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Review: Animal restaurant in Los Angeles

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TWO "food dudes" -- laid-back, long-haired cooks who grew up in Florida and are culinary graduates of the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale -- make their way to California and end up at the late Chadwick in Beverly Hills working with Ben Ford and Govind Armstrong. In 2004, the dudes, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, found Carmelized Productions, a catering company. Soon, they're starring in the Food Network docudrama series, "Two Dudes Catering," which purports to show "two young renegade chefs who play by their own rules" in "the big time world of Hollywood catering."

This spring they opened Animal, a restaurant on Fairfax Avenue that picks up on the idea of Nigel Ferguson's London restaurant St. John and focuses on rustic meat-centric cooking. Their book "Two Dudes, One Pan: Maximum Flavor From a Minimalist Kitchen" is due out Aug. 26.

I want to root for these two out-of-towners who have managed to open their own restaurant. I applaud Animal's concept and aesthetic -- dietarily incorrect, exuberant and indulgent, with bacon popping up in almost every dish. But while some of the dishes are pretty good, I'm finding it hard to fall for this restaurant, despite the enthusiastic young hipsters all around the dining room shouting out that the grits are amazing and the ribs fabulous.


FOR THE RECORD:
Chef's name: In a review of Animal restaurant in Wednesday's Food section, the chef at St. John restaurant in London was identified as Nigel Ferguson. His name is Fergus Henderson.


With heavy wood tabletops that look smoked or scorched, a plywood banquette lining one wall and old-fashioned bare filament light bulbs screwed into porcelain fixtures on the walls, Animal cultivates that minimalist, bare-bones look. There's a bar at the back where you can hang, waiting for a table, and a patio of sorts up front where smokers take a break.

Sweet and salty

THE MENU, printed on brown recycled paper in a faint italic hand, is hard to read. Nevermind, it hardly changes from week to week, which tells me the two young chefs have a fairly small repertoire. Their cooking is on the rough side of rustic and tends to be greasy, but made with good ingredients. Dishes can go well over the top with too many flavors competing for attention and wallowing in too much sauce.

I know the chefs are having a ball in the kitchen, dreaming up dishes, sending plates out to friends and fans -- but somebody has to get a grip. Hide the salt and the sugar (too much of either or both escape onto the plates) and maybe -- just a thought -- cut back on the bacon.

OK, one rich, gooey dish is fun. And that would be the hot and bubbling plate of petite Basque cheese melted over Fra' Mani chorizo with stiff toasts of garlic bread to scoop up the molten mass. This is great, especially with a glass of beer. If you're a crowd, you might like to pair it with an order of fried hominy with lime squeezed over to cut the salt.

The ribs -- cooked 10 hours, the affable waiter tells us, in a balsamic glaze -- are good too, falling-off-the-bones tender. If, however, you like to sink your teeth into your ribs, these are not for you. I like that they serve them with a bread salad with heirloom tomatoes. All in all, though, after eating here, I find myself longing for vegetables.

The closest you can get are the khaki-colored, long-cooked Romano beans dressed in lemon and chili flakes and covered with pecorino shavings -- and some pancetta. These, I have to say, are wonderful but don't really satisfy that craving for something green.

Or you can get braised marinated leeks with spinach, poached egg and bacon, but the result is a gooey mess of flavors, everything soft and indistinct. The dudes' territory is strictly comfort zone.

Shaved asparagus is a more focused dish, drizzled with a bacon vinaigrette and topped with a poached egg and Grana Padano cheese. Diced raw amberjack tossed with sliced nectarines and orange segments in a dressing lighted up with serrano chiles is terrific, an oddball mix of flavors that really zaps those taste buds.

A first course of foie gras with biscuit and gravy, a honey-laced biscuit topped with a small piece of excellent seared foie gras, the whole thing sitting in a gratin dish with enough sweet gravy to fuel the entire room, is puzzling. I see the point: Most chefs pair something sweet with foie gras. But it also needs some acidity to cut the sweetness. For me, this is too cloying to live.

I'm just as puzzled by the idea of serving the huge Tomahawk rib-eye steak for two in foie gras sauce in the middle of summer. Piling on the richness and the tony ingredients doesn't always result in something amazing. And the menu offers little relief from the sweetness and richness. What's needed are some perspective and discipline.

Fried quail -- tender, bursting with juice in a shaggy golden crust -- is a charming idea. But it's served on top of Anson Mills grits that taste as if they've been cooked in heavy cream. Unfortunately, the long-cooked greens that accompany them are so salty, they're inedible. To add to the salt quotient on the plate, there's more slab bacon on the side.

Order pork chops and you get two big ones, salty enough that I seriously wonder if someone left them in the brine too long. Too bad, it's a waste of beautiful pork. Niman Ranch flatiron steak is fussed up with Madeira, chanterelles, potatoes and sweetbreads one time, another version substitutes a bordelaise sauce for the Madeira, and creamed leeks and corn for the chanterelles and potatoes. In the end, you may want to shout out, let my steak be! Please.

A taste for beer

AT ANIMAL, only hearty appetites need apply, preferably ones that can also accommodate a big, cold glass of beer rather than wine with dinner, because the wine list is pretty basic. It encompasses about 20 selections and all of them can be had by the glass, carafe or bottle. A bottle is always a better buy, especially here, when most are well under $50.

Oddly enough, it lists more whites than reds, which could be an advantage since Animal's chefs do better with fish than with meat. Grilled branzino arrives whole and is deftly filleted at the table. If only they'd cut down a little on the amount of brown butter and capers, the branzino would be one of the best in town (it might help the bottom line too, because it looks as if somebody dropped an entire jar of capers over my fish).

Slow down, calm down, I want to say. The dudes can cook and cook well if the delicious, firm turbot in fresh tomato sauce with marrow beans and favas is any example.

Desserts are appealing, but not very adventurous. Especially the fruit crisps, which vary with what's around. One night it could be strawberry rhubarb; another nectarine and blueberries, with a fused topping that's more like a cookie than a crisp or crumble -- and tastes like one too. As for the dudes' signature bacon chocolate crunch bar? I like it. The bacon stands in for a light sprinkling of salt, and it works.

virbila@latimes.com

Animal Rating: *Location: 435 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 782-9225; www.animalrestaurant.com.Ambience: Rustic meat-centric restaurant with minimalist décor, a hungry young clientele and high-energy noise level.Service: Laid-back and personable.Price: Appetizers, $5 to $22; main courses, $24 to $28: (a tomahawk rib-eye for two is $70); desserts, $8.Best dishes: Melted petite Basque with chorizo and garlic bread, raw amberjack with nectarine and serrano chile, pork ribs with balsamic and bread salad, quail fry, whole grilled branzino with capers and brown butter, turbot with beans and tomato, nectarine and blueberry crisp, bacon chocolate crunch bar.Wine list: Limited, but sold by the glass, carafe or bottle, with most bottles well under $50; beers are another option. Corkage fee, $20.Best table: One of the tables for two along the wall.Details: Open for dinner 6 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Wine and beer. Valet parking, $5.50.To see a photo gallery, go to latimes.com/food.Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.

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