Tuesday, June 10, 2008

animal. soft opening. i was there.

putting on the finishing touches

You know those stories girls tell, where they had nosebleed seats at the concert (you know, Billy Joel or the Stones or something), and some guy treks up to their section and whisks them down to the front row to squeal and revel in their favorite pop idol's sweaty rockstar glory? I kinda had that tonight.

I've been hearing about the opening of animal, the restaurant from local caterers John Shook and Vinnie Dotolo (aka the Two Dudes -- remember their Food Network show?) for a good while. And I was excited: I watched the show, and saw the dudes -- eminently competent chefs -- in action, so I had a bit of personal investment in the enterprise. I felt a lingering affection for the space from its T on Fairfax days. And, come on, Fairfax is my hood. Of course I'm stoked about new spot a quick walk from home.

But I knew these guys cook pretty fancy, so I figured it'd be a while before I made it over. I mean, I certainly didn't think I'd be spending tonight sharing a dining room with the fish guy, the insurance guy, and some hipster swilling Tecate from a can with his flatiron steak with bordelaise and sweetbreads. But then comes Jason. My dear friend Jason Bernstein, who's written here before, is, along with our friend Jim Starr, opening a bar and restaurant -- Golden State -- across the street from animal in the coming months (more on that soon!). Jason and Jim were invited to animal's friends and family opening tonight, but Jim had other plans, Jason called me, I was in, horray!

Friends, animal is good. It's funny to think how the food is best typified as light, extremely fresh, almost feminine in its delicacy, amidst all the hoopla about the greasy stoner dudes who opened a restaurant called animal. In fact, tonight there are several seafood options, and quite a few vegetable-centered ones as well. (Who knows if they'll be there tomorrow: as Shook explained to us when he stopped by the table, the menu -- as well as the beer and wine list -- is in constant flux.) The amberjack poke is a beautiful dish: pink and dainty with the freshest fish, tiny wedges of rosy peach, and lightly spicy harissa. The rock cod, served with a chervil butter and vegetables (melty leeks and spinach, sweet farmer's market carrots in orange and gold), never felt heavy, but had the savory punch of a much richer dish.

The food shined the brightest when it was at its simplest. Heirloom spinach with poached egg, bacon, bread crumb, and la serena cheese, was delicious: like no other spinach I've encountered, it had a crinkled leaf and a kale-like heartiness. Perfectly cooked and seasoned, slightest acidy tang, rich with egg yolk -- good, good good. And for dessert, we opted against the wacky bacon chocolate bar, and went with a simple take on a classic: ginger creme brulée. I agree with Jason's assessment: the creme brulée was spectacular. Beneath the crackly browned sugar crust, the ginger added sweet warmth without a hint of sharpness, and the texture of the custard was absolutely luscious.

It's a new place, and they've still got some kinks to iron out: the copper bar is gorgeous, but the stark white walls are aching for art (although, ladies, the women's bathroom? Surprisingly well-decorated. With vintage accents and fresh flowers, it might be the coziest room in the restaurant!). The espresso machine isn't in working order yet, Jason had to ask for a glass for his beer, and, the service is a bit rushed. But these are all fix-its. Overall, the place is inviting and funky, bustling with conversation. Even though, sigh, I'll have to go back to the cheap seats for my weeknight dinners, it's nice to know the view from the front row is very, very good.

animal is at 435 North Fairfax, between Oakwood and Rosewood.
Call for a reservation: 323 782 9225

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