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For the carnivores

The menu at Animal is meat-centered, indulgent and exuberant. But disciplined? No way.

August 20, 2008|S. Irene Virbila | Times Restaurant Critic

TWO "food dudes" -- laid-back, long-haired cooks who grew up in Florida and are culinary graduates of the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale -- make their way to California and end up at the late Chadwick in Beverly Hills working with Ben Ford and Govind Armstrong. In 2004, the dudes, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, found Carmelized Productions, a catering company. Soon, they're starring in the Food Network docudrama series, "Two Dudes Catering," which purports to show "two young renegade chefs who play by their own rules" in "the big time world of Hollywood catering."

This spring they opened Animal, a restaurant on Fairfax Avenue that picks up on the idea of Nigel Ferguson's London restaurant St. John and focuses on rustic meat-centric cooking. Their book "Two Dudes, One Pan: Maximum Flavor From a Minimalist Kitchen" is due out Aug. 26.

I want to root for these two out-of-towners who have managed to open their own restaurant. I applaud Animal's concept and aesthetic -- dietarily incorrect, exuberant and indulgent, with bacon popping up in almost every dish. But while some of the dishes are pretty good, I'm finding it hard to fall for this restaurant, despite the enthusiastic young hipsters all around the dining room shouting out that the grits are amazing and the ribs fabulous.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, August 23, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Chef's name: In a review of Animal restaurant in Wednesday's Food section, the chef at St. John restaurant in London was identified as Nigel Ferguson. His name is Fergus Henderson.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, August 27, 2008 Home Edition Food Part F Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Chef's name: In a review of Animal restaurant in the Aug. 20 Food section, the chef at St. John restaurant in London was identified as Nigel Ferguson. His name is Fergus Henderson.

With heavy wood tabletops that look smoked or scorched, a plywood banquette lining one wall and old-fashioned bare filament light bulbs screwed into porcelain fixtures on the walls, Animal cultivates that minimalist, bare-bones look. There's a bar at the back where you can hang, waiting for a table, and a patio of sorts up front where smokers take a break.


Sweet and salty

THE MENU, printed on brown recycled paper in a faint italic hand, is hard to read. Nevermind, it hardly changes from week to week, which tells me the two young chefs have a fairly small repertoire. Their cooking is on the rough side of rustic and tends to be greasy, but made with good ingredients. Dishes can go well over the top with too many flavors competing for attention and wallowing in too much sauce.

I know the chefs are having a ball in the kitchen, dreaming up dishes, sending plates out to friends and fans -- but somebody has to get a grip. Hide the salt and the sugar (too much of either or both escape onto the plates) and maybe -- just a thought -- cut back on the bacon.

OK, one rich, gooey dish is fun. And that would be the hot and bubbling plate of petite Basque cheese melted over Fra' Mani chorizo with stiff toasts of garlic bread to scoop up the molten mass. This is great, especially with a glass of beer. If you're a crowd, you might like to pair it with an order of fried hominy with lime squeezed over to cut the salt.

The ribs -- cooked 10 hours, the affable waiter tells us, in a balsamic glaze -- are good too, falling-off-the-bones tender. If, however, you like to sink your teeth into your ribs, these are not for you. I like that they serve them with a bread salad with heirloom tomatoes. All in all, though, after eating here, I find myself longing for vegetables.

The closest you can get are the khaki-colored, long-cooked Romano beans dressed in lemon and chili flakes and covered with pecorino shavings -- and some pancetta. These, I have to say, are wonderful but don't really satisfy that craving for something green.

Or you can get braised marinated leeks with spinach, poached egg and bacon, but the result is a gooey mess of flavors, everything soft and indistinct. The dudes' territory is strictly comfort zone.

Shaved asparagus is a more focused dish, drizzled with a bacon vinaigrette and topped with a poached egg and Grana Padano cheese. Diced raw amberjack tossed with sliced nectarines and orange segments in a dressing lighted up with serrano chiles is terrific, an oddball mix of flavors that really zaps those taste buds.

A first course of foie gras with biscuit and gravy, a honey-laced biscuit topped with a small piece of excellent seared foie gras, the whole thing sitting in a gratin dish with enough sweet gravy to fuel the entire room, is puzzling. I see the point: Most chefs pair something sweet with foie gras. But it also needs some acidity to cut the sweetness. For me, this is too cloying to live.

I'm just as puzzled by the idea of serving the huge Tomahawk rib-eye steak for two in foie gras sauce in the middle of summer. Piling on the richness and the tony ingredients doesn't always result in something amazing. And the menu offers little relief from the sweetness and richness. What's needed are some perspective and discipline.

Fried quail -- tender, bursting with juice in a shaggy golden crust -- is a charming idea. But it's served on top of Anson Mills grits that taste as if they've been cooked in heavy cream. Unfortunately, the long-cooked greens that accompany them are so salty, they're inedible. To add to the salt quotient on the plate, there's more slab bacon on the side.

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