Last year, to conclude the Carnivore! panel moderated by Jonathan Gold at Hollywood’s Ricardo Montalban Theater, Animal chef/co-owner Vinny Dotolo said that his next restaurant with Jon Shook could very well be vegetarian. The audience scoffed at the notion that two of the city’s most extreme chefs would turn from swine to celtuce, but that’s exactly what happened a year later, when vaunted vegetarian Jeremy Fox took over the Animal kitchen for a week’s worth of dinners.
Fox worked at Manresa, for David Kinch, before building a national reputation of his own at Ubuntu, a restaurant adjacent to a Napa yoga studio. After leaving Ubuntu in February, Fox was treated like a culinary prize, with food writers nationwide speculating where he would land. He cooked for one night with friend James Syhabout at Commis in Oakland. He then turned to Shook and Dotolo – who met last year and struck up a friendship – to host seven nights of “Vegetable Dinners.” In a health conscious city like Los Angeles, Fox’s brand of high end vegetable based cuisine was unique and played well to a dining room full of food writers and food fawners, including tablemates Bill Esparza (Street Gourmet LA) and Brian (@EATours).
Fox’s first night behind Animal’s stoves was an adjustment period, which probably should have been expected. Reservations were pushed, then pushed again, but the staff was gracious and remained as accommodating as possible throughout the course of the long night. It makes sense that Fox would become increasingly comfortable in a foreign kitchen. People who ate his “Vegetable Dinners” more than once seemed to think the food was more accomplished at the end. No surprise, but even on Day One, Fox did plenty to ensure meat wasn’t missed (too much).
Fox started by serving his Marcona almonds in a boat that resembled the kind of boxy craft that landed at Normandy. The prized Spanish nuts were tossed with lavender sugar, sea salt and olive oil, creating an addictive (and aromatic) bar snack. They were plated with some sprigs of lavender, which we devoured while waiting for our table to open up.
Instead of the usual boring crudités that certain steakhouses inflict on diners – think carrots, cucumbers and celery – Fox opted for crunchy “French breakfast” radishes, which he served on corkboard with herbaceous chevre, crystals of black sea salt, and rich nori sauce.
Fox next showcased “2x-shucked peas” and had a fun play on chocolate, adding “chocolate” mint and bits of melting white chocolate, along with crushed macadamia nuts for texture’s sake and pink petals for the sake of beauty. Our waiter poured over pea consommé, completing the soup and amplifying the key ingredient. This was a fairly subtle dish. I liked the bite of the peas, but could have done without the white chocolate, which has always seemed like a choco-impostor and added a bit too much sweetness to the soup.
It’s normally premium proteins like branzino or strip steak that get treated to a salt crust. Fox took the same care with a “forono” beet, baking the root vegetable in a rose geranium salt crust. The intensely flavored beet was plated with a smear of guac-like mashed “fuerte” avocado, crumbled pistachio and pickled green strawberries that added some nice tartness. Fox continued his decorative plating with a smattering of purple-veined herbs.
The only dish that completely disappointed me was titled “young favas, roasted whole, then shucked.” The pods were difficult to cut. Fava “maro” appeared in thatches, treated with anchovy “flavor” (aka red miso) and a shower of Parmesan. The overall effect was way too salty.
My favorite dish involved heirloom carrots “rescoldo style” (in root embers) that were flavored with vadouvan (French style curry) spices, which provided a lingering finish. Fox plated his supple but not soft roasted carrots (crispy stems and all) with tangy coconut labheh, parsnip puree and an agretti garnish.
Another dish that I enjoyed was a clever vegetarian “Reuben”, a meaty roasted celtuce stalk with creamy house-made Liptauer cheese, ruta-kraut (rutabaga sauerkraut) and horseradish mustard. There were supposed to be pumpernickel breadcrumbs in the mix, but if they were there, they were beyond negligible. The garnish: a bright green leaf.
For our finale, it was hard to argue with the fried cornbread orb coated with chocolate ganache, but the slab painted with toasted brioche & sherry “crème brulee” was visually unappealing, even when garnished with earthy dehydrated shiitake strips. Also, what was up with the torn page base?
Fox is now returning to the Bay Area, where he’ll cook for Coi chef Daniel Patterson at Plum in Oakland. In the meantime, I can’t think of another restaurant in L.A. where such an interesting nine-course vegetarian menu is possible for $70. Possibly at Bistro LQ. Then again, even though Fox’s food was unique, thoughtful and (mostly) flavorful, it’s still hard to imagine that I’d spend so much money on another meatless meal. As my friend Brian joked after the meal, it may have been even better if Fox instituted a BYOB policy – Bring Your Own Bacon.