Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Jeremy Fox takes the Animal out of Animal Restaurant

It’s been a year since my first visit to Animal, Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook’s carnivore-friendly eatery on Fairfax Avenue. The occasion had predictably been marked by meat – pork belly rendered down to caramelized hunks of fork-friendly flesh, chorizo luxuriously slaughtered by oozing petit basque cheese, and a pan-fried ling cod with a king crab top hat.

It was an awesome meal, a night to be remembered – another notable page in the history of “Diana’s Bite-Taking,” but the next day I felt like I had been stampeded by the very animals I’d devoured. (The crab simply resorted to pinching the heck out of my stomach.)

I wouldn’t have protested a return visit to the pork-pushing restaurant (I dig the pig), but the opportunity didn’t arise, and since I typically tend to favor meals that are centered around vegetables, I didn’t feel particularly inclined to seek out an opportunity on my own volition. As I regularly tell my fellow grubbers, I’m more or less “a reluctant foodie,” and need a little push to get me to put down the box of quinoa and bag of frozen edamame.

I needed no such push, however, to say “Yes!” to a special vegetarian tasting menu being offered this week at Animal. The feast of unfurry things was to be prepared by Jeremy Fox, Food & Wine’s Chef of the Year in 2008, and was to be enjoyed with a group of some of my very favorite people this past Monday evening. For a girl who eats whole heads of broccoli with her dinner, seven courses of vegetables is akin to winning a trip to the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory.

Except for the whole turning into a grape part. (I don’t look great in purple.)

The $70 tasting started out with two amuse bouches – Marcona Almonds with lavender sugar, sea salt and olive oil, and Crunchy “French Breakfast” Radishes with nori-flavored soft chevre and mustard. The almonds were, predictably, so addictive that I wanted to maim all the other hands at the table to horde them all to myself. I was less enamored with the radishes that are in general a “take it or leave it” food entity for me. I did, however, love the briny goat cheese by itself, and was not above using my knife to transport it directly into my mouth sans accompaniment. Since I was not eating any animals, it seemed appropriate to act out the part myself.

The next two courses were two of my favorite dishes of the evening. The 2X-Shucked Peas in a Consumme of Shells with white chocolate, “chocolate” mint, and macadamia, was, as I told my friend Sarah, “the type of thing I could eat every day.” If, of course, I had ready access to chocolate mint. And had any idea how Chef Fox prepared his artful plate of peas. Sadly, I’ll just have to stare longingly at the pictures as though it’s the still-life version of the allusive Mona Lisa.

I was similarly won over by the “Forono” Beet Baked in a Rose Geranium Salt Crust with “fuerte” avocado, pickled green strawberry and pistachio which resembled a savage garden on a plate. The green strawberries looked a little terrifying – like they might poison our palates or illicit hallucinations a la magic mushrooms, but fortunately (or unfortunately), their potent strawberry flavor was a favorable component to the well-balanced dish. The avocado, filling in for the usual cheese suspects (buratta, goat, ricotta, et all.), was an especially astute pairing for the beets.
The Young Favas, Roasted Whole, Then Shucked with salsa maro of the pods, anchovy “flavor,” and parmesan immediately molested our mouths with a hit of garlic. While I regularly triple the amount of garlic called for in recipes I make at home, I felt it and the parmesan overpowered the delicate nutty flavor of the favas. I still enjoyed the dish (it reminded me of a pasta-less ravioli), but I was far more excited by the Heirloom Carrots Rescoldo Style, in Root Embers, with vadouvan spices, coconut labneh and parsnip. If carrots always tasted like this – their natural sweetness accentuated by the curry and coconut, I would probably turn orange from eating too many of them. This was my favorite bite of the night.

Everyone at my table was excited by the next course – the Roast Celtuce Stalk and Fresh Liptauer Cheese with ruta-kraut, pumpernickel and horseradish mustard. Mostly because none of us had ever had celtuce (a stem lettuce that tastes like celery) before, and we had, prior to its arrival, spent a considerable amount of time repeating the word over and over again. I loved the application of cheese here, and am always fond of celery, so was pleased with what was reminiscent of a celery root salad. Despite my appreciation for all things carb, however, I didn’t love the hard nuggets of pumpernickel that seemed to be a superfluous addition to the otherwise successful plate.
Our final savory course that, incidentally, might have actually been intended for a dessert course, was the Sweet Fennel & Puffed Wild Rice Krispie with fennel bulb, “page” mandarin, and bronze fennel. My immediate reaction was that it tasted exactly like Kashi cereal -- a good thing in my mind since I have a fondness for my morning grains. Others were less impressed, but perhaps they are merely egg-types or anti-breakfasters who favor black coffee with their empty stomach? We agree to disagree.
All of us, however, were on the same page about our “dessert” – the Toasted Brioche & Sherry “Crème Brulee” with fried cornbread, chocolate ganache and shiitake. After one bite, every single fork on the table was discretely laid to rest, and we chose to end our meal with an additional pour from our bottle of wine instead.
It was a vastly different experience leaving Animal than the time before when I’d waddled home feeling like a heart attack victim with a Santa Claus bowl full of (animal) jelly. I felt clean. I felt light on my toes. And I felt… hungry. Whereas my first visit was a little too light on the greens and necessitated a salad remedy the next day, this second visit was at the opposite end of the spectrum -- a little too light on the protein and carbs. I loved the overall effect of the menu and enjoyed the experience so much that I didn’t immediately notice the missing starches, but at the end of the night, even a broccoli-loving gal can’t subsist on pretty green things alone.

My real last course of the evening was a piece of Peanut Butter Toast and a Scrambled Egg – made with an extra fat pat of butter – at home. It was a very successful dish, but, as I'm sure Vinny and Jon would agree, would have been even better with a slice of meaty bacon.

435 North Fairfax Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(323) 782-9225


bagnatic said...

wow, the meal looks AMAZING. everything was plated so prettily too.

Esi said...

Lol, the plates are pretty, but if you have to eat more at the end of the meal, not sure I would call it a raging success. Glad you enjoyed the dishes for the most part.

Jenn said...

I've been wanting to visit Animal since they opened. I really need to go there when I get back from my trip.

Gastronomer said...

Sounds like a rowdy and delicious night! Love that a veggie tasting was held in a meat den ;-)

Kirby! said...

About 6 months ago, I became vegetarian (did you know that? I don't think so), but the week before I made the switch, I went to Animal for Christmas dinner with my boyfriend. It was amazing. A vegetarian tasting menu there is like my dream come true! This is really inspiring me to go, but alas, $70 is a LOT for me. Maybe, though....

LetMeEatCake Eat With Me! said...

i've only been to Animal once but I still dream about their crispy hominy! I love that they had a vegetarian tasting I would have loved to try it everything looks great!

KK said...

hmmm. . . this menu is very reminiscent, and in some ways identical, to Jeremy Fox's old restaurant Ubuntu in Napa. I think I read he recently left Ubuntu, which makes it kind of feel like a betrayal to just swipe all the menu items that are still there.

But the better point of view is that he is sharing and spreading Ubuntu! It is a pretty amazing restaurant

Anna A. said...

TALF approved, veggelicious. So funny about dessert though - ah, well you are RUINED after the mango sticky rice!!

Diana said...

Amy - Everything was gorgeous! It was really fun to photograph too. ;)

Esi - Hah, yeah but I'm sure the average person would have been plenty satisfied. I'm a "hungry."

Jenn - Definitely check it out -- and order the pork belly with kimchi!

Cathy - That was kind of the best part! ;)

Kirby - Hey! I knew you were headed in the direction of vegetarianism, but didn't know you'd turned full veg. Good for you! I've toyed with the idea, but am still stuck on meat for the time-being. Animal's vegetarian menu will only be offered through the 24th, so if you want to go, there's only a few days left. I think there are still reservations open though!

Nastassia - We got the crispy hominy the first time also! Loved the lime on top.

KK - That is interesting. I was thrilled when I heard he was coming down after hearing so much about Ubunto. I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't realize he'd left. Either way, I was very impressed - eating his food was quite the experience!

Anna - Don't even get me started on the mango sticky rice...

Shirlene said...

what a beautiful meal! Diana! how are you dear...we should get together sometime! hope all is well :)