Animal is the type of new restaurant I'm up for trying: it's not on Hollywood Blvd., there haven't been reports of people not receiving their food for hours at a time and there's basically no scene or decor to speak of. And the food was reportedly really, really, good, even though it's only been open two weeks.
The only caution I had heard (other than that you probably don't want to subject your vegetarian friends to a restaurant called Animal) was that the people who take reservations are not always totally efficient(see this EaterLA report) , and sure enough, they had us down for nine, not five people. Nearly every party on Friday evening was either writers that we recognized or meat and fish purveyors, according to owner Jon Shook, one of the 2 Dudes who make up 2 Dudes Catering, which Shook and Vinny Dotolo ran before opening the restaurant.
If you ever saw their Food Network show you'll remember the spare white space on Fairfax near Canter's, furnished simply with wood banquettes, flickering bare bulbs on the wall and a concrete floor. But somehow, with good quality heavy white china and flatware, the minimalist approach manages to feel both classy and casual. This seems to be the kind food in the kind of place people want to eat right right now -- imaginative and meaty dishes, moderate portions, a fun, reasonable wine list and an exceedingly laid-back atmosphere where the waiters wear baggy jeans and t-shirts and so can the diners. Despite the name and the preponderance of bacony things on the menu, there's nothing overly animalistic about the place -- portions are modest, flavors are distinct but carefully calibrated, and there's not much in the way of offal or entrails, so don't worry about taking your fussy date or your mom. The menu is quite tightly edited, but all the first courses are tempting, although we're disappointed the soft shell crab isn't on offer. We tried four firsts, and decided to get just one main, the halibut wrapped in prosciutto (top right).
Amberjack poke with nectarines (above left) is an unexpected response to the way-too-tired tuna tartare, a perfect summer dish with a tart, spicy harissa vinaigrette. Burrata and beets is good almost anywhere, but these translucent pink beets have a concentrated flavor that pairs nicely with pinenuts, raisins and green olives. Shaved asparagus with a poached egg, grana padano cheese, and bacon, of course, is also a lovely fresh dish, with roasted almonds and another perfectly tart dressing. If there's one thing this place gets right, at least in the savory dishes, it's the acid balance needed to give things flavors that pop.
But where are the animals, you ask? The pork rib appetizer (bottom left) also works as a main, with tender carmelized bits falling off the bone and a bright array of pickled vegetables on the side. Our main course of halibut also kisses up to the pig with a blanket of crispy prosciutto insulating it from the bed of farro, cippolini onions and peas it rests on. The fish is perfectly cooked, the onions are delicious -- everything works together. The other main courses -- the inevitable flat iron steak, a crispy quail dish, rib-eye for two for $70 and whole branzino -- don't seem to call to us, so we save room for dessert. Somehow we manage to work pork into all three courses, because of course you have to order the bacon chocolate bar (bottom right). It's a slightly bitter slab of chocolate terrine with bacon bits on top -- pretty hard to argue with, since I love savory notes in my desserts. Nectarine-blueberry crisp is slightly less successful -- good crust, but with no tartness to the fruit, the overall effect is too sweet and one-note. Wine prices are exceedingly reasonable -- our $32 French rose was one of the most expensive bottles on the list.
Animal certainly perks up the Fairfax Ave. food scene, and Chameau must be glad to have a four-legged friend. Shook says noise baffles for the walls and artwork are on the way, since it does get fairly loud later on.
I'll certainly be back for more Animal -- hoping the soft-shell crab reappears.