99 Essential Restaurants 2014

Animal

photo by Anne Fishbein

Perusing the menu at Animal is like looking at the source material for L.A.’s culinary thesis statement of the previous few years, an original text in a sea of derivative essays. As such, it’s easy to feel as if you may be bored with pig ears topped with fried egg, or crispy Brussels sprouts, or pork belly sandwiches. Rest assured, you still want to eat these things; you just want them cooked by the original authors. Chefs Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook will remind you why their restaurant inspired so many imitations. It’s their flawless understanding of acid, which makes even the menu’s meatiest dish sing with balance and pop with flavor. It’s their ability to access their Southern roots without cooking overtly Southern food, as well as the way they draw on their Californian present without falling victim to fig-on-a-plate syndrome. It’s the fact that they do all these dishes so well — there’s an underpinning of technique and thoughtfulness that permeates everything coming out of this kitchen. So much of what we find kind of annoying in other restaurants (no sign, loud room, relentlessly trendy clientele) seems utterly worth it — even fun! — in this instance. Animal is the restaurant that launched a thousand imitators, the place started the dude-food movement, and the original that sowed the seeds for what is becoming a mini-empire (Son of a Gun, Trois Mec and at least two other forthcoming projects also are thanks to Shook and Dotolo). For all this, there’s just no denying that Animal is still one of L.A.’s most exciting places to eat.

-- Besha Rodell