I grimaced as I read my friend Erin's e-mail on Thursday afternoon. 6:30 for dinner? Really? I know I go to bed by 10 pm on most nights and am perfectly happy spending a Saturday evening with a cup of tea and a good book, but that doesn't mean I'm actually a senior citizen stuck in the body of a 25-year-old. I like to eat dinner at a normal hour -- ie. an hour that will potentially trigger heartburn and indigestion when I attempt to go to sleep too soon after I've finished.
Plus, this was Animal we were talking about. The hot new restaurant that I've been lusting over ever since it opened in my West Hollywood neighborhood in June 2008. It even made my 2009 food resolution list, for goodness sakes! I didn't want to have a half-assed experience there. I wanted to get the full feel of the restaurant during its peak hours -- when the crowd is hot and the kitchen is hotter. I wanted to wear a pretty dress. I wanted to see and be part of the scene. And I wanted the place to be happening! Not only half-happening.
I told my friend that it seemed "a little senior dinner special," but I could probably be home from work in time. Truthfully, I was on the verge of suggesting we go another night or choose the 9:15 time, but it was at this crucial juncture that the impatient side of my personality decided to take over. I didn't really want to wait until another day. And I knew my stomach certainly couldn't wait until 9:15 to eat dinner. 6:30 it was.
My "early bird special" fears were fully realized when we arrived a little after 6:30 pm on Friday to find the minimalistic space of the restaurant completely empty aside from one other table of four. My grimace returned, but I tried to make the best of things by rationalizing that at least my pictures would be well-lit from all the natural sunlight streaming in from the front window.
My three dining companions and I settled into our seats around a prime table near the bar, and despite the early hour and our lack of true animalistic hunger, immediately began salivating over everything on the menu. Our decision-making process was further complicated when our adorable server Jeff informed us that because the menu changes nearly every night, many of the items offered would not be available should we chose to return again.
"So, in other words, we should order everything." I said with a coy smile. I was half-kidding and half-serious now that my stomach had reached the full-growl stage.
Jeff gifted me with a mischievous grin and I had to restrain myself from reaching over to pinch his Hollywood perfect cheeks. (Note: The cheeks on his face.)
After much consultation, which mostly involved me telling my dining companions what the food blogs and Jonathan Gold said to order, we decided on three appetizers - the crispy hominy with lime ($5); the melted petit basque with chorizo and garlic bread ($12); and the pork belly with kimchi, peanuts, chili soy, and scallions ($12).
The hominy, which Jonathan Gold included on his list of favorite dishes of 2008, arrived at the table first. I barely had time to sprinkle the lime over the top before my friends were reaching in to sample the freshly fried, popcorn-sized pieces of grits. We started slowly -- politely plopping one piece into our mouths at a time, but we were soon moving full-speed ahead, grabbing up the heavily breaded suckers by the handful.
"They are strangely addicting," I observed as I chomped through another fistful.
Erin nodded in agreement and dove in to secure a few more before the entire bowl was gone.
By the time the petit basque and pork belly arrived, any modicum of mindful dining behavior had disappeared from the premises of our table. We were animals, scooping up the luscious basque cheese, chorizo sausage and greasy onions, and smearing it over our slices of garlic bread with the reckless abandon of individuals who aren't concerned with fitting into their skinny jeans the next day. Or any day.
"So basically it's like a pepporoni pizza." My friend Hank commented, as he masticated his piece of butter-laced cheesy bread.
I tried to respond, but at that point was too enraptured with the pork belly to verbalize my protestation at his slight dismissal of the definitively diet-unfriendly starter. The sweet/spicy combo of the caramelized chunks of fatty pork and accompanying kimchi with scallions and chili oil was a revelation. I didn't hesitate to go in for a second piece when my dining companions generously suggested I take another. My friend Suzanne didn't hesitate to scoop up the remaining peanuts either. Animals needn't be concerned with decorum when securing their share of the kill.
The interlude between our appetizers and entrees allowed us plenty of time to observe our fellow diners in the now nearly at capacity animal kingdom. Hank jokingly suggested one of us "go for" the pack of younger male specimens sharing plates of appetizers at a nearby table. I glared at him to make it clear that I am not a cougar on the prowl.
My gaze shifted away from its survey of the male parties occupying the majority of the tables in the space, to rest upon a mother and her cub who were feasting upon the poutine with oxtail gravy and cheddar. Despite my companions stimulating discussion about the recent Slate article about "30 Rock's" conservatism (an article which I hadn't read at the time), I couldn't tear my eyes away from Animal's version of chili cheese fries.
"I can't stop staring." I whispered to Erin (who also hadn't read the article and was similarly "out of the loop").
"Do you want me to ask them if you can try it?" She asked.
I paused. I kind of did.
"Oh no, no. Of course not!" I laughed nervously, and took another sip of my glass of Pinot Grigio ($12) to calm the roar in my belly.
Our entrees arrived shortly after -- two orders of the ling cod with king crab, gold rice succotash, and cipollini onions ($29.) for the ravenous lions at the table (Hank and me), and one order of the branzino with artichokes, leeks, ramps, and green garlic ($25) for the dainty lambs (Erin and Suzanne) to share. While the branzino looked delicious, my vulturous eyes were completely fixated on my dish -- one of the better seafood entrees I've encountered at an LA restaurant. The golden crust on the buttery cod, the sweet cippollini onions, the savory crunch of the fava beans and corn, and the tender king crab all worked together to create an incredibly thoughtful plate. It was difficult for me to offer up a bite of the slain fish carcass, but I momentarily abandoned my animalistic mentality for a brief foray in altruism.
My altruistic behavior proved short-lived, ending as soon as the pound cake with strawberries and cream ($7), and blueberry rhubarb crisp with whipped cream ($8) hit the table. The two surprisingly light desserts were helpless against the attack of our four forks. We groaned over the fresh strawberries and delicate pound cake, beat our chests with appreciation for the crumbly cookie top and sensuous whipped cream over the blueberry and rhubarb crisp, and within minutes everything was gone. The feeding frenzy finished, my friends and I looked at each other in bewilderment.
What just happened? I wondered. I was shocked to discover that two hours had passed since we'd entered the now fully happening restaurant. My wish for a scene had been granted, but it wasn't the kind of scene I'd envisioned for the hot LA restaurant. The space is clearly at its best when filled with animals who posses bestial hunger -- not impeccably dressed humans with a social agenda. Meat-- bacon, oxtail, sausage, pork ribs, and foie gras -- reign in this kingdom, and, for the few moments that I allowed it to linger on my plate, the ling cod did as well.
It doesn't matter what time the feeding takes place at Animal -- it will be happening at 6 pm or 10 pm because the point is the food -- the glorious, fat-laden, butter-drenched, better-call-the-trainer-tomorrow, food.