This is a version of an article also published by the Financial Times.
There were palm trees to our immediate right while snow was clearly visible dusting the top of the canyons in the far distance off to our left. And all around us there were lines of traffic, most of it stationary. Welcome to Los Angeles.
But on this occasion we were to experience this exciting city through very different eyes. We were there for less than 24 hours with our 24-year-old daughter, into whose hands we had consigned our entire schedule.
As a result, even before we had seen our bedroom in the Ace Hotel in the city’s increasingly popular downtown area, we found ourselves on its roof, sipping a cocktail watching a glorious sunset and a humming bird. While the music, drinks list and tattooed wait staff may be common to hip hotels around the world, a comment overheard at the next table, ‘Well, how do you think the pitch is going?’ was pure LA.
An hour later, I was sitting next to our Uber driver, who had one hand on the wheel, the other on his iPhone for directions, as we headed for the Fairfax district past a fascinating mix of buildings.
There was a string of Ethiopian restaurants; then the long-established Farmers Market; and finally a row of kosher bakeries and restaurants. At this point our driver executed a swift U turn and dropped us outside 435 Fairfax Avenue, where a difficult-to-discern sign above its glass frontage revealed that we had arrived at ‘animal’.
This building has been the home for six and a half years to two extremely talented chefs, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, as well as to Solomon Cruz, who was to be our experienced waiter for the evening.
While their initial inspiration is obvious, and fully acknowledged in a long menu that encompasses the culinary philosophy of ‘nose-to-tail eating’ pioneered by Fergus Henderson at London’s St John restaurant, their interpretation of this style of eating takes two distinct and appealing forms.
The first is that although their service approach is via sharing plates, the kitchen has done all the necessary preparation to ensure that the dishes can be easily and fairly distributed among those round the table. Their food, unlike many, is easy to share.
The second is that the service comes with a perceptible sense of Hollywood style. The blonde, skimpily attired receptionist was a bundle of energy, and was often to be seen running between the tables and her desk at the front door. And the long, deep room has been laid out with just enough space between the three rows of tables that run down it for Alexis, the manageress, to sashay between her customers in a full-length skirt and a backless top. Two further style accessories are the large cloth panels that line the otherwise minimally decorated restaurant and definitely help acoustically, and the napkins that come complete with buttonholes so that messy eaters may attach them to a shirt or jacket.
A quick look round the room at 7.45 pm confirmed that, with the exception of our daughter, yet again we were the oldest in the room by 30 years and one particular disadvantage that age brings became immediately obvious as we scrutinised the menu. While that day’s date appeared clearly and appealingly in the top left-hand corner, what followed underneath was a list of 28 dishes, all of which were written in difficult-to-decipher lower case – and without any discernible difference between which would be first or main courses. They ranged in price from $4 to $41 and did not include the 41oz grilled rib eye that Solomon added came in at a mere $120. They were, for us at least, all extremely difficult to read.
Happily, although very different in style from his waitresses – Solomon is bearded with a rather lugubrious manner – he is extremely wise in the ways of animal’s style of food. And with considerable care and sensitivity he turned the dishes we chose into a well-paced and fascinating meal.
We began with a thick slice of bread topped with a purée of chicken livers and diced shallots and two brioche sandwiches stuffed with thick slices of barbecued pork belly, its richness offset by a colourful and refreshing underpinning of coleslaw.
The next three dishes we individually chose on the basis that each incorporated a particular favourite ingredient. There was the succulent marrow inside a roast bone topped with the verdant, spicy chimichurri sauce that Argentines love with their steak; their version of poutine, a favourite snack in bars across Canada, but here more lusciously topped with chunks of oxtail and gravy; and half a quail, grilled, and served in bite-size portions with pomegranate seeds, yoghurt and slices of crisp apple.
But the best dish came as the finale. While the menu features an often-seen version of tostada, crisp Mexican pancakes, stuffed with diced yellowtail tuna and avocado, it was the far more unusual treatment of this fish’s succulent collarbone that caught my eye. This had been rubbed in jerk spices and then fried so that the skin was crisp and the flesh wonderfully succulent underneath. It was served with palm sugar and deep red slices of cara cara oranges that coalesced into a caramelised sauce. This was a particularly fine example of piscatorial ‘nose-to-tail eating’.
animal 435 N Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles 90036; tel +1 (323) 782 9225