When staring down a creamy lobe of seared foie gras, what is the one ingredient that would best compliment this already unhealthy appetizer? Or what could add a salty dimension to a chocolate dessert besides a sprinkle of sea salt? Or what goes best with duck tongues and kale?
In the minds of Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, the answer is bacon. At Animal, located next to the famed 24-hour Canter’s Deli on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles, bacon is used more frequently than parmesan cheese at an Italian restaurant. Shook and Dotolo have been dubbed the “Two Food Dudes” for their vision of cuisine known simply as “dude cuisine.” This is not the sit-on-the-couch, stuff-your-face-while-watching-football man cuisine of nachos and chicken wings. Foie gras, ribs, bacon, offal meats—the Food Dudes don’t hold back. You could call Animal an assortment of various nicknames: a temple of gluttony, a shrine to pigs, a disaster of a Kosher restaurant. Since opening a little over a year ago, Animal has easily become one of the most talked-about restaurants in the country for its bold use of obscure meats in even obscurer combinations—and for not giving in one bit to society’s pressure to eat healthy.
Shook and Dotolo got their start in 2004 when they created a Los Angeles catering company, but they did not emerge as advocates for this gluttonous cuisine until their Food Network series “Two Dudes Catering” started. With a cookbook released last year, a steady stream of salivating meat-lovers are ready to make the pilgrimage to the church for what former New York Times dining critic Frank Bruni called “carniwhores.”
Animal Restaurant:435 North Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles(323) 782-9225
Hours: Dinner nightly: Sunday-Thursday, 6 p.m.-11 p.m.; Friday-Saturday until 2 a.m.
Overall: ***Food: ***Atmosphere: **1/2Service: ***
Restaurants with table service are rated with a grade from 0 to 4 stars on food, service, and atmosphere, along with an overall star rating. Restaurants without table service receive only one overall rating and are assessed with more of an emphasis on their overall value. All overall ratings take into account a restaurant’s prices.
4 stars: Extraordinary3 stars: Outstanding, very reliable, perhaps 1 area to improve slightly2 stars: Good but several flaws1 star: Avoidable, I probably did not get food poisoning at least0 stars: Should be closed/dangerous to a diner’s sanity and health
Most plates are designed to be shared, because if anything diners will feel guilty eating an entire pig ear with fried egg by themselves. The barbeque pork belly sandwiches with a refreshing slaw are a terrific starter to share, or be creative and try the perfectly fried duck tongues with perfectly crispy kale and a ranch-style dressing with, of course, diced bacon. As good as the duck tongues are, it is the kale, yes kale, that is the memorable aspect of this dish. For the gluttony-inclined, the foie gras atop a biscuit with a wonderful sweet-rustic maple sausage gravy is delightfully decadent. These are all wonderful starters to share, and I found that the more adventurous you are, the more you will be rewarded. The most boring-sounding appetizer was ricotta and cheese gnocchi with pumpkin and sage butter, and it was indeed the most boring of the starters with no distinguishing flavors around. Go to Animal, eat animals.
The same applies when ordering your entrée. Be bold and brave and you shall reap the benefits of an indulgent dinner. The signature balsamic pork ribs come on a platter the size of an entire grown pig. The meat is perfectly tender and falls easily off the bone with no effort, complimented by a tangy sweet barbeque sauce in the Texas barbeque tradition. The accompanying side dish is no slouch either: impossibly soft delicata squash with sinfully sweet cippolini onions. The Food Dudes gently fry quails perfectly, though the grits that join it are rather boring and the slab bacon and maple just don’t seem to meld well with the quails. Medallions of lamb leg are served over a pile of merguez sausage and alubia criollo beans, and the classic Hawaiian dish “loco moco” is spiffed up with a slab of foie gras atop a hamburger patty and spam, all crowned by a tiny quail egg. The one dull entrée was not surprisingly the pompano, consisting of a perfectly cooked fish filet over a nondescript medley of white wine, potato, and olives.
Desserts are limited but necessary. The tres leches cake is easily the moistest version I’ve ever tried, and the warm, airy doughnuts are sublime. However, going to Animal without trying the notorious bacon chocolate crunch bar is simply a crime. Two layers of chocolate ganache interspersed with peanuts and crunch bars are topped with the saltiness of bacon, and it certainly works. The chocolate could use a bit more sweetness to accent the bacon, but for better or worse this is one of the best known dishes in LA.
Service is very polished with perfect timing and very helpful menu advice, though our waitress went MIA after our desserts were ordered. The room is sparsely decorated with exposed lightbulbs brightly illuminating the bare wood paneling that runs along both sides. A small bar near the kitchen provides some intriguing cocktails, and the very compact wine list does have some real winners. Once 9 p.m. rolls around, the hipster crowd comes rocking, making Animal feel part West Hollywood nightclub. What still boggles me is how such skinny people can eat often at a place like this. I wish chocolate, bacon, and foie gras were as healthy as kumquats and broccoli. If they were, then I’d eat dude food constantly. Honestly, what does bacon not taste good with?