Recent ESPN content includes my Perfect Game All-American Classic recap, a piece on the Giants’ AZL team, and this week’s Klawchat, plus Behind the Dish with Cubs senior VP/future GM candidate Jason McLeod.
I’m a little behind on recent eats, so before that gets any worse, I’m going to write up the marquee meal from my recent trip to California, dinner at Animal with my former colleague Kiley McDaniel, now of Fox Sports.
Animal is among the most famous and trendiest places going now, appearing on Bon Appetit‘s list of the twenty most important restaurants in the U.S.*, while its two founder-chefs served as judges of the fried chicken challenge on the most recent season of Top Chef. Friends and readers have been recommending it for what seems like ages. I had to go there. And that’s before I heard they had crispy pig ears.
*I’ve been to five: Animal, Cochon, Momofuku (just the Ssäm bar, though), Husk, and Shake Shack.
Every dish but one was spectacular, even if it did produce a bit of a meat hangover. Kiley and I ended up with a lot of pork, although I find pig offal far more interesting than offal from cow or … well, I’ve never had deer offal or kangaroo offal or anything, so I’ll stop there. The three pork dishes were all superb. The pig ears were served the only way I’ve ever had them: braised, julienned, and fried like french-fried onions, served with a chili-lime dressing. Animal’s version has a sunnyside-up egg on top that the server recommended we break and toss with the ears, sharp counsel that paid off by giving some richness to balance the bright tartness of the lime. Once you’ve had fried pig ears, no other fried product can ever quite measure up.
The crispy pig head was a tremendous, rustic twist on what is better known as “head cheese” (or testina if you want to use an Italian euphemism), served in a big, loose pile with a consistency like that of a jumbo lump crab cake, where the whole thing falls apart at the touch of a fork. The meat, which is mostly jowl meat and is as flavorful as bacon but as tender as shoulder, is lightly fried to get a crispy breading on top, but that’s just Animal’s nod to the Japanese dish pork tonkatsu, something they continue with the use of Bulldog sauce, a Japanese sweet-tangy sauce with MSG, prune puree, sugar, vinegar, apple, and spices. It’s all served on a bed of short-grain rice, with another egg on top. It’s incredibly rich, and Kiley’s assessment, that it pushed the limits of how many competing flavors you want in one dish, was spot on.
The star of the night was the least unusual of the three pork offerings, the barbequed pork belly sandwiches: A small brick of pork with a big dollop of fresh slaw on top (cabbage with mayo and I believe a little mustard), served on a brioche roll. They’re slider-sized, maybe two bites if you’re greedy, and I would gladly swing by there for a dozen of those to go, White Castle-style. The slaw/pork ratio was perfect, given how rich (read: fatty) the pork was, so the acidity from the slaw was critical. This is on the short list of the best things I’ve ever eaten, which is mostly a list of things made from pig.
For starters, we tried the salad of lettuce, beets, avocado, feta, and creamy sumac dressing, which was both gorgeous (thanks to two colors of beets) and clean despite all of the different textures and flavors. I love fresh beets – not the crap from a can – and avocadoes and often pair them together with a citrus dressing at home, but the lightly creamy sumac dressing surprised me by not overwhelming the dish. That salad was better than the charred shishito peppers with shaved dried white anchovies (which weren’t listed as dried on the menu, so I thought we were getting fresh ones), a dish that had a lot of bitter and salty notes but no contrast or complexity.
The one item I just did not like was the fried sweetbreads, which had two very peculiar textures, both unpleasant – one like gummy melted cheese, the other like overcooked pork loin. It’s possible that I don’t like sweetbreads, as I think this was just the second time I’d had it, but it was also the only item we didn’t finish.
For dessert, even though we were too full, we still had to get the bacon chocolate crunch bar with salt and pepper ice cream. I liked it more than Kiley did, I think, admiring both the playfulness of black pepper in the ice cream (which looked like specks of vanilla) and the fact that the chocolate to bacon ratio was very high (so the bacon was a secondary flavor). It was still sweet enough to be dessert, but not cloying, with enough other elements that it transcended the normal dessert menu that tries to browbeat you with fat and sugar.
We were both somewhat surprised by how small the bill was for the quality and quantity of food we got, as well as the name value of the place, which seats just 45 people – about $120 total including a couple of beers, tax, and tip. I understand that’s not a cheap dinner by general standards, but a restaurant with this level of fame, located in one of the two most expensive cities in the country, could charge more, and I’m impressed that they don’t. It’s absolutely worth the trip, and now I need to try its sister restaurant, Son of a Gun, to see if it measures up.