Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo are native Floridians who, until now, were best known for a short-lived Food Network series that chronicled their adventures as Hollywood caterers. Before that, they cooked in Beverly Hills at Chadwick, for high-profile chefs Ben Ford and Govind Armstrong. Now they’ve helped to re-ignite the Fairfax dining scene, an area clinging to its roots as an old-school Jewish community. The neighborhood is definitely changing. Given my initial experience at Animal, that may be a good thing.
There’s no signage out front, but that didn’t stop Animal from filling. As a result of the crowd, and the lousy acoustics, the decibel level was deafening. The interior is spare, with high white walls and no fixtures, just bulbs with exposed filaments. There’s a small bar in back and tables and chairs with a nice wood finish.
The menu changes daily, based on market-driven ingredients. Happily, no matter what Shook and Dotolo source, almost every dish incorporates bacon, or at least pork.
Strangely, no bread appeared. Turns out a cup of grilled bread carries a $2 surcharge. I made due with a bottle of Traquair House Ale ($7), which had caramel notes that ended up complementing the meaty meal.
Crusty pork ribs ($15) were fairly tender, served with an interesting bread salad, combining croutons, rocket and heirloom yellow and red tomatoes. The portion was nearly generous enough to be an appetizer.
Niman flat iron ($24) was the buttery char-grilled centerpiece of a magnificent entrée that combined Madeira, chanterelles, roasted potatoes, kernels of sweet corn and perfectly fried sweetbreads, crispy on the outside, delicate inside.
The thick-cut pork chop ($23) was also expertly fried, paired with rich Anson Mills grits, long cooked greens and slab bacon. The fatty bacon was completely unnecessary, and the intense flavor ended up victimizing the greens.
The least interesting entrée was the Halibut ($26), served in a broth of Rancho Gordo scarlet runner beans (almost like black limas), oregano, artichokes, fennel and tomatoes. This type of Mediterranean preparation is possible at restaurants all over town. The mild flavor was a letdown, especially when compared to the bold surrounding plates.
We wanted to order one of every dessert. They sold out of Bellweather ricotta, honey, toast. Happily, they still had the Bacon chocolate crunch bar, s&p anglaise ($8). I’m guessing the s&p stands for salt & pepper. Anyway, the firm peanut-studded dark chocolate, outer layers of creamy milk chocolate and crisp, salty bacon bits combined for a terrific taste sensation.
Toasted pound cake cradled macerated strawberries and cream ($8). It was basically strawberry shortcake in the shape of a hamburger, with overflowing strawberries. The cake was fine, but not nearly as compelling as the other two desserts.
Animal has been open for less than two months, and Shook and Dotolo are already delivering some of the most assertive flavors in town. The duo played it safe with a couple dishes, but for the most part, they’re relentless. As a result, the L.A. dining scene is more interesting.