Before Jon and Vinny masterminded Son of a Gun, there was Animal, one of the first Los Angeles restaurants I'd ever visited. While out in LA on a solo mission scouting apartments for Angela and myself's big move, I treated my hosts to dinner there - the least I could do for them letting me crash on their couch for a week. And when I reported back to Angela - in DC awaiting word on the apartment hunt - about all the things I ate without her, there was an obvious twinge of sadness in her voice. "You had foie gras loco moco without me?"
I did have foie gras loco moco without her. The decadant spin on the Hawaiin classic combines hamburger and SPAM over white rice and a sweet, red gravy sauce... But it also takes it one... no, two steps further, topping it off with a fried quail egg and a perfectly seared strip of foie gras. This would usually be a rare delicacy we'd spring for when we're lucky enough to find something like it beckoning on a menu. Bone marrow, sweetbreads and miscellenaous pig parts often elicit the same ordering obligation in us... But to summarize the Animal experience, it is an entire menu - thirty dishes deep - comprised without exception of these over-the-top extravagances.
It's been nearly two years since my Angela-less visit, and it was her birthday, so I thought I'd throw her a bone (no, literally, we ate bone) and surprise her with a trip to Animal, luckily only a short walk from us on Fairfax Ave in West Hollywood.
While the drink list is heavy on the wines, we sipped on a couple cans of Golden Road's locally brewed Point the Way IPA while we were tempted by virtually everything on the menu. Leave no foie gras unordered is typically an unspoken mantra when we place orders, but at Animal there were four different preparations of foie gras alone. We started with a silky slab of foie gras terrine (below, $23) which, on its own, is almost overwhelmingly rich and a tad underseasoned. But if you were to eat it on its own, you'd be an idiot - the terrine is designed to be spread on the accompanying buttery, salty toast and topped with a dab of sweet marmelade and a bit of crunchy endive. A perfectly balanced bite in combination.
Because we wanted a little break amidst a meal bound to give us the meat sweats, we changed it up with the ricotta gnocchi (below, $15) served with Mike's liver sauce, black trumpet mushrooms and green garlic. The little dumplings are as light as a cloud, and the fungi add a wonderful meat-less meatiness. As I eat, I'm almost thinking thinking to myself, how cool is it that Animal is also vegetarian friendly? Then the thick, buttery taste of liver sauce reminds me that this place isn't veg-friendly at all. And boy, am I glad it's not, that liver sauce is absolutely incredible.
The sweetbreads (below, $14) were perhaps our favorite course of the night. The fatty offal was balanced perfectly amongst a citrusy creamed spinach, mushrooms, capers and brown butter.
Angela was particularly tickled with the crispy slivers of pig ear (below, $12), served with lime and a not-insubstantial amount of chili, hiding beneath a fried egg.
Neither of has actually ever tasted brains before and what better chance the now? We sprung for the veal brains (below, $14) with vadouvan, apple sauce and carrot. A dead-ringer for sweetbreads on the exterior, the brains are uniquely soft and gelatinous on the inside. Not for the squeamish, biting into the texturally off-putting organ can be more of a mental challenge than a physical one. Taste-wise, the brains are actually quite pleasant, lightly flavored with Indian spices. We were happy to check the novelty experience off from our list, but given the chance to order again, we'd likely venture towards other organs of the animal. Did I mention that they had veal tongue with smoked foie gras and pastrami spices?!
And of course, getting the marrow bone (below, $8) was a no-brainer. A solid option, the marrow gets a coat of herby chimicurri and sweet caramelized onion. The thick, grilled 'Texas Toast' style bread is a particular highlight.
And full circle, we came back to one more foie gras dish for the finale to our savory courses. I already have a soft spot for biscuits n' gravy, but this dish took it to the next level. The foie gras (below, $25) with biscuits and maple sausage gravy was a little sweet and a whole lot of savory. Perfect way to end the savory portion of the meal.
After all that, you'd think we'd be done, right? Wrong. We still had one more dish - Animal's signature bacon chocolate crunch bar, layered with different kinds of chocolate, a hazelnut ganache and of course, bacon bits. An ideal dessert for Angela's birthday dinner, it's a nice blend of subtle sweetness and salty crunch.
Yes, Jon and Vinny have gone on to bring us Son of a Gun - the wildly popular seafood version of what you see above. But Animal remains as good as ever. Still worth visiting even if it's a return trip or your first time.