Get Way Outta Town: Animal Restaurant
Animal, vegetable and definitely mineral
By Jeannine Sano
Foie loco moco, a signature dish at Animal
photo: courtesy of Animal Restaurant
When visiting a new restaurant, my first impression is colored more by the wine list than anything else, including the menu. On a recent visit to Southern California, I had the good fortune to dine at Animal Restaurant, opened two years ago by chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, located between Hollywood and West L.A. Even in the shadow of the creatively conceived and expertly executed “animal” dishes (the palm-sized slice of seared foie gras served on a fluffy biscuit with salty-sweet maple sausage gravy; falling-off-the-bone tender pig tails in zippy buffalo wing sauce; glistening slices of thick barbecued pork belly engulfed by buttery brioche buns accented with crunchy coleslaw; and melting-in-your-mouth head cheese “carpaccio” dressed with ramp vinaigrette and topped with deep-fried quenelles of corn bread), what stood out first and remained last in my mind was the intriguing wine list compiled by wine director and general manager, Helen Johannesen.
In addition to 11 artisan beers, Animal Restaurant offers four sparklers, Rosés, and dessert wines; and nine red and white wines by the glass covering every possible desirable flavor profile from Sonoma, Douro, Wachau, Provençe, Rhône Valley, Loire Valley, and Burgundy. Not only did I love every glass I ordered, Johannesen’s list made me want to try all the other wines regardless of whether I had ever heard anything about them.
Most of the two-page wine list is comprised of grower-producers. Not surprising given that Johannesen’s favorite importers include Neal Rosenthal, Kermit Lynch and Louis Dressner. At least two-thirds of her bottle selections are under $100 per bottle, with many offered at $60 or less, and most of the generous pours by the glass are priced at $12–$14. Nonetheless, there is clearly no skimping on vintage or quality, as shown by the inclusion of selections like the 2006 Pouilly Fuissé “Les Moulins” from Domaine Ferret; the 2005 Carema “Etichetta Bianca” by Ferrando; the 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Domaine Montpertuis; and a delightfully fun nonvintage semisweet effervescent Rosé from Jura called, “Tant-mieux” by Philippe Bornard.
Johannesen efficiently directs the staff, moving quickly through the packed dining room and bar area, while at the same time answering questions from customers, checking stemware, and opening bottles. Her quiet authority is clearly present in all aspects of service, yet her touch remains discreet and unobtrusive. Even though she looks young enough to have a role on Gossip Girl, her extensive wine knowledge and passion are substantially beyond her 27 years. With a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin and a minor in Business, Johannesen revealed that she originally wanted to be a writer, but confessed that she had always been fascinated with wine, ever since she first tried it at Communion. While working with beverage director David Lusby at Craft Los Angeles, she became thoroughly obsessed with wine, and Animal Restaurant is the beneficiary of all that marvelous obsession.
Johannesen updates the wines-by-the-glass selections at least once a week and tries to revamp the bottle list every couple of months. In the same way that the Animal chefs enjoy pushing boundaries with food, she enjoys pushing boundaries with wine and encourages her staff and her customers to be adventuresome and to try something new. Their joint philosophy is clearly a success – Johannesen is working with the chefs to open a second restaurant in the near future, the concept to be determined. Her motto, however, remains the same: “You don’t have to spend a lot of money to taste great wine.” That may be true, but very few restaurants have so successfully implemented that philosophy.
Animal Restaurant: 435 North Fairfax Avenue (near Rosewood), Los Angeles, Sunday–Thursday 6–11 p.m., Friday–Saturday 6 p.m.–2 a.m., 323-782-9225, www.animalrestaurant.com