Going whole hog

Although Animal opened about four years ago, it’s still one of the most popular restaurants in town.

Kenley’s brother Logan was thoughtful enough to give us a gift certificate for our wedding anniversary in January. It was up to me to score the reservation. There are no online reservations for the 45-seat restaurant. You have to call several weeks in advance.

I was excited — and a little nervous — to see what all the fuss was about. Animal, as its name suggests, takes a rebellious, head-to-tail approach to cooking. So while there’s bacon and sausage on the menu, there’s also pig ears, sliced pig head, veal tongue and veal brains. In Animal’s case, it’s less to prove a point and more because the owners like meat.

Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo — the restaurant’s “hipster proprietors,” as Logan called them (he actually added another adjective) — are two dudes with Southern roots who have made it big in L.A.

OK, they’re from Florida — not the real South — but their rustic cooking style seems influenced by it.

They have a bad-boy reputation earned from the “Two Dudes Catering” reality show on the Food Network, which followed the outsiders’ catering company around L.A. Their cookbook is called “Two Dudes and a Pan.” Some of you will get the reference.

And last fall, the two men opened Son of a Gun, a restaurant that focuses more on seafood. It’s on our list.

In his 2008 review of Animal in the LA Weekly, Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold called Shook and Dotolo the “Jay and Silent Bob” of the food world — a reference to iconic characters in director Kevin Smith’s movies. And the restaurant continues to make Gold’s list of the 99 essential restaurants in L.A.

Animal also was featured in Charleston, S.C.-based Garden and Gun magazine, part of an article on “Southern-ish restaurants” outside of the South.

The restaurant, which is on Fairfax, doesn’t have a sign out front. But you know you’ve found the right place when you see the crowds of hipsters waiting out front.

On our first visit, unsure of what to expect, Kenley and I played it a little safe. As is the case at many L.A. restaurants, Animal serves small plates designed to share. We started with polenta in a six-hour bolognese sauce, topped with Parmesan cheese. I call it the gourmet version of grits and liver pudding. (Note that this is a compliment from this Southerner.)

The polenta — which I think comes from Anson Mills in my hometown of Columbia, S.C. — was just the right consistency. And the bolognese sauce was rich and meaty. Very satisfying. It’s a dish I would love to learn how to make at home.

We also ordered the melted petit basque with chorizo and grilled bread. Petit basque is a mild cheese made from sheep’s milk, and it balanced the spicy sausage. This dish was the equivalent of dipping your bread into a hearty meat sauce.

Next up: barbecue pork belly sandwiches with slaw. And these, Kenley says, were truly the coup de grace. The sandwiches melted in your mouth and were divine. The dish was the closest I’ve come to Southern pulled-pork barbecue out here.

(Most barbecue joints out West seem to serve Texas beef rather than pork — and most of it seems really dry.)

Our last course was pig ears seasoned with chili and lime, and served with a fried egg on top. I must admit this looked a little scary when you dug under the fried egg. I was expecting something similar to pork rinds, I think. But this looked a little too much like the sliced pig ear that it was.

Still, once you got past that, it was spicy, crispy and yet unexpectedly light. The lime gave it a refreshing quality. It almost reminded me of having lime-flavored chips and a light salsa. I think it probably should have been served as our first course instead of our last.

I’m not sure that anyone can go to Animal and not order the bacon-chocolate crunch bar with ice cream. It’s got layers of chocolate and hazelnut with peanuts in it and bacon crumbled on top.

Yeah, it’s good. It’s the best dessert I’ve had so far in Los Angeles. Kenley concurs.

Animal also has a good craft beer list. (We had a Japanese Ginga Kogen and a Session Lager.) And trust us, you’ll want a beer to wash down the salty food, especially the pig ears.

Everything we tried at Animal was pretty delicious. Whenever we go back, we will be more adventurous in ordering — just probably not “pig brains” adventurous.

While dining near the window, I noticed a group of people talking outside, and they somehow looked familiar. Luckily, I mentioned it to Kenley, who recognized the group as most of the cast of the hit NBC television comedy “Community” — Joel McHale, Alison Brie, Danny Pudi and Jim Rash. (Chevy Chase wasn’t with them.)

The cast had just finished an appearance at Paleyfest at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. The Paley Center celebrates the cultural and social importance of television and radio, and during Paleyfest, the creators and casts of top television shows are invited to discuss their work in front of a live audience. You can watch the video of the “Community” conversation from PaleyFest here.

After dinner, Kenley and I walked through the nearby Known art gallery, which was hosting an opening-night exhibit. One of the works hanging in the window was disturbing, but in the kind of way that you can’t stop looking at it. It depicted a man in a suit hanging by a noose against a stark white background, with a young child looking up at him.

The collection — by skateboarder, punk rocker and artist Steve Olson — was called “Hangin.'” Most of the artwork depicted the same man (a self-portrait of the artist, I think) hanging from a noose with different groups of people looking at him. It was a little odd to experience the exhibit with no reference point, but the description on the website explains that “the artwork explores power and the way economic and social forces exert that power by shaping the identities of individuals and culture.” You can see one of the pieces of art and read more about the exhibit at the Known Gallery website here. Equally provocative are the photos taken at opening night featuring people reacting to the art. You can see them here.

Kenley and I are looking forward to hosting Logan in Los Angeles when he comes to town for a music conference later this week. I can’t wait to see Logan’s reaction to L.A. I’ll write about his visit here soon.

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3 thoughts on “Going whole hog

  1. Terrific pics! You make it sound wonderful, but I’m afraid the chocolate bacon crunch would be all I could down. Hope you, Kenley, and Logan have a great week ahead. Thanks for “putting him up.” You three southerners rock the West Coast and have a great time!

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