Plaudits: Bon Appetit's Most Important Restaurants in America #11, LA Weekly's 99 Essential Restaurants 2013, The Daily Meal's 101 Best Restaurants in America, James Beard Nominee 2013 - Best Chef West
Neighborhood: West Hollywood, LA
Our tour book of LA begins with the crown jewel of the trip, Official Co-Writer/Fiancee Texas and me splurging on a meal at the venerable Animal.
Hearing about Animal is one thing; at a certain point, if you're tuned into the culinary world, you can't escape hearing about it or about its twin head chefs, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo. While whole animal eating, cooking with offbeat cuts, or using offal may seem firmly entrenched in the cultural zeitgeist, it wasn't that long ago that Animal was blazing a trail for both the local and nose-to-tail (all credit to Fergus Henderson aside). It got to the point where there was a word cloud of adjectives that got to be associated with Animal: essential, important, best.
Finding Animal on the street is another thing altogether. No signwork adorns its modest black storefront, its interior similarly nondescript. White walls, black furniture and a black bar, with some simple tan accents. Seating is three rows of tables, one of two-tops along the left wall, a row of diamond four-tops in the center, and some half-booths along the right wall. In contrast to many of its contemporaries, the restaurant could not be more emphatic in stressing that the ambiance will come from the food, or as the line in the Usual Suspects goes: "in other words, the atmosphere will not be painted on the walls."
Despite the restaurant's name, there are a few veggie-friendly bites, beginning with our first small plate: a warm salad of baby kale and kohlrabi, dressed with walnuts, local goat cheese, and apple chunks and crisps. There was a nice simplicity to it, though the salad got markedly better when we finally located the kohlrabi at the bottom of the bowl. Each bite was incredibly fresh, and while it wasn't anything worthy of hyperbole, it definitely was solid.
Dish number two was a kampachi tostada, which came dressed with a full salad's worth of herbs, fried shallots, and a fish sauce vinaigrette. This dish was the first time that our meal's decided Asian bent came through: even with the fish and crunch at the bottom, the predominant flavor profile was that of a light Vietnamese salad. I think we'd both have preferred if the balance of tuna and tostada was a little more even than with the shredded iceberg above it, but we were both happy with the amount of shallots, which added some nice crisp and salt.
The punch came in the form of number three: kung pao sweetbreads with English peas, and Szechuan peppercorns. Even now, I'm conflicted about this dish. On the one hand, the sweetbreads were cooked sublimely, tender but still with that trademark sweetbread texture. Still, the flavor profile that accompanied it made its use sort of moot; the sweetbreads could've been subbed out for chicken or pork or soy with somewhat similar effect. More importantly, the use of Szechuan peppercorns made for a blanching spice that numbed your tongue after a few minutes. This was a dish that didn't just call out for a glass water; it signaled for a palate cleanser. Enjoyable, but perhaps not the best dish for the middle of a meal or in a small plates format where other dishes will follow.
Perhaps the best dish of the night was the crispy pig head, a shaped cylinder of pulled meat, topped with short-grain rice, an egg, and something called bulldog sauce. The head meat was more like pork cheek that we've had before, surprisingly tender and stringy-in-a-good-way. With a seaweed rub on the bowl, a distinct taste of soy, and the surrounding rice, it felt at times to be like eating pork sushi. Still, despite that little bit of interesting juxtaposition, it was the most flavor forward and bold of all the dishes we ate.
The last main course small plate was the (of course we got it) poutine, smothered in an oxtail gravy and cheddar. As poutine purists, we were more than a little annoyed that the traditional cheese curds had been replaced by some melted cheese. Texas and I were split on the appropriateness of the fries (I was okay with them, she wanted them a little thinner and crispier). On the other hand, the oxtail chunks in the gravy were incredible and the gravy was the single best part of this dish.
For dessert, we split a simple fruit crumble, with blueberry and a brown butter crumble topped by a generous serving of yogurt. It was all a little tart for us, but with a nice hint of bay leaf, it was a fairly decent sweet finish to the meal.
Like most meals we've had at preeminent American restaurants so far, this wasn't incredibly hyperbole-worthy amazing. But it was a solid, often good, sometimes great, meal that was very interesting through and through.
Food Rating: **** (out of 5)
Date Rating: 2 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Casual
Bar Rating: Quiet Drinks
Cost: $$$$ (out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)