Animal, vegetable and beer

Kathy and Stu are eating their way across LA. Here’s Kathy’s take on Animal

Our good friend and county administrator from Arkansas, Dave Meriwether, once told me, “A meal without meat is just a snack.”

With its one-word name, Los Angeles’s Animal may have you thinking when you walk in the door that you’ve entered a serious palace to meat. And everything about Animal is serious. There is no sign out front on the black facade. The walls inside are cream. And bare, save for a few paintings relegated to the four corners of the room. The restaurant is long and lean and clean and dimly lit. The bar at the back holds wine bottles set in neat rows. The menu is spare, and dishes are described without much fanfare: “marrow bone, chimichurri, caramelized onions.”

But is the focus here strictly on meat? Not even for a minute. The meat and vegetables prepared at Animal would die without each other. To separate them would be to wrench apart each dish’s DNA.

Take the marrow bone.  Here, co-chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo roast the marrow, remove it from the bone, slice a six-inch section of the roasted bone in half length-wise, and spoon the marrow back into its original home to serve, leaving no doubt about the marrow’s provenance. But it’s the delicate chimichurri  and caramelized onions spooned sparingly on top of the marrow that take this dish from its usual meat-on-toast presentation to something richer, deeper and far more satisfying. And yes, it does come with richly buttered bread that has been toasted on a flat top griddle, not grilled, so no charred notes detract from the sweet interplay of marrow and chimichurri.

A dish of veal tongue does nothing to disguise its origins either: the veal is sliced thin, long and tongue-shaped, perfectly tender. There is nothing better in the world than a tongue sandwich, when it’s done right. And a good one includes horseradish and mustard and pickles. Here, the tongue is homage to the perfect tongue sandwich: the slices are laid on a swish of mustard made from black mustard seeds, with a sliced and fried West Indian gherkin pickle, a scattering of croutons, and finally, a spoon of horseradish in crème fraiche with steelhead roe for the perfect salty smack.

Whelks, or sea snails, don’t make it on to menus much, and that’s a shame. Cooked right, they have all the flavor of scallops, with a firmer bite. Here they are mated to small, tender gnocchi and cream with pea tendrils, fennel and bacon.

We drank beer with our dishes, a solution we have gravitated to when restaurant wine lists and glass pours have prices way beyond what we think reasonable. Maybe wine glass pours starting at $11 and pushing right through $18 work in L.A., but I can’t see that trend coming to Hood River or Nora’s any time soon. Thankfully, the beer list was designed for food (no bitter hopped-up A-bombs), and included some Oregon favorites, though we still found it hard to believe that anyone would charge $6 for a bottle of Full Sail Session, good beer though it is.

One of the best dishes we had included almost no animal at all: a local burrata (mozzarella on the outside, cream and mozzarella on the inside), katsuobushi (a log of dried, fermented and smoked tuna that is shaved in a special box, a bit like a mandolin), green garlic, leeks and jalapeno.  The dish sounds like a confusion of the highest order, but Shook and Dotolo have tamed the disparate ingredients into behaving as if they grew up together. If an ancient Japanese tuna preparation wants to hang out with an Italian cheese, they say, “Why not?”

And we say, “Yes, please.”

Some general notes on dining in LA:

Who runs the kitchens? We have now been to several notable top-ten restaurants, and several purely ethnic restaurants, including one 83-year old Jewish deli, and it’s the same everywhere: The chefs and servers are men and women, young and old, of nearly every ethnicity found on the West coast. The dish pit and bus person jobs, however, belong exclusively to men from Central America and Mexico.  Which reinforces our belief that without them, every restaurant we know and love would implode.

Everyone has been to Portland. Yes, when we tell our servers we’ve come from Oregon for a dose of sun and food, they all say, “I love Portland! I have friends in Portland!”  And in most cases, if we didn’t know better, we’d say we were dining in Portland. Same vibe, same tattoos, same friendly 30-somethings. Better tans, though.

Want Thai, walk two blocks. You hungry? Consult a phone app or laptop, plug in your location, and food craving, and chances are, you are within 5 minutes walking distance of your heart’s desire. Drive down Santa Monica Blvd. and for miles on the north side of the boulevard, there is little else to see but restaurants. Miles and miles of restaurants.  Well, except for that one section of Beverly Hills mansions. I guess if you have to feed 10 million people (population of Los
Angeles County) you better have a few seats.

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