Animal’s Jon Shook & Vinny Dotolo Declared Lexus Culinary Masters

Vinny Dotolo, Jon Shook

When you get offered car service in a Lexus RX450h to a celebratory dinner at Animal because Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo are to be presented as the next Culinary Masters, you say Yes. Especially when last year’s anointed, Miami’s Latin fusion extraordinaire and longtime mentor to Jon & Vinny, Michelle Bernstein, is in town and also presenting dishes of her own at the dinner.

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First Taste: Son of a Gun Is Not Your Mother’s Cooking

Shrimp Toast Sandwich | Herbs, Sriracha Mayo ($11)

The Animal boys are back at it with their heavy hand. This time, the medium is seafood, and there were certainly more hits than misses when I made my first visit last week.

Lobster Roll | Celery, lemon aioli ($7)

We started out with a lobster roll each, and were all glad that we turned this “shared plate” into a “per person” situation since it’s on the small side. It was a solid, Maine-style (with mayo) lobster roll with chips on top as a nice, crunchy touch and came in an appropriately buttery bun. Case closed.

The shrimp toast came next, and it was a quintessential umami moment. All conversation ceased as we chewed and thought, our tastebuds absolutely titillated, our eyes shut. We observed and relished the same reaction elicited from our neighbors by the dish at the large communal table at which we sat. This was a shared moment where I found myself not so annoyed by the communal, mess hall-style dining. On the other side of them, however, sat a New York food writer/ex-pat of a full year who amazingly stated that he didn’t believe Mexican food was better in LA than in New York. That’s another story. 😉

Brandade | Soft egg, arugula ($12)

Next came the brandade, which, not to belabor the point, was another essential small plate. The texture of the cod mixture was perfect – not too mushy, not too tacky. The whole grain mustard seeds kicked it up a notch. Though there might have been a period of time not so long ago where I was sick of seeing it everywhere, arugula was a nice choice, here, as the accompanying greens. The bitterness matched the mustard seeds really nicely. Of course, the runny egg with runny yolk is no small detail. What you have here is a bowl full of win.

While everything we had thus far was pretty rich, it wasn’t too much. But it was nice to mix things up with the Albacore Tataki, which was seasoned just perfectly with radish, citrus soy and a few sesame seeds. You could taste the freshness of the fish, and tt was a refreshing reprieve from all the other butter-based dishes we had. I’d order it again if only I weren’t so curious about the other fish dishes on the menu (like the Pink Grouper).

Albacore Tataki | Sesame seeds, radish, citrus soy ($12)

We had heard that the Fried Chicken Sandwich ($11) was a must-order, and so we did exactly that. It had a tasty, peppery breading surrounding hot, tender chicken. The jalapeno coleslaw with pickles was a really nice touch but I actually found myself wishing there were more jalapenos and much more kick in it. It was still solid, though.

The Alligator Schnitzel with hearts of palm and oranges ($14) came last, which was really the only miss in our whole meal. The schnitzel was largely forgettable and seemed an item that was put on the menu in order to widen its range. No matter. There are plenty of other delicious items to try.

With the menu changing daily, depending on ingredients, I feel like I had barely scratched the surface that is Son of a Gun. It’s a bustling dining spot with mostly communal tables and walk-in opportunities. They also have a good selection of cocktails (I did enjoy my Sazerac, but consumed it while occupying “standing room only”) which range from $8 – $16 and is only more reason why I feel like I need to go back. Although they’re open until 11 PM or even 1 AM on the weekends, they do run out of favorites. Don’t wait – it’s a really exciting place to eat. Just don’t be surprised if you bump a few elbows; it’s guaranteed you will.

Sun – Thur: 6 PM – 11 PM
Fri – Sat: 6 PM – 1 AM

Lunch service coming soon

Son of a Gun
8370 W. 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048
323.782.9033

The Franks of Frankies Spuntino Visit Animal

Meatballs With Pinenuts and Raisins

I admit, I had never visited Frankies Spuntino in Brooklyn – nor Manhattan – but I was intrigued when I received a copy of their cookbook in the mail. How fascinating the story is, of how The Franks (Falcinelli and Castronovo, if I must be specific) had actually grown up in the same neighborhood, just to reconnect later on by sheer coincidence of running into each other on the street. As always, food brings people together.

Caesar Salad

Before that reconnection, both had worked in Michelin-starred French restaurants before coming back to Manhattan to work under big names like David Bouley and Charlie Palmer – and then ran their own kitchens to the tune of Moomba and Bistro Jean-Claude. But the drive to create their own Italian-American endeavor and get back to the home-styled cooking of their youth – without the gimmicks like red-checkered tablecloths yet with the affordability of a neighborhood hangout – rang loud and clear. It would have to be Brooklyn; later, their success would allow them to expand to the island and import their own olive oil.

Gnocchi alla Marinara with Fresh Ricotta

And now, the cookbook. What a beautiful styling it beholds, as if a volume in a series of classic novels. And the world tour that would bring them to a one-off at Animal on Fairfax, Los Angeles – with a certain New York Times article on medicinal appetite aids that would bring he, Vinny, Don and Roy Choi together (all were present during the Franks’ dinner).

The cheese and salumi plate, complete with fresh olives, roasted mushrooms and browned cauliflower was solid, as was the bread – especially when dipped in the Franks’ olive oil. Whether that olive oil passed the “extra virgin” test that’s been in the news lately remains to be seen, but it was some of the most flavorful I’ve tasted in awhile.

The Caesar salad was fresh, delicious and … made with Hellmann’s. Yes, Hellmann’s. Apparently, this very recipe was rejected by Koo Koo Roo (Falcinelli used to be a consultant for them) but I can guess that all Frankies Spuntino customers are ever so thankful.

House-made Cavatelli with Faiccos Hot Sausage and Browned Sage Butter

My favorite, however, had to be the Cavatelli with Faiccos Hot Sausage and Browned Sage Butter (recipe). Not too heavy but having plenty of flavor – including the kick at the end thanks to the sausage – the Cavatelli were ever so fun to bite, with a perfect, almost-gummy consistency.

Red Wine Prunes With Marscarpone

It is hard, though, to decide which meatballs I liked better – but the beef meatballs made with garlic, bread crumbs, pinenuts, raisins – and topped with Pecorino – probably won out on the pork braciola variety since I’m a mere traditionalist. But both are awesome, moist and baked, in keeping with the Franks’ desire to create hearty but not overwhelming dishes. The classic Gnocchi alla Marinara fit the same bill – with the vibrant tomato sauce really bringing out fresh flavors on the perfect canvas that was the gnocchi. I don’t remember appreciating gnocchi as much as the Franks’, much less one that was simply dressed with marinara, yet enhanced with a rich ricotta. Then again, margherita pizza is my favorite because it’s simple.

And the dessert. The cheesecake was heavenly – not too rich and having a perfect, creamy consistency. But the real favorite was the prunes steeped in red wine and paired with marscarpone. I love wine and cheese but I could not have imagined this perfect marriage. It was a savory dessert thanks to the creamy-wet cheese but also subtly sweetened by the prunes. The richness of the dessert was perfectly accentuated by the red wine those prunes were soaked in. I would go to New York just to order this dessert after the pinenut-raisin meatballs and Cavatelli!

I can tell the Franks’ Frankies Spuntinos are both special, neighborhood spots just from having tried their food. The prices are remarkably low for the quality – especially given their New York locations. I wonder if I might blend in if I tried…(doubt it).

Frankies Spuntino Website

Frankies 457
457 Court Street
Brooklyn, NY 11231-4010
718.403.0033

Frankies 17
17 Clinton Street
New York, NY 10002-1718
212.253.2303

Animal On Fairfax

amberjack, nectarine, jalapeno, citrus, mint

I have to admit: It wasn’t my idea to visit Animal. It was good that I had opportunity to go, though – since it was on @gregwong‘s LA hit list as a visiting New Yorker. He’s diligent like that; rather, I am probably lazy. But the unmarked restaurant in the heart of the Fairfax District was a pleasant surprise that exceeded whatever expectations I didn’t have.

I was intrigued with the idea that Animal gets its kicks out of including menu items that make you go, “What?” It’s ambitious but the key is that they actually do an incredible job with execution. The menu changes “daily” – although I was able to find online the same menu I ordered off two weeks ago. I find it hard to believe, though, that a menu becomes tired within a 24 hour period. You’ll also notice with these menus that they don’t try and name any of these concoctions with the intent of superficial glorification. Instead, you order each item as in each of its ingredients – as above. As some like to say, Is it what it is?

I’m only about a year late since Animal was first opened by Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo – who were named Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs of 2009. Also on their resume are Iron Chef America appearances and a cookbook on the NPR’s 10 Best of 2008 list.

But I’m glad I didn’t know that from the get-go. I like my palate surprised.

And varied. We started off with the amberjack – which was citrusey and refreshing. Since it’s in the same family as yellowtail, its tenderness had a texture that was very similar. We then moved on to their variation on a southern favorite, crispy hominy – sprinkled with lime. It’s a nice fried, salty consistency to chew on while also being a departure from your typical calamari. With hominy being corn without the germ – and back in the day doubling as animal feed – its novelty as a gourmet appetizer as presented at Animal comes well-served with a fluffy shell.

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