Thursday, December 31, 2009

LudoBites at Royal/T

It's been almost a half year since chef Ludo Lefebvre closed up his LudoBites pop-up at BreadBar in West Hollywood and I was fortunate enough to have slipped in a visit before it ended. You can read my review of that "epic" meal here, and to this day it stands as of one the better meals I've had this year (and I've enjoyed many good meals in recent times!)

When chef Ludo announced the second coming of his pop-up concept, I wasted no time in penciling in my reservation because I knew the limited number of spots would disappear quickly. Disappear quickly they did, but I secured my Sunday night four-top and gathered up some foodie friends to join me in round two of LudoBites.

Interior of Royal/T serves as the dining room for LudoBites

Menu for today

The venue this time is at Royal/T, an art gallery and restaurant in the heart of Culver City. I arrive for my 7:30pm spot and my three dining guests, Jason, Herman, and Ariana appear shortly after. We're escorted to our spacious table near the back and are handed freshly-printed menus and the wine list. The wine and beer menu is new this time around, as BreadBar's venue did not offer its own selection of libations. Corkage is a modest $15 and I actually brought a bottle of wine, but after seeing the impressive and attractively priced wine list, we opted to purchase a few bottles from the list.

We start with a bottle of Shannon Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon:

Mild, easy on the palate, and boasting a fruity scent, this would pair well with just about anything and it was a good and safe first choice.

The four of us pondered over what to order and ultimately zeroed in on four dishes to start with, starting with what turned out to be our favorite of the night: Nantucket scallop, pineapple, brown butter, black bread powder:

The scallops were served slightly chilled and came with a generous amount of that black bread power, which had a very crunchy and earthy texture. Brown butter added richness, and the pineapple gave the dish some nice sweetness. All the flavors and textures just worked so well with this first dish.

Our next plate is the Foie gras beignet, saffron, dried apricots:

From my favorite dish to my least favorite, the foie gras beignet was nicely presented but the taste was very mild, and the textures were soft, mushy and lacking in texture. The apricot sauce added sweetness to counteract the savory foie gras. Slicing into the beignet resulted in a bit of a mess with small pieces of foie gras spilling over the plate. Had the outer shell been crispier and with firmer, larger pieces of foie gras, this might have been one of the better dishes.

Another dish arrives, the Crispy confit pork belly, burnt eggplant puree, plantain coconut, Thai chili emulsion.

Cooked pork belly is usually soft or slightly firm in texture, but chef Ludo's version is soft and silky with a very crispy outer portion. I love this this combination of textures; it was like having crispy and very savory bacon wrapped around soft and mild pork belly. Absolutely delicious! The chili emulsion provided some spiciness, and the deeply-colored eggplant puree was excellent on its own.

Here we have Fried chicken, cantal polenta, baby corn polenta, otherwise known as LFC -- Ludo Fried Chicken :)

This is certainly not your colonel's fried chicken! Perfectly deep-fried, these boneless pieces of chicken were incredibly moist with a crunchy exterior that was seasoned just right. A few weeks ago I made my own fried chicken at home with a buttermilk brine and sage-seasoned flour, but I have to admit Ludo's version was better =). The creamy polenta was delicious, and the baby corn had great texture and some nice charred flavors.

With our first four dishes and the bottle of wine cleared, it's time for a second bottle. We go with a 2007 Olivier Pithon “La Coulée” Red Blend (Grenache/Syrah/Carignan).

A bit more complex in taste and aroma than the Shannon Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon, the La Coulée was very nice and paired well with our other dishes. Speaking of which, here's our next dish, Striped bass, teriyaki mashed potato, pickled garlic, lemon miso:

A nice presentation but unfortunately the bass was overcooked and thus lacked flavor; and, to make matters worse, the texture was firm and rubbery. This was definitely a misfire from the kitchen. Strong, bright flavors from the lemon miso helped to mask the bland taste. I actually found myself going in for more servings of the creamy mashed potatoes more so that the fish. A properly cooked bass would have made this a completely different experience.

Another dish is brought to us, Tuna sashimi sushi, rice ice cream, soy sauce gelee, smoked ginger:

This was probably my second favorite dish of the night. The tuna was extremely fresh and full of flavor, and the saltiness of the soy sauce gelee combined with the sharpness of smoked ginger made for a wonderful experience of tastes and textures. I've only had rice ice cream one other time and I don't remember it being as good or as creamy as the one you see here. I wanted to order a second serving but I knew to save room for a few more dishes and dessert.

Moving on to our next plate, Duck breast, carrot cake coulis, orange blossom, crispy lard:

Tender pieces of duck breast served with a sweet carrot sauce made for a deliciously savory-sweet experience. And while the duck breast was certainly good, the standout for me with this dish was the crispy lard. It's crispy pure fat--of course it's going to be good! I think I ate most of it. In fact I know I ate most of it. The little carrots were a nice touch and helped balance the overall richness.

With our savory plates behind us, it's time to move on to dessert. Diners have a choice of two desserts so of course we ordered both, and we also opted for the Fourme dambert tourte with red pears and honey balsamic; this item was listed between the mains and the dessert.

Fourme dambert is very sharp blue cheese, so sharp and pungent that my three other dining guests were put off by the taste. I personally had no problem with this, and so I did what I do best and cleaned up =). I actually wished there was more cheese in the outer edge of the tourte; you can see how there's little cheese and mostly dough in the edge portion.

Now for our desserts and first to arrive is Jalapeno chocolate mousse, orange, olive oil:

This was excellent! I'm a big fan of spicy desserts and this chocolate mousse did not disappoint. You could definitely feel the fiery heat in the mousse, and when you scooped some of the olive oil with the mousse, the combined taste was incredible. The orange appeared to be blanched and added nice, bright flavors to the dish. I loved this dessert.

We capped off our LudoBites dinner with our second dessert, Guacamole, exotic fruits, ginger ice cream:

Chef Ludo is two for two with this sweet combination of guacamole and ginger ice cream. I've never had a pairing like this so I was excited to see how all these flavors and textures would meld. The guacamole was very creamy and slightly sweet, and the ginger ice cream was refreshing with hints of ginger. Chunks of fresh melon fruits added some interest, but I could have done without them. I preferred the first dessert of jalapeno chocolate mousse, but you can bet we left no trace of the ginger ice cream behind.

Service was friendly, adequate, and about what I expected for a pop-up. Our plates weren't exactly cleared immediately and we mostly poured our own wine, but I was absolutely OK with that because I know that with LudoBites, it's all about the food. Our water glasses were refilled constantly, and our server was very friendly and chatty. At the end of our meal, chef Ludo made the rounds in the dining area and stopped by our table to greet us.

As good as my first meal was at LudoBites in BreadBar, this meal was even better, especially with the strong dishes of the scallops, fried chicken, tuna sashimi, and that intensely good jalapeno chocolate mousse. LudoBites ended a few weeks ago and I'm not sure if chef Ludo is planning another pop-up or perhaps even a permanent outpost, but you can be sure that this foodie definitely be following chef Ludo wherever he sets up shop.

LudoBites at Royal/T
8910 Washington Boulevard
Culver City CA, 90232

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Fraiche Start

Seeing a great restaurant shutter can be a heartbreaking event, especially if that restaurant served an particularly sought-after item. That was the case for me with Riva in Santa Monica, which recently closed and then quickly reopened as the second outpost of Fraiche restaurant (with the original location neatly tucked away in downtown Culver City.) Gone are Riva's incredible wood-fired pizzas, boutique-style Italian dishes, and the Chocolate Hazelnut Purse--a dessert so decadent that it made an appearance on Food Network's The Best Thing I Ever Ate. Let us now have a moment of degustatory silence to remember Riva and their second-best* pizzas in Los Angeles.

(more on that later)

Also gone is Jason Travi, who prior to Riva's resto-ration was the executive chef of both restaurants; the two locations were and still are under the same Fraiche management. The arm-tattooed chef Travi put forth some amazing seafood and meat dishes that drew in the masses and so I'm not clear as to why he and the Fraiche group parted ways, but according to a few sources, chef Travi is taking some well-deserved time off to be with his family and will later return to LA's culinary boxing ring with a restaurant of his own.

Nonetheless, Santa Monica now has its own Fraiche establishment on Wilshire boulevard, just shouting distance from the street circus, er, um, Third Street Promenade. Parking here is easy; just pick one of the $3 lots sprinkled all over 3rd and 4th streets, and if you arrive a little early like I did, you can kill some time by reading about food at the neighboring Barnes and Noble. Joining me for tonight's dinner were Linda, Mike, Daniel K., Jen, and Roberto. Reservations are absolutely required at this place; it was seemingly packed throughout the entire night and the smallish bar area has maybe enough chairs for a few couples.

Upon stepping inside I didn't notice any dramatic decor changes and that's a good thing. High ceilings, gratuitous use of stonework, and crisp white linens dominate the scene. I did catch a glimpse of Riva's wood-burning oven but it wasn't being used; perhaps that's because they're no longer serving pizzas here? I'll be more than happy to take that underutilized oven off their hands, for a small fee of course ;).

Our group of six tucks into a round table centered in the main dining room. We request bottled water while Daniel K. commandeers the wine list and orders a bottle of red wine for our group. The dinner menu here is nearly identical to the one in at the Culver City location and emphasizes the use of locally available and in-season foods.

We debated over ordering a tasting menu of 5 dishes versus going the old school route of sharing appetizers and entrees. Our server couldn't divulge the exact dishes of the tasting menu, only to say the dishes are mostly up to whatever the chef wants to serve. I would much rather see these dishes clearly outlined in the printed menu so as to avoid issues with food allergies or food preferences. So, we went the traditional route of appetizers and entrees; besides, our foodie group isn't exactly shy about sharing so this seemed like the better choice in either case =).

One issue that I'll point out is that when we tried to order foie gras, we were told the chef wasn't happy with the quality of the day's supply of foie gras and thus no foie gras was being served. I appreciate this commitment to quality, but I would like to see Fraiche either print the menus daily or have their wait staff announce menu changes as soon as the menus are handed out.

Our appetizers arrive in short order, all plated nicely and served at the same time. My appetizer pick of Speck and Burrata with arugula, 7-year balsamic and Sicilian olive oil was superb:

Speck is a juniper-flavored ham similar to prosciutto and is smoked rather than air-cured, giving it a distinctly smokey taste. It paired beautifully with the creamy burrata , and the 7-year vinegar with the the arugula provided a pungent finish. I also got to try the beef tartar and the country pate. The beef tartar was quite good with a nice texture and a mild, beefy taste. The pate was just OK in my opinion and I would have liked stronger flavors and slightly softer texture like the I had at Daniel Boulud in Las Vegas.

We waited uncomfortably long for our mains to arrive and I'm guessing the kitchen has some fine tuning to do after the recent makeover. I went with Lamb Spezzatino with ricotta gnocchi and gremolata (Italian herbs):

Tender pieces of lamb were swimming in a wonderfully rich sauce, making for a delicious and hearty taste. The mildly flavored gnocci were equally delicious, especially when eaten with a generous scoop of that spezzatino sauce. Linda and Roberto opted for the Kurobuta pork chop and the wood-fire braised pork and I was able to sample portions of both. The pork chop was cooked perfectly (a little underdone--the way it should be IMO) and had a nice, juicy flavor. I'd probably order this if I ever come back for dinner.

It's time for dessert and our group goes with three selections of Chocolate Bread Pudding, Beignets with Strawberry Jam, and Grapefruit Sorbet.

The Chocolate Bread Pudding (first pic above) came with toffee, spiced bananas, and peanut butter ice cream. The bread pudding itself was a bit dry and had a cake-like consistency and taste; I was hoping for something like the soft, moist bread pudding I completely devoured at Bar Food. The rich ice cream helped make the "cake" more palatable, while the crunchy toffee and soft bananas added interesting texture. The beignets (above) were served hot and had a comforting, richly sweet taste. Pair it with the provided strawberry jam and you have yourself gourmet strawberry-filled donuts. Delicious! As for the grapefruit sorbet, I had very little of this but it was actually much sweeter than I was expecting. In short, I wasn't too thrilled with Fraiche's dessert offerings and was much happier with Riva's selection of tiramisu and that hazelnut purse.

Service was good overall despite the long wait for our mains and the aforementioned issue with the foie gras (I think Daniel K. is still recovering from this!) Our water and wine glasses were topped off appropriately, and all our dishes were presenting nicely and all at the same time. I'd consider going back for the lunch deals and to maybe explore their tasting menus--although I would like those menus printed and with clear indication of what's being served. In summary, this is a fine start for the new Fraiche and I'm looking forward to seeing what new entrees and desserts will come out from the kitchen, and I'm crossing my fingers that they'll be firing up that wood-burning oven sometime soon.

*OK so about Riva's pizza, as good as they were, this place still serves the best pies in LA =).

312 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90401

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Chef John Rivera Sedlar is no stranger to the LA dining scene. In the late 80's and into the mid 90s', he brought us Saint Estephe, Bikini and Abiquiu restaurants. They have all since gone to a better place, and to be honest they were around long before my second life as a crazed foodie. Chef Sedlar also briefly co-piloted the Jetson's-like Encounter restaurant at LAX airport, and has authored a few books including Great Chile Relleno and Tamales. He marks his return to the LA dining scene with Rivera restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, and since its inception this Latin restaurant has been commanding extreme praises from established restaurant junkies. LA Times restaurant critic Rivera's food is so utterly unique. I couldn't believe it was actually that good and had to keep pinching myself."

With a praise like that it was no wonder Rivera made its way onto my restaurant hit list, and last Thursday my wishful outing to Rivera was fulfilled.

Located at the street level of the Met Lofts in downtown LA, Rivera was bustling when I arrived for our 7:30pm reservation. While waiting for my friends to arrive, I parked myself at the crowded bar and glanced over the cocktail menu.

Rivera's bar has made a name for itself with its ingenious cocktail concoctions from in-house mixologist Julian Cox. I go for a drink aptly named Blood Sugar Sex Magic -- rye whiskey, red pepper, agave nectar, and basil. The drink is served in a large, heavy glass outfitted with a mammoth ice cube from Névé Luxury Ice Company. Said ice cube is designed to melt slowly and is made from the purest water sources available, so as to not dilute your $14 drink with unwanted tastes or water.

The taste is incredible and quite unlike anything I've had. Packed with texture and a little spice, the drink exhibited both sweet and savory undertones and has just the right amount of alcohol. A perfect way to start the night.

Minutes later I head over to our corner booth table to join the rest of my group. We're seated adjacent to a wall of custom designed tequila bottles filled with a six-year anejo made especially for Rivera. You can purchase a pair of bottles for a nice sum of $2,000. More on that later. We take our menus and debate over what to order, and ultimately went with a serving of nearly all of the appetizers so as to try a variety of tastes and textures.

First up is Ensalada Española with frisee, Spanish cheese, and marcona almonds:

I'm not a fan of frisee and its stringy, fibrous texture and the frisee here is particularly large. It sort of reminds me of the weeds you might pull from someone's ill-kept lawn (hey I'm just being honest!) The cheese and marcona almonds are very nice, however, and help tame the sprawling frisee.

Our next dish is a plate of fresh oysters:

I'm not sure of the origin of these oysters, but they were plump, juicy and full of that vibrant, just-out-of-the-ocean taste. Notice the stenciling work on the plate; the "writing" is indeed edible and appears to be a mixture of seasonings to be paired with the oysters.

The Chile Pasilla Relleno with burrata arrives next:

Expertly charred and served chilled, the chile is crisp and hits you with an intense, smokey taste. The burrata within is luxuriously smooth and creamy and pairs well with the stronger taste from the chile, creating a texture combination that reminds you this no ordinary chile relleno. This is wonderful play on a very traditional Mexican dish and I loved how the flavors from the smokey chili and the creamy burrata intermixed. One of my favorite dishes of the night.

Continuing with the chile theme, the Piquillos Rellenos is brought to our table. These are stuffed Spanish peppers with chorizo, golden raisins, and Gruyere:

The first thing I'd like for you to notice is the plating -- the chilies aren't just tossed on a plate with some other ingredients and a companion sauce on the side. Instead, they're carefully positioned on an elongated, gleaming white plate and topped carefully with slivers of green onion. Drops of sauce are placed along the perimeter of the chilies making for an easy mixing of chile and sauce. There is so much detail and craftsmanship behind this dish and the resulting taste did not disappoint. The combination of chorizo, raisins, and Gruyere gave the stuffed chili a taste slightly on the sweeter side, and the variety of textures was a playful experience.

Our next dish is Cordorniz Cubana -- grilled quail with black beans:

Again the plating is immaculate. Not a single drop on the expansive plate. Just try doing this at home at your next dinner party. The quail itself was grilled nicely with some nice char on the skin. The mild tasting meat was tender, juicy, and imparted no gaminess whatsoever.

Here we have Bacalao Negro Fresco -- seared black cod with Serrano ham crisp:

Cooked to absolute perfection with not a hint of dryness, the black cod was so delicate and mild in taste, just as a fresh black cod should be. It flaked uncontrollably atop the plate as we tried to portion it five ways. The accompanying ham crisp added a savory texture and heightened the overall taste of this dish. Wonderful.

Cordero Vasco - Basque lamb chops, chorizo, piquillos, olives, capers:

More beautiful plating with exquisite stenciling work is teamed up with succulent lamb chops and a pungent sauce. Cooked to a nice medium rare, the lamb was delicious on its own and I actually wish there was less of the pepper and caper sauce, which overpowered the rich lamb meat. Nonetheless we left nothing on the plate and I made sure to scoop up all of the sauce, olives and all.

Our next dish is the Tamal -- braised pork short rib with seasonal mushrooms, Guajillo sauce:

Served atop a banana leaf and draped with aromatic Chanterelle (?) mushrooms, this is quite unlike the tamales my family puts out during the holidays. The pork was incredibly tender and a bit spicy, and the masa was pillowy soft and packed with fresh corn flavor. I'm not certain the pairing of tamal and mushrooms was intended; I ate them separately as I didn't want the spiciness of the tamal to overpower the delicate mushroom taste. My favorite dish of the night, the tamal has my name on it when I return.

We're getting close to our final savory dish. Here we have Choros Al Vapor -- Mussels, chorizo, ajo amarillo-pisco broth:

The taste from these incredibly fresh black mussels was kicked up to notches unknown with that amazing ajo amarillo-pisco broth. Adding bits of chorizo to each slurp added a nice saltiness, and the peppers contributed some texture. But the highlight here is that broth, which we scooped with the charred bread. Our group really enjoyed this.

Our final savory of the night happens to be the only dish we selected from the Large Plates menu, Kurobuta Pork Chop with mole and sweet potato:

Perhaps the only misfire of the night, the meat was overcooked and a bit dry, though the rich and complex mole helped salvage the overall dish. Had the pork been cooked slightly less, this would have been a wonderful combination, but because the pork was overcooked all I could really taste was the mole sauce. The provided sweet potato was delicate in taste and texture--I wish there was more of it.

With our appetizers and one main dish behind us, it's time for a round of desserts. We opted for three items but when our server mentioned the special of the night--olive oil cake--we just had to make it an even four.

Ladies and gentlemen, our spread of desserts:

Top left to bottom left: Hazelnut-chocolate sponge cake with orange-cava sorbet, olive oil cake, citrus with dulce de leche, chocolate torte with drunken pineapple. It was a bit of challenge to split each of these five-ways without making a mess and while trying to taste each dessert in the way the pastry chef intended, but somewhat we managed it. Our favorite by far was the olive oil cake, which was super moist and almost bread pudding like. We wrapped up the night by noming on homemade cookies and we had no shame eating them at the table =).

That concludes our River dinner and it was fantastic and memorable one at that. Service was stellar and was easily some of the best I've experienced at any restaurant. Our waiter was very knowledgeable of all the dishes, and gave us an entertaining lecture about the Tequila Club which I alluded to earlier. Yes for $2,000 you can join River's Tequila Club and have your own bottle of anjeo stored along the side windows of the restaurant. Perks also include food discounts and access to private events, and comes with requisite gawkers who'll be gazing upon you when your server brings out your private bottle of anejo. OK so who has $2,000 they want to give to me for this club?

At one point during our dinner, our server mentions Max Weinberg from the Tonight Show will be sitting in table across from ours. Mr. Weinberg opted to sit at the bar instead. Was it something I said?

Before I close out, I'd like to call your attention again to the beautiful platings of each dish. You'll notice the gratuitous use of white space in each of the dish arragements. Expansive, table-hogging, and gleamingly white, each plate engulfs its food, and it's this use of white space that helps separate the chef's artistic creations from the rest of the distractions that might be on the table. Works of art, indeed.

Special thanks to Linda, Sarah, Jennifer, and Roberto for joining us, and more thanks to Linda for bringing a fantastic Zinfandel for our table to enjoy. Lastly, thank you @shopeatsleep and @djjewelz for recommending the Blood Sugar Sex Magic. I wasn't sure what to order at the bar, but you two were quick to step in with that recommendation.

1050 S. Fower Street.
Los Angeles, CA 90015

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Brunch at Cache

A few months ago I made a visit to La Cachette Bistro in Santa Monica for a size-able group dinner and--despite a hiccup or two with the service--it turned out to be an excellent experience all around. I gave it a solid review and I'm planning a return trip in the near future to try their new brunch menu. So why I am mentioning this? Because when I made the reservation for that dinner at La Cachette Bisto, I actually meant to book Cache and I got the names mixed up in The names are kind of similar? Yeah? OK so I won't win that argument, but I wasn't going to make that mistake again when I was asked to pick a place for a family brunch outing. So Cache it was and we made a trip here after Thanksgiving on a beautiful Saturday morning in Los Angeles.

Upon arrival the place was virtually empty save for some wait staff; wow I'm so glad I made those reservations ;). It's a larger restaurant serving mostly American-bistro fare. Most of the tables are set outside, and a long, sleek and modern bar adorns almost the entire length of the place and is equipped with a few flat screens to entertain the locals. No tables were "ready" in the enclosed dining area--more on that later--so we asked to sit in an alcove area of the patio furnished with its own heat lamp (which the ladies in our group requested).

The brunch menu has all the standard fare such as pancakes, French toast, eggs Benedict, and few non-breakfast items like flat breads, burgers, and salads.

I just about always order a Bloody Mary with my brunch, and Cache's version was excellent with a hearty spice kick and a generous amount of vodka.

I actually preferred this one over the far pricier one I had at Bouchon on the following day (side note: the drinks at Bouchon were incredibly weak). There's something to be said about a nice buzz at 11:30am =).

We start off our brunch meal with a flat bread topped with salmon, asparagus, egg, creme fraiche, and frisee.

A bit messy to eat, but it was actually a nice combination and the crust was perfectly cooked. I would have liked to have seen more toppings along the edges to tame the crust's texture, but other than that, this was a good start for us.

Our mains arrive about 20 minutes later, and all at the same time; you know I'm very particular about this.

Ricotta pancakes with lemon-blueberry compote:

You've heard the phrase don't judge a book by its cover, well now I'd like to introduce to a new phrase, don't judge a stack of pancakes by the top pancake. Although the top pancake was nicely bathed in yummy lemon-blueberry sauce, the other cakes were dry and sorely lacking in flavor. No syrup was provided to tame the dryness, so you're left with trying to sweep up every last drop of the blueberry sauce with each bite. I've made far better pancakes at home. What you see above is filler food, and expensive filler food at that.

Poached eggs with crab hash, tomato Hollandaise, and house-made English muffins:

Firstly you'll notice the muffins are burnt, or is that Cache's idea of a charred muffin? Regardless, we asked for a second muffin that wasn't burnt, and well they burnt, um, charred that one, too. The parts that weren't charred were actually very good and exhibited a taste you'll never experience from a store-bought variety. As for rest of this dish, strong notes from the tomato Hollandaise completely overpowered the delicate taste of the crab meat, which was sparse in quantity. The eggs were cooked nicely, but that's not enough of a reason to convince me to order this dish again.

Brioche French toast with vanilla marscapone cheese and banana rum sauce:

OK so who ordered dessert for breakfast? Oh right, me of course! Thick slices of Brioche saturated with the rich rum sauce and topped with that silky marscapone made for a heavenly combination; I left not a single trace of food on this plate. Not quite the best French toast I've had, but very good and a definite do-over if I ever come back for brunch.

Eggs coccote with mozzarella, basil, eggs, eggplant, and tomato sauce:

That's an odd combination, yeah? I didn't get to try any of it, but my in-laws certainly enjoyed it. This is like an eggplant marinara with sunny-side up eggs.

Service was good and attentive with plenty of coffee and water refills. The manager came out to chat with us a few times. Only a few other tables were occupied on a sunny Saturday morning and so I was surprised the dishes didn't arrive sooner than we had expected. And why weren't we allowed to sit in the enclosed room? It was completely empty and the staff gave no good reason as to why it was closed, other than to say it wasn't "ready." As for the food, while the French toast, flat bread, and eggs coccote were solid options, our other two dishes left much to be desired. Dry pancakes and burnt English muffins indicate the kitchen needs some tuning. And parking in this area is not easy; you'll need to seek out a meter--most of which have 1-hour limits--or pay up at one of the overpriced lots. With so many other brunch options in this area, it's tough to recommend this place over, say Literati or Tavern LA; you can find those reviews here and here.

3110 Main St.
Santa Monica, CA 90405

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


My incredible experience at Animal took place about a month ago, but I couldn't quite find the time to whip out my review, at least not one that wouldn't put you to sleep...until now =). You restaurant followers know about Animal and the "two dudes" who run this place, and I'm sure you know about the menu which is heavily fortified with protein-rich items like bone marrow, foie gras, and chocolate bars--with bacon no less. Those "two dudes" happen to be Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, who bestow an impressive culinary background that includes having worked alongside Ben Ford and Govind Armstrong, starting a successful catering company, and graduating with culinary degrees from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. The two talented chefs opened Animal on Fairfax in late 2008 and soon after released their first cook book - "Two Dudes, One Pan: Maximum Flavor From a Minimalist Kitchen." Both the restaurant and the book have received high praises from bloggers and food critics alike, and so it shouldn't surprise anyone that I've had my heart set on dining at Animal for some time.

I met up on a Thursday night in early October (edit: early November, thanks Mr. Rayner!) with five friends, and with that size of a group I knew I would be able to sink my teeth into a variety of dishes to experience much of what Animal has to offer. Upon our arrival at around 7:30pm, the place wasn't exactly busy with just a few tables occupied. The dining room is very compact and plain looking as there is not much going on with the decor, though I did notice cool fossil on display near the entrance. The simple room and decor make me believe that chefs Shook and Dotolo have their emphasis set on great food, and not on a dining room fit for Zagat's best-decor category. Fine by me :)

Look closely and you'll notice Top Chef Master's judge Jay Rayner.

After a few minutes of mingling and arm-wrestling over what to order, we agree on plan of attack that included 9 different appetizers (several orders of some), 2 orders of 1 entree, and 4 different desserts. You might think that's an excessive amount of food for 6 people, and you're probably correct but we're a hungry pack of carnivores. Here are the dishes:

Pork belly with kimchi, peanuts, chili soy, and scallions. Thick slabs of buttery-soft pork belly are things of beauty and here they're cooked perfectly and presented nicely. The contrast from the kimchi and scallions helped tame the richness of the pork belly, though I would have liked a stronger presence from the kimchi. Overall it was a great way to start the night.

Ricotta and goat cheese gnocchi, sage butter, pumpkin. My wife couldn't join us for our Animal dinner but I asked her to pick an item from the menu (listed online) and she went with this plate of gnocchi. She'll be happy to know that we all loved it. The gnocchi was soft and pillowy, and the sauce was--as expected--very rich with just a slight hint of pumpkin. Delicious and a must-order if you plan on visiting.

Baby broccoli, pancetta, parmesan, soft egg, bread crumbs. Our "healthy" dish of the night, if you can call it that. I only got to try a small portion of this, but what few bites I consumed were very nice. The egg was cooked to a perfect soft boil, and it lightly draped over the broccoli when the egg was cut apart. Crunchy bread crumbs added some contrast to each bite; I could see myself eating this appetizer for breakfast. Some of you might think of this veggie dish as more of a speed bump en route to more meat =), but it was a very satisfying dish and I'd order it again.

Pork belly sliders with slaw. The hit of the night. Tender pork belly and toasted buns with tangy slaw made for one of the best burgers I've had in recent memory. Just about everyone at our table claimed this dish to be the favorite of the night. We ordered two plates of these and I wanted to order a third, but with so many other dishes yet to arrive, I had to hold back my bottomless appetite.

Pig ear, chili, lime, fried egg. From the favorite dish of the night to probably the least favorite, the pig ear was somewhat of a miss. The taste of the crispy pieces of pig ear resembled crispy bacon, which is not a bad thing, but the chili and lime sauce almost completely overpowered that taste. A fried egg served on top added some interesting texture, but ultimately I could not get past the spicy sauce. Daniel K., sitting next to me, made a similar comment. To tell you the truth, I'm not even sure we finished it :(. I've read that Church and State has an incredible pig ear appetizer; hopefully I'll be hitting that place up soon.

Sweetbreads with creamed spinach, capers, hen of the woods. If you don't know what sweetbreads are then you might not want to know. (This is your cue to Google it--allow me to do that for you.). The taste is something like a semi-sweet chicken nugget, and with a similar texture, too. Animal's version of this dish was quite good and I liked the pairing with the creamy spinach and earthy mushrooms, which helped cut in to the richness of the sweetbreads.

Foie gras, biscuit, maple sausage gravy. Talk about a heavy dish! The foie gras was rich and buttery with earthy undertones, but the real standout here was the maple sausage gravy. It was so good that we asked for extra bread to soak up every last bit of it. The biscuit was somewhat lost both in presentation and in taste--I mean how in the world can it compete with fatty duck liver and sausage gravy? A good dish nonetheless. Pair this with the broccoli and soft-boiled egg for the ultimate breakfast of champions.

Poutine, oxtail gravy, cheddar. Think of this as a gourmet chili cheese fries. Tender pieces of pulled beef, French fries, and sharp cheddar cheese all mingled together for a meaty, comfort food experience. The broth was especially nice and went well with the extra bread. It's a messy dish; good to know I'm in my setting with this one.

Roasted marrow bone, parsley salad. Delicious and fatty, just the way bone marrow should be. By itself it's overly rich, but eaten with toasted bread allows the marrow's flavor to shine through. Our server wrapped up the leftover bones so that my staff member at home could partake in some delicious noms. See pic at the end of this review.

Foie gras loco moco, quail egg, spam, hamburger. Wow, Animal certainly didn't hold back any punches with this heart-stopping dish of fat, fat, and more fat. That's a fried quail egg over foie gras over spam over hamburger, served with some rice and a meaty broth. Did I miss anything? As good as it looks and sounds, it was actually just OK and I thought it was a bit overkill with so many flavors and textures packed in a single plate. Usually foie gras is paired with something sweet or mild to help offset the richness, but Animal clearly had other plans in mind with its version of a popular Hawaiian entree. Trying to spit this looks to be a losing proposition, but Linda did a textbook job of slicing it three ways, cleanly, and she performed the delicate operation twice as we had two orders of this.

Food artist in action.

With our savories completely consumed, it's time for a round of desserts. By now the dining room was packed and bustling with activity. Other bloggers have penned complaints about the noise levels at Animal, and while it was somewhat loud, it wasn't unbearable by any means. Just don't come here expecting a subdued dinner conversation with your date.

Animal's dessert menu listed four items--bacon chocolate crunch bar, panna cotta, house-made donuts, and tres leches cake with dulce de leche. With our size of a group it only made sense to order one of each. Our favorite by far was the tres leches cake, which is easily one of the better restaurant desserts I've come across. The incredibly moist and rich cake was paired with a little caramel sauce to heighten each bite. Animal's take on this classic Mexican dessert was nothing less than spectacular.

The bacon chocolate crunch bar--which by the way made an appearance on Food Network's The Best Thing I Ever Ate--was a miss for me. It was good, but not out-of-this-world good as I had hoped. The chocolate (flour less?) cake/mousse was rich and dense, and the bacon was cooked to a crunchy, almost burnt finish. The mingling of the two just didn't work for me. With softer cooked bacon and a little more coarse salt on top and my take on this would have been more favorable. Like the pig ear, this had trouble disappearing from its plate.

The house-made donuts were delicious with a crispy exterior and soft, doughy interior. I think I actually liked these better than the ones at Grace, which is saying a lot. Gourmet, house-made donuts are becoming more common at fine eateries, but I still prefer my glazed twists and buttermilk bars from Primos in Palms.

Our last dessert, the panna cotta, was merely average. Sour notes from the saba (a type of vinegar) drowned out the delicate, creamy taste of the panna cotta. I would have preferred to see this served with a fruit-based sauce such as a nice blackberry and sugar reduction.

Tres leches cake with dulce de leche.

Bacon chocolate crunch bar.

House-made donuts.

Panna cota with saba.

To wrap things up, I'll add that our dinner at Animal was one of the best meals I've had in recent history. Service was excellent, platings were superb, and the timing of the dishes was just about right. I left very satisfied but I couldn't resist the urge to pick up a treat from the neighboring Canter's Deli.

I grabbed an apple strudel (pictured in the center) and ate half when I got home. Delicious. To say that I was full would be understatement, and you can bet I hit the gym hard the next morning.

435 N Fairfax Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90048