Los Angeles

All photos by Sacha Cosentino, courtesy of Animal Restaurant

Dish By DishLos Angeles

How Jon and Vinny Are Reconceiving Animal, As Seen in Six Dishes

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Given how very specific Animal was to its time and place when it opened — circa 2008, recession-era Los Angeles, on Fairfax Boulevard before all the streetwear shops — it’s hard to believe the restaurant is relevant today. That it’s still around at all, newly reopened after two dark years — and packed as ever — speaks volumes about its vision and impact. 

When Animal debuted, owners Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo were relatively unknown chefs sporting long locks, faded t-shirts, and a vocabulary heavy on the word “dude.” The hype surrounding the restaurant reflected a larger shift nationwide during the Great Recession: fine-dining restaurants were closing up, while a younger generation craved casual dining, food trucks, and culture-bending mashups at tables dimly lit by filament lights.

Shook and Dotolo were ready to flip the script. They served a patchwork of creations inspired by their travels, late-night munchie cravings, and the farmers and vendors they wanted to support. They quickly became famous for over-the-top dishes like foie gras loco moco, oxtail poutine, crispy pig’s ears, and bacon chocolate crunch cake. It was carnivorous — even the salads had some kind of meat — indulgent, and unrestrained. The restaurant itself was stripped down, loud, and raucous. People ate it up. It became the place to be. Awards quickly followed. 

In the ensuing decade, Shook and Dotolo have grown up, and come to oversee a vast culinary empire that now includes multiple locations of Jon & Vinny’s, Son of a Gun, partnerships with Ludovic Lefebvre and Petit Trois, and Helen Johannsen’s ever-growing Helen’s Wines shop. Many of their former staffers have moved on to open their own wildly popular restaurants. And Animal rode the wave for 12 years — until COVID hit.

The two say closing in 2020 was the only option. They turned the space into a marketplace for groceries, wine, and pantry staples, which continued for two years. Now, just weeks before the restaurant’s 14th anniversary, Animal has reopened as Animal, with much of the original vision — albeit a slimmed-down version, in terms of menu size and offerings (vegetarians and pescatarians will find plenty) — intact. Here, Shook and Dotolo break down the basics of the renewed restaurant in their own words, as seen through six dishes.

1. Hamachi tostada 3.0, fish sauce vinaigrette, peanut, avocado

Dotolo: “This dish has had a great evolution since we put it on [the menu] in 2009. After being named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs, we were asked to do food for the late-night party at Pebble Beach Food & Wine. We thought about our throughline at Animal, and all of these cultures and influences of L.A. cuisine. The hamachi tostada encompasses a lot of it. There’s Thai influence in the vinaigrette, a little Japanese with the raw fish, and some Mexican with the tostada. At the time it had crispy pork belly. People went bananas for it. 

So we put it on the menu when we got back from Pebble Beach, and within that first week, we edited out the pork belly. It never moved off the menu since, but we got better about refining the plating, the portioning, etc. Fast-forward to reopening, and we re-tasted the dish. We brushed off the bit of cabbage because Jon weirdly developed an allergy to the brassica family, and just ate it with herbs, hamachi, and avocado. We thought it tasted more elegant and agreed to have the third iteration on this menu today. I think it really speaks to the evolution of the restaurant, and who we are as individuals.”

2. Crispy pig ear, red chile, lime, market egg

Shook: “This probably came on around year one. It hasn’t changed from the original approach. We take the ear and cook the hell out of it, cool it, deep-fry it, slice it, add in the chile lime dressing. I give a lot of credit to Tandy Wilson in Nashville. When I went to his restaurant City House, we were just starting to get infatuated with pig ears and Southern food, coming out of Florida, having that as part of our roots. Tandy’s dish was the best thing I ever had. I asked him what he did differently, and he said when you think it’s done, add four more hours. That was the trick that brought us over the hill.

The cost of a raw pig ear has literally doubled since then. But this dish sums up Animal as a whole. The simplicity, the acidity, the crunch, the fatness of the egg. It’s one dish that always reminds me of Animal.”

3. Dungeness crab, tomato, kombu, shiso

Dotolo: “I put this on a menu for one of our 10-year anniversary dinners [celebrated with visiting chefs over the course of a year]. It was an incredible food moment for L.A., and an incredible journey for us. It’s kind of a challenging dish to pull off during service, though. The tomatoes have to be sliced to order or they become nothingness. So we have these beautifully ripe tomatoes we get at the farmers market, fresh West Coast Dungeness crab, and shiso. We make a vinaigrette with kombu and lime that adds this umami, acid, and a bit of saltiness. 

The crab is mixed with shiso and put into bowls, with really thin slices of tomato shingled over it, and the vinaigrette peeking out. It’s that same simplicity that Jon spoke about with the pig ear, how everything Animal was minimal but punchy and intense and flavorful. That dish did it for me. We only served it for that one dinner, and I’m going to fight to keep it on our current menu. I think it will slowly become a classic.”

4. Ricotta gnudi, English peas, butter

Shook: “An Italian chef was in town cooking at another chef’s house, and she made spinach ricotta gnudi, which was fantastic. We asked if she would teach us how to make the gnudi, and she did. They were on the menu for a couple of years before shutdown, but we served them more cacio e pepe-style, with beurre blanc and black pepper. For the reopening, we wanted it to be more seasonal, so we played around with different sets. The peas are cooked until tender, rewarmed in melted butter, and served with the gnudi in a bowl. We top it with chive flowers. This version has been one of our top dishes since we reopened, which is funny because there’s no meat in it. But it shows what the customers want — something delicious that they can’t make at home, but not to be too challenged.

I brought my kids here to eat when we reopened, and they loved this dish. I don’t think they remember Animal much from before. They mostly ate at [the very family-friendly] Jon & Vinny’s. They now talk about Animal the same way they do Son of a Gun and Jon & Vinny’s. To me that’s a full circle: We started here as kids, now we’re adults, parents, and we have to balance our personal lives as much as our professional ones.”

5. Chicken tsukune, ma la vinaigrette

Dotolo: “We always wanted Animal to have an open-wood grill but couldn’t because of the cost and the hood system. In 2018, we needed to get a new grill, and we came into a situation to get a robata grill. Obviously we love the flavor of burning the binchotan charcoal. We had just been in Japan that year and became obsessed with it. When the pandemic started, we had a lot of things coming off the grill, like chicken oysters, wings, the tsukune. We weren’t going to turn Animal into a Japanese restaurant, but we liked how Japanese food is so simple but packs a punch.

So the tsukune is a very traditional mix of skin, thigh, and soft bone. It takes a great amount of skill to cook it properly. We serve the meatballs with a Chinese-style dressing, a loose interpretation of ma la. It’s not going to weigh you down or fill you up. I’d love to get this at the beginning of a meal. Great for sharing.

Our chef de cuisine at the time, Brad Watson, helped us get the recipe down. That’s how it’s always been with Animal, especially as we grew. Someone would always contribute. Thoughts would start with us, then we’d take them to our chefs, like Mike Magiliano, Jonathan Whitener, Brad, and Ryan Bianski, who was our last chef de cuisine before the pandemic, to work through it. They’d get it on the plate, and we’d all eat it in the dining room, talk about it, maybe change it, and hopefully put it on the menu.” 

6. Tres leches, strawberry

Shook: “We elected not to put the bacon chocolate crunch bar back on the menu for reopening. The tres leches was always a shining sleeping star. We changed the plating a bit. Before it was served with dulce de leche, but now it’s with strawberries on top. It adds a nice sweet-cutting component. The dulce de leche made the sweet cake even sweeter, and everyone who has it with the fruit loves it.”

Dotolo: “The cake originally came about when we were asked to cater a Mexican-themed party prior to Animal opening. They wanted tres leches cake, and since we never made it, we started testing and landed on a version that was much thinner than what you see now. The basic sponge is soaked with three milks and topped with whipped cream. It goes back to that minimalism for us. I loved that it was just a white cake on a white plate. The strawberries break that up a bit now, but it’s still simple. And that’s what we loved about Animal, why it was and is such a fun place. It feels like we could do so many things, just things that we love.”

 

Lesley Balla regularly writes about restaurants, travel, wine, and more. In a previous life she was the L.A. editor for Zagat and Eater. Follow her on Instagram. Follow Resy, too.