Thornton pries open the live scallops, removing the white adductor muscles and slicing them horizontally in half.  The motion is so quick that the scallops don’t even realize that they have been severed- they are still fasciculating, twitching and undulating like calm ocean waves, unperturbed.  Wedges of frozen and fresh Oro Blanco draw out the sweetness of the scallops with a splash of white soy, black sesame and chili for extra flavor.

Tortilla is used unconventionally as a purée in a deconstructed fish taco dish, smeared across the plate as a background accent to complement the vivid hues and bright flavors of lime, avocado, cilantro and pickled red onions in the black sea bass dish.

Thornton is a master of uni, at times juxtaposing its sweet butteriness against the crisp bitterness of celery, and in other dinners immersing it in the brininess of black squid ink for a deep ocean adventure.  Here he balances sweet and bitter for the slick little orange sea urchin that are plated with intensely sugary beets- dehydrated yellow beets sliced thin like fruit leather and salt roasted red baby beets- green tea shortbread crumbs, pea shoots, nasturtium and a splash of yuzu kosho vinaigrette.

A whole filet of John Dory is gutted with Thornton’s razor sharp knives, stuffed with thyme and citrus wedges and slathered, quite liberally, with butter.  Into the oven it goes, this glorious specimen of succulent fish, as the butter infuses into the flesh and fine beads of sweat form on the surface of the skin.

In one swift move the chef skins the fish and divides the flesh into equal pieces for each hungry member of the clan.  Razor thin celery slices impart just enough bitterness to temper the buttery clam juice broth that the meaty clams and Asian pears have soaked up.

This time a sputtering of melting fat on the hot skillet draws the pack to the kitchen- it is time for the meat courses, and Thornton is preparing what wolves love best- offals.  The smell of meat drives the wild pack into sympathetic overdrive- we whine, we yelp, we sniff and we bark as we impatiently wait for that golden crust to form on the sweetbreads.  The meaty nuggets are presented as an open faced sandwich on fried green tomatoes with raw cheddar cheese, crème fraîche, chives and a trio of peppers-cayenne, pimento and piquillo.

A refreshing palate cleanser made with freeze dried blueberries, verjus and mandarins tames the excited pack into submission for a quick break before more meat appears on the dining table.

Thornton has broken down a whole wild pheasant earlier that evening- oh how we would have loved to hunt and kill that bird ourselves, the pups secretly think, their tails wagging at the thought of such an adventure.  The roasted bird is tossed in a parmesan hazelnut rosemary cream sauce that lovingly clings to the fresh pappardelle, a little too salty for many but the crispy skin cracklings loved by all.

For the final savory course Thornton pulls out a loaf of 48 day aged beef from the oven, slicing them in perfect little medium-rare pink toasts that he plates with watermelon radish, chives, dill, and sautéed wild mushrooms- yellow foots and black trumpets.  The vixens watch from a distance, leaned back in crouched positions, ready for the ambush, while the impatient pups trot and pace around the kitchen, salivating at the veal tongue and pork cheek pelmenis (dumplings) which, once served, swiftly disappear between their sharp incisors.

Dessert begins with a playful tribute to the Whopper, Thornton’s nod to our dinner host Chuck who, despite his reputation for having a refined palate for the finer things in life, is quite the closet junk food addict.  A steel spoon delivers a swift blow to the chocolate capsule, causing it to crack and massively hemorrhage a miso and malt liquid.  It bleeds briskly like an aneurysm into the fluffy carpet of salted Valrhona chocolate purée (mixed with homemade tofu for that light airiness- how brilliant) and gets soaked up by the roasted barley malt cake, a satisfying and delicious interpretation of America’s finest snack.

Thornton hones in on sweet nostalgia with an unmistakable flavor that makes us smile.  He has turned cereal milk, those last few remaining spoonfuls and satisfying gulps of sweetened milk at the bottom of the breakfast bowl, into an ice cream with chewy nuggets of rice krispies and sliced bananas.

The feeding frenzy ends on a sweet and playful note as the wolves rub their muzzles on their napkins and lick their chops.  It was quite a feast, beginning with an interactive catch and kill that instantly awakened the ravenous nature of the pack and whetted rapacious appetites.  There was a lot of meat- too much for even these wild animals to clean up, an issue of portion control that Thornton is aware of (‘I don’t want anybody to leave hungry, and I just get too excited about the food!’) but the smells, the sights and the tastes kept us curious and amazed from course to course.  There is something really special about this chef, who is immensely passionate about what he does, yet is as humble, unassuming and generous as they get in this industry.

At the end of the evening we salute this wonderful chef, rolling to the floor on our backs in a food coma, satiated bellies facing up in the ultimate sign of respect and submission.  Thornton responds to this gesture by removing his hat, revealing his wild long mane that he thrashes back and forth- a true pack leader, a majestic wolf.  The pack howls in unison.

A dinner at the Wolvesden is a special treat, and a private dinner with friends makes for an even better experience.  Book your feast with this talented chef and get ready to Strike. Tear. Chew.                                                                                                                     ……at the Wolvesden

Random trivia: Did you know that scallops have up to 100 simple eyes around the edges of their mantles?

さんだ Sanda- Tokyo, Japan

Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Chanel are arguably the top 3 powerhouse fashion brands that have been dressing, tressing and decorating beautiful women from head to toe for decades.  Their easily recognizable logos are splashed all over bags and clothes on international fashion runways and magazine covers.  Similarly, in the beef realm we have Kobe, Matsuzaka and Yonezawa, the 3 famous sandai wagyu brands that reign supreme in the bovine world with their unique method of breeding and exquisite marbled meat.  These respective haute couture and haute cuisine trios are international icons with A-list star status.

And then…there’s Hermès. Incomparable in craftsmanship, each carefully hand-constructed by dedicated artisans, ultra luxurious and a timeless classic.  The illustrious Birkin bag (a larger version of the Kelly), for one, is a fashion legend that is known to fetch up to $19K with a 6 year waiting list.  Such is the Sanda gyu in the wagyu world, a more exclusive beef brand in a league of its own with only a handful of farmers who raise less than 1000 cattle per year.  While Sanda gyu is served selectively at upscale steakhouses like Aragawa for a price that could buy an Hermès clutch, one can sample this highly prized beef at a more affordable restaurant in Tokyo called Sanda after its illustrious namesake.

The only catch is that you won’t be sinking your teeth into juicy cuts of sirloin and rib eye steak.  Sanda restaurant, tucked in a quiet neighborhood behind the Tokyo Midtown Complex in Roppongi, only serves Sanda wagyu offals.  Every part of the glorious specimen of Japanese cow is treated with utmost respect and served elegantly in kaiseki style, elevating beef organs to a 1 Michelin star status.  My first meal at Sanda 6 years ago, in the Akasaka location that has since closed, was a life-changing experience.  Luscious cuts of cow blood vessels, intestines and reproductive organs opened my eyes to a whole new world of innards and showed me the path to offal nirvana.  It was time for me to make my pilgrimage back to this holy shrine for an awakening of the senses and transcendence into offal enlightenment.


Due to the interesting selection of cuts, the chefs serve each course without an introduction.  ‘Try it first, then I will tell you’ is their motto, as they watch each diner’s reactions with mischievous smiles.  The restaurant blooms with conversation and laughter as playful exchanges between guests and chefs come naturally.  The first course, for one, had me stumped.  A dainty starter of soft semi-translucent strips with chopped scallions, spicy momiji oroshi grated daikon and ponzu sauce was all about texture- pliable with a subtle crunch, a pleasant elasticity and bounce against my teeth, all owing to the high collagen content of julienned Achilles tendon.


Then came the hatsumoto, directly translating to ‘the root of the heart’, aka ascending aorta, the largest main artery that stems from the left ventricle of the heart to deliver oxygenated blood all throughout the body.  Thick batonnets of aorta with the texture of semi-firm cheese and a mellow buttery savor were exceptionally delicious tossed with sesame oil, shaved Tokyo negi and togarashi chile, one of my favorite bites of the evening.


Another sensational hit from the tasting menu was the hachinosu honeycomb tripe, the second stomach of the cow, with its firm chewy texture and ever so delicate hint of wonderful gaminess, balanced by the creamy white sesame dressing that made the sake flow easily.


Sanda is quite possibly one of the only restaurants in the world to serve beef lung and do it so elegantly, showcasing its bold minerality and iron flavor in a simple preparation with soy sauce and Japanese karashi mustard.  Referred to as fuwa by the chefs, taken from the onomatopoeia fuwa fuwa to describe something soft and fluffy, these pink cuts of pulmonary tissue were indeed spongy and light, juxtaposed against the delicate crunch of the cartilaginous bronchioles.


The stand out course of the evening was the beef tongue and throat cartilage dango meatball soup, a densely packed yet soft flavorful meatball with finely chopped bits of crunchy cartilage for fun marvelous texture.  The enticing aromas that wafted through my nares and the warmth of the delicate broth that seemed to spread down my esophagus straight through to my toes left me sipping this bowl of comfort in silence with a long lingering sigh of content on the finish.


Glistening crimson red slices of liver sashimi adorned with white sesame seeds and chopped scallions were creamy and silky like crème fraîche, surprisingly sweet with absolutely no iron flavor characteristic of this organ.  A quick dip in salted sesame oil rendered these delightful segments even more slippery on the tongue, making for an intense session of culinary foreplay.


Harami, commonly known as hanger steak from the cow’s diaphragm, was prepared as delectable sushi, one topped with wasabi and the other with Japanese karashi mustard for a side by side of eastern and western interpretations.


As the chef placed this deep fried dish in front of me, I caught his look of challenge in eyes.  ‘Guess which part of the cow this is,’ he seemed to say with his smiling eyes, as my taste buds pondered over this elastic piece in deep thought.  Springy, pliable, but with added layers of juicy flavor through every successive bite, it was obvious that it was a part of the digestive tract.  It was mino, the first stomach, deep fried with shishito pepper and dipped in sea salt and curry powder, a delicious morsel to complement our sake.


It seemed unfair to be served only 2 bites of Sanda’s breathtakingly delicious beef cheek stew, tender cuts of richly flavored meat braised in red wine long enough to melt its connective tissue layers into liquid umami.  Having fallen under its hypnotic spell, I slurped the sauce down to its last drop with no shame, chasing this liquid gold down with a Japanese plum wine made from red wine infused plums.


For the grilled course, the chef presented the 4 beef selections of the evening.  Plates of coarsely chopped daikon radish and finely chopped cabbage were served to enjoy with the fattier cuts of grilled meat, while 3 types of soy sauce (wasabi, garlic and ginger) were presented to use as dipping sauces.


Pancreas was surprisingly light, lean and tender, reminding me of grilled chicken thighs, going well with the wasabi soy sauce.


Thinly sliced beef cheeks had a little more texture and robustness, augmented by the zing of ginger soy sauce.


A first for me, the next grilled course was called yan, the thick knobby portion of connective tissue between the 2nd and 3rd stomach of the cow.  Definitely more chewy and dense, this morsel was all about flavor- the more one chews, the more flavors are extracted, until the jaw fatigues and cannot chew anymore.


Harami, the rear diaphragm, was unexpectedly fatty and juicy, turning into liquid fat at the first bite.  Dipped in wasabi soy sauce, these were intensely rich bites that went well with the crispness of coarsely chopped daikon radish.


4 perfect thin slices of Sanda beef tongue were presented across the counter for the final wagyu course, a shabu shabu.


Wrapped around crisp stems of mizuna greens, the delicate slices of tongue were tender and delicious, but the star players in the ponzu dish were the bite sized servings of savory giara, the 4th stomach of the cow, and shibire, buttery sweetbreads/thymus glands that simply melted in my mouth.

〆:中華麺                                                                                                                        デザート:黒胡麻アイスクリーム

Slurping ramen noodles in a light beef based broth, spiked with green onions and a generous sprinkling of coarse black pepper, followed by a simple dessert of dark black sesame ice cream, was the perfect way to end the inspirational meal of beef offals.

Only in Japan can such an experience be possible- a full course kaiseki of beef innards, expertly prepared and elegantly presented to be worthy of a Michelin star, for the quality of the Sanda wagyu brand naturally renders its innards at a similarly high quality.  Not once did I feel like I was having entrails, waste products normally thrown to the hounds, for the freshness of the ingredients, the delicacy of the flavors and the beauty of simple plating elevated the dining experience to one of luxury and finesse.  For a lavish adventure into organ meats, pay a visit to Sanda and allow the friendly welcoming staff to guide you into a whole new world of beef.

Sanda                                                                                                                            Wagyu Restaurant                                                                                                         4-5-9 Roppongi                                                                                                    Minato-ku, Tokyo Japan                                                                                 03-3423-2020

Random trivia:  Cows ‘moo’ in English, but they make other sounds around the world.

Afrikaans: moe-moe                                                                                                   Bengali: hamba                                                                                                              Dutch: boeh                                                                                                                   French: meuh                                                                                                          Hungarian: bú                                                                                                            Korean: um-muuu                                                                                                         Thai: maw maw

Wolvesden- Los Angeles

Most underground supper clubs manage to stay incognito, but one particular venue in Los Angeles took very little time to become the talk of the town.  Its reputation, its exclusivity, its food, its concept, its chef and most of all the difficulty in getting one’s foot into the door of the Wolvesden gained notoriety almost overnight.  An evening at the Wolvesden is not a regular supper club experience- think of it as a gathering of friends for a fun and casual dinner with bottles of BYOB wines and spirits.  Only 12 guests are invited for the evening, to Chef Craig Thornton’s loft in downtown, where he oversees the planning, the shopping, the prep, the cooking, the execution and the hosting with a help of a few friends.  It’s essentially a home dinner party, and strangers assemble for an exquisite meal around a cozy dining table adorned with hanging antler mobiles and crocodile heads, all pitching in to help clear plates, set utensils, pour wine and serve courses for an unforgettable evening where everybody becomes friends and works as a community.

You never know who you’ll run into at the Wolvesden- on the evening that I went, the Animal dudes Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook were there, as well as Daily Dose owner Sarkis Vartanian and fellow physician food blogger John Sconzo who flew out from New York for this event.  Regardless of everybody’s background, the vibe at the dinner table was friendly, open, fun and full of laughter.  The house mascot Prince, a mellow and adorable Pomeranian, made his rounds to ensure that everybody was having a good time.

Wolvesden is not your typical dinner venue, and Craig Thornton is certainly not your typical chef.  Unlike most chefs in Los Angeles, he doesn’t have a long list of restaurant stints, and he didn’t go to the CIA.  In his last job he worked as actor Nicholas Cage’s private chef, and he stays free of attachments to restaurants and institutions.  As they say in Japanese, he’s an ‘ippiki ookami’ 一匹狼, a lone wolf, who stays away from the packs to maintain his independence and raw wild nature.  His den is hidden in a dark neighborhood in downtown LA, his website features a growling wolf, his custom MAC knives have a signature wolf paw print engraving, and his wild long mane, initially tucked neatly inside a hat, comes thrashing out at the end of the evening as he skates around his living room.  Yet Thornton himself is nothing like an intimidating wolf, but a young artist who engages with his innocent and kind eyes, and makes everybody feel at ease with his laid back friendly demeanor.  He is one of the most approachable and warm chefs, his humility a stark contrast to the genius behind his mad creations.

Sweet uni, celery root puree, pickled celery leaf ice, coffee, mustard meringue, apple balls

His name was celery, a bitter bloke from the downtown projects, hated by all for his unpleasant and sarcastic sense of humor.  Children despised him, and threw rocks at him.  He took odd unexciting jobs in mirepoix and soup stocks, never quite making it up the social ladder.  Her name was uni, a buxom globetrotting socialite with beauty and fame.  Her sweet luscious body enchanted even the most discerning royalty from Europe to Asia, and her images often graced the cover of food magazines.

On one fateful evening, they met in a garden of apple ball topiary and coffee dust.  There was an instant attraction between these unlikely opposites, as they snuggled on a soft blanket of celery root purée under the shaded mustard merengue canopies.  Their passionate love making melted his ice cold green celery leaf heart, as he succumbed to the intoxicating sweetness of her flesh.  His signature bitterness changed to a refreshing and pleasant complement to her succulent savor, and their heavenly union became known as one of the best interpretations of celery.  As I licked my dish clean of the bitter and sweet flavors, their tale came to an abrupt bittersweet end.

Black cod, tomato, crouton, potato chip tartar

I found the most memorable component of the Wolvesden dinner in a flavorful and addictive smear of potato chip tartar sauce, made with Banyuls vinegar, mayonnaise, pickled shallots, capers and crushed potato chips.  A perfect balance of tart, sour, creamy and salty, this sauce defined the dolled up Filet-o-fish dish of black cod, heirloom tomato wedges and ‘chunky crouton’ made with toasted brioche.

Butternut squash, lobster, bacon serrano muffin

It takes several days for Thornton to prepare each dinner, especially when he sticks to his uncompromising principles of getting the best quality ingredients for his dishes.  He may get the bulk of his inspiration from the local farmers markets, but will easily spend the rest of the day fighting LA traffic to get individual items from specialty stores.  It’s all in the name of good food and a good experience for his diners who eventually become his friends.  Take the creamy butternut squash soup for example, where he added generous chunks of lobster ‘just for texture’, with a freshly baked bacon serrano muffin on the side.

Rabbit saddle, tomato broth, albondigas, finger limes

Thornton’s inspiration for his rabbit dish was the image of a Mexican abuelita.  Rolled up rabbit saddle in a tomato rabbit stock broth flavored with nutmeg, cumin, cinnamon and Mexican oregano was comforting and nourishing, just the type of pozole that a Mexican grandmother would concoct for the common cold.  Succulent meaty albondigas (meatballs) on a red corn tortilla pudding with shaved cotija cheese were amazing, but the highlight of each bite came courtesy of the titillating and eye opening bursts of citrus tang from the barely visible bubbles of finger lime pulp.  The occasional surprise pop and burst packed a real punch to liven up the dish.

Sweetbreads, burnt eggplant and bone marrow purée, sorrel, pee wee potatoes

The Wolvesden provides a homey environment where diners can get up to stretch, chat, drink and mingle with others.  Most of the time guests congregated around the stove where Craig multi-tasked between the oven, the steamers and the immersion thermocirculators while keeping up his duties as host.  The aromas and sizzling sounds of sweetbreads and pee wee potatoes on the pan drew the party to the kitchen, where he plated the perfectly cooked wedges of creamy veal sweetbreads with burnt eggplant and bone marrow purée, and a brush of sorrel sauce.

Elderflower, violet and lime ice

As ridiculous as this may sound, my favorite dish of the evening was the palate cleanser, an elderflower, violet and lime ice with a sensational flavor quite unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before. A subtle sweetness with just the right amount of unobtrusive citrus undertone, full of complex flavors that my palate was well familiar with but couldn’t quite place.

Pork cheek bao

After a successful rabbit dish reminiscent of a Mexican grandmother, Thornton summoned the powers of a Chinese grandmother to create a satisfying pork cheek bao, stuffed with generous chunks of tender pork.  Utilizing his own grandmother’s yeast roll recipe with a traditional Chinese bao recipe, he pulled off a perfect doughy skin with an optimal amount of chewiness that silenced the table as the guests embraced these warm steamy buns in their hands.

Wolves in the Snow- venison loin, hen of the woods mushrooms, beet, cauliflower

Every dish that Thornton makes has a story, a vision, a powerful image that comes to life on the plate.  In one of his signature dishes, he recreated a haunting yet beautiful scene of a winter wolf attack, a vivid display of animals in the wild.  Pan seared then oven baked venison loin was torn apart with forks to mimic the powerful shearing forces of wolves clamping down on its prey, while hen of the wood mushrooms, rose petals, dehydrated cauliflower florets and cauliflower purée set the forest background.   Splashes of bright crimson beet juice with blackberry and Banyuls vinegar conjured a gruesome sight of fresh warm blood splattering across the white snow which Thornton plated with the determination and grace of Jackson Pollock.

Like the great African migration of wildebeests that cross crocodile infested waters of the Serengeti, well aware of their imminent danger but unable to resist their instincts, the awesomeness of such powerful displays of the circle of life renders the voyeur unable to look away.  The savage clash of prey and predator while both desperately fight for survival and the juxtaposition of beauty and violence was captured eloquently in this dish where the flavors were as good as the visual.  While the venison should have been prepared more rare, the dish was amazing in every other way.

Buttered rum hot and cold

Temperature and texture contrast was the theme in the first of two desserts, featuring a hot buttered rum fritter on cold buttered rum panna cotta, a silky gelatinous concoction with the light jiggly texture of annin tofu, or Chinese almond jelly.

Banana four ways

The best part of the banana dessert was not the banana slice, the banana poprocks, banana bread or banana purée, but the Nilla wafer ice cream that glided across my tongue to melt into a pool of seductive sweetness.   The familiar flavors and playfulness of textures reminded me of those happy childhood moments in my backyard.

Even though Chef Craig Thornton is a lone wolf in the culinary world, he successfully grows his own pack of faithful followers and fans through these amazing dinner experiences.  An intimate look into the home and the kitchen of this young and vivacious chef, in the company of similar diners who will become your new friends by the end of the evening, is a special and memorable experience unlike any other.  He rarely, if ever, repeats a dish, making each dinner a unique affair for those lucky few who get to attend.  According to Thornton, the list of dinner requests is so overwhelming that it would take a minimum of 2 years to get through it.  My hope is for as many people as possible to see, smell and taste the raw fantastic creativity of this uninhibited adventurous chef.

“Even if you have bad food, if you have good people, you’ll have a good meal,’ Thornton told me at the end of the dinner- the prime reason for limiting each dinner to 12 guests, to maintain a sense of intimacy.  At the Wolvesden, you will have both good food and good people, making for a remarkable meal.


-at an undisclosed location in Los Angeles

Random trivia:  Did you know that a mated wolf pair usually stays committed for life?  Only when one of them dies, does the other look for another mate.


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.


Le Saint Amour

In case you haven’t noticed, I love French food- real authentic hearty French food that sings to my heart, purrs in my belly and misshapens my thighs.  Especially after returning from a wonderful trip to France a few months ago, I’ve been daydreaming about re-living, even if but for a fleeting moment, that experience of being in a real French bistro.  I love the bustle of a bistro, the long banquettes and crowded tables, the carafes of wine that go with my escargots and foie gras paté, the old school waiters who aren’t afraid to tell you what to order, the gentlemen drinking their Cognac and the madames enjoying their cafe on the patio as they readjust their stylish scarves to keep their neck warm from the cold Parisian chill.  And I recently had such an experience in the heart of Culver City at Le Saint Amour.

Owners Florence and Bruno Herve-Commereuc closed their downtown restaurant, Angelique Café, and reopened in Culver City a few months ago.  The concept of serving homemade French charcuterie (made by Bruno himself) and authentic French fare is still unchanged, although the space is magnificently upgraded.  This magical brasserie has the power to transport you to Paris in an instant.  Am I in Saint-Germain-des-Prés on Rue St. Andrés des Arts?  Or is this in the Marais close to Place des Vosges?  The tall ceilings, tiled floors, long red banquette against the wall, large distressed mirrors on the wall that make the dining room seem larger, small tables narrowly spaced next to one another, specials of the day written in white chalk on the board, large front windows facing the sidewalk framed on the bottom by white lace panels, French waiters scurrying to and from the open kitchen carrying carafes of tap water and plates of mussels…..ah yes, I am in Paris.  The atmosphere is so authentic, that more than half of the customers were also French.  The owner of The Little Door was a few tables down from me, appearing to be very much at home.

I’ve never had a bad experience in Paris, although the city has a bad reputation of having rude waiters.  For those of you who have this opinion or prejudice, rest assured that Le Saint Amour is quite the opposite.  Florence was a most generous and gracious hostess, all of the waiters were attentive and warm, and nobody made me feel rushed.  Everybody was relaxed and happy to be working there.

Thursday night is the best night to go, when oyster sommelier or maitre écailler Christophe Happillon is there with his oyster cart in front of the open kitchen with a big friendly smile on his face.  He gently shucks each oyster himself and shares his vast knowledge with all of the customers.  I’ve never met anybody more passionate about oysters than Christophe.  As he lovingly and tenderly held each oyster in his hands, he told us about how the quality of the seaweed bed and water temperature affected the flavors of the bivalves;  how they originated in one ocean but are now farmed in another, altering the brininess and finish of the oysters; why certain shells are round versus flat and why some are blond versus gray.

The Carlsbad Lunas with the round and blond shells left an acidic kick in the back of my mouth, and had a stronger aftertaste that was complemented by the shallot vinaigrette.  The Endless Summer oysters from Baja California had a light cucumber finish.  The Fanny Bays, my favorite, had a creamy and rich texture with a light lemongrass finish.  All were perfectly shucked and presented.

When Bruno took our order, he gave us a slight frown.  “You’re not getting the boudin noir?  You have to try it, I made it myself.  Let me bring you some!” 15 minutes later he emerged from the kitchen with a plate of boudin noir, a proud smile on his face.  As he set it down on our table, he also pulled up a chair and watched as I took my first bite and gave him my best genuine O-face.  Ahh, exquisite.  This blood sausage was rich in flavor, bursting with complexity, yet light in texture.  The apple compote was a perfect complement to the dense iron-rich sausage.  This was one of the best boudin noirs that I’ve ever had.

The ris de veau veal sweetbreads with frisée was a bit on the dry side, but nicely prepared with a slightly crispy crust and perfect with the acidity of the capers.

The escargots with garlic and parsley butter were just like what I would expect at a Parisian bistro- succulent, juicy and buttery.  These little succulent treasures were simply divine.

The pied de cochon farci, boneless pig’s feet with tartar sauce, was outstanding.  It came out as a small square object, and as I cut through this pig’s skin pillow, cochon heaven came gushing out like a burst pipe.  I could see tender bits of pig skin, collagen, meat, mushrooms and flavorful jus just begging to be slurped up.  This went beautifully with the tartar sauce and the bitter watercress salad.   A truly amazing dish from start to finish.

The terrine de foie gras de canard ‘maison’, house made duck liver terrine, was out of this world.  It rivals some of the best that I’ve ever had in Burgundy.

En fin, we had the entrecote au poivre, the grilled rib eye steak with pepper sauce and fries.  This perfectly medium-rare grilled steak was amazingly tender and flavorful.  It was refreshing to get a steak grilled just the way I ordered it- it’s actually hard to come by these days.  Grilling meat correctly seems to be a lost art.  The foie gras, boudin noir and steak all went beautifully with a bottle of 2006 Savigny-les-Beaune ‘Les Gollardes’ from Jacques Girardin.

Even the dessert was to die for.  The baba au rhum left me speechless.  It tasted exactly like what I envisioned the most perfect baba au rhum to taste like.  Moist and sweet with a hint of rum, with tender candied fruits that were soft and subtle in flavor.  I couldn’t even get good baba au rhum in France, but here I was in a little heavenly bubble in the middle of Culver City, eating French bistro food that rivaled some of my most memorable meals in authentic Parisian bistros.

I could go on and on, as I cannot contain my excitement for Le Saint Amour.  It’s true French bistro food in a true French bistro environment with French staff and true French hospitality.  Le Saint Amour hasn’t seen the last of me.  This place is exceptional and quite simply, c’est magnifique!

Le Saint Amour

9725 Culver Blvd
Culver City, CA 90232
(310) 842-8155

Updates: Maître ecailler Christophe Happillon is now serving his oysters at Church & State Bistro on Tuesday nights and Joe’s in Venice on Friday nights.

Random trivia: Did you know that boudin noir is made from fresh pig’s blood?  When it’s made in the traditional fashion, it takes several people to perform this task.  When bleeding the pig, one of the forelegs has to be constantly moved around to avoid clots from forming in the blood vessels and thus facilitating drainage.