Lunch at The Spice Table / Dinner at Animal

Come along with me, we’re going for a drive. I just did an interview with L.A. Weekly’s food blog where they asked me what I’m most looking forward to about living in L.A., and one of my answers was: “Going on driving adventures.” Which is why we’re getting into the car… c’mon, we’re going downtown!

Our destination is The Spice Table, which many L.A. food writers (including Jonathan Gold) listed as the “best newcomer of 2011” in this Eater L.A. post. Google Maps is telling us to take the highway, but I figured out a shortcut: it involves riding east on Sunset until it becomes Cesar Chavez then making a right a left and a right.

Once downtown, I’m reminded of my summer working for a law firm down here, back in 2003. We’d lunch in this very neighborhood because this is where all the courthouses are and some good grub (like French dips at Phillipe, pastrami at Langer’s). I park in a spot that charges $6.50 but will refund you $3.50 if you get your parking ticket validated; it’s right next to The Spice Table so park there and it will only cost you $3.

Inside the Spice Table, the mood is relaxed:


The menu is short enough to be manageable and cheap enough to become a habit. Plus they have specials on this little chalkboard that I didn’t see until after I ordered:


Look at that stove, by the way; it’s like an outdoor grill, indoors:


Once you order your food, you walk into a sunlit room with lots of tables populated by lawyers. Yes, that’s a guess on my part, but knowing this neighborhood as I do and keeping in mind the proximity to courthouses, it’s a good guess:


Let’s not focus on lawyers, let’s focus on the food. I ordered the fried catfish sandwich:


As you can see it’s a generous portion on crusty French bread with lots of cilantro, cabbage, curried pickles and–spread across the bread–sambal (a chili sauce). The sambal gave the thing lots of heat, which I enjoyed; and the fish was only lightly battered so it was crispy without being too heavy. The pickles, though, were a key component: they gave everything an exotic, sour edge. This sandwich is a winner.

So is this coleslaw, which I ordered as a side:


That’s not your ordinary coleslaw: yes it has cabbage and carrots, but it also has peanuts, scallions, mint and a pepper-lime dressing. The lime juice, in particular, has a great effect: it carries this coleslaw to the beach and makes you think about palm trees.

So that was our lunch at The Spice Table; easy enough, right?

But we’re also going to have dinner at Animal, the super famous, super popular Fairfax restaurant from chefs Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook. I met these guys last year while working on my cookbook so I’m not a stranger to their food, only I’d never been to Animal as a customer.

On this night, we could only score a reservation for 10 PM. No matter: that’s a cool time to eat at Animal, when chefs and celebrities are likely to arrive. Here’s the scene from outside (notice, it’s unmarked):


And here’s the menu, once you’re inside:


What’s wonderful about Animal is that even though the food is outrageously decadent–foie gras biscuits and gravy, for example–everything is beautifully balanced. We started with these spring rolls, for example, which were stuffed with both shrimp and rabbit sausage and presented with a green curry (sorry for these dark, bad pictures):


They were light and delicate yet powerfully flavored. That’s true for all the food that we ate, like the hamachi tostada:


Or this salad of farmer’s market lettuces with shaved beets and feta:


Or the grilled baby broccoli with a crispy egg:


You can see this food isn’t making us look too heavy or slothful:


But the bite of the night, without a doubt, was that foie gras biscuit with gravy:


You’ve got the creamy, fatty, gaminess of the foie gras up against the softness of a hot biscuit, ensconced in a thick, comforting gravy and then–this is the key touch–sweetened, ever so slightly, with maple syrup. We split this four ways (we were there with Mark and Diana) and each of us got one wildly decadent bite. That was just enough.

We also enjoyed the pig ears with an egg on top:


And, another highlight, these pork belly sliders:


Of course we had to have the bone marrow with chimichurri:


And, even though the waiter didn’t think we could handle it, the poutine with oxtail gravy and cheddar:


Not handle it? Hogwash!

We also saved room for dessert. The salty/sweet balance of the sticky toffee pudding impressed us:


But we all went gaga for the tres leches cake:


It was very sweet, yes, but nuanced and incredibly well executed.

You may think eating that amount of food and fat at one sitting is disgusting and, yes, if you ate this way every night it would be disgusting. But somehow, the hands in the kitchen at Animal keep things under control. This is a place that doles out decadence in a careful, thoughtful way. Nobody left the table feeling sick.

One thing that we absolutely loved about Animal was the wine menu: they had a bottle of house white (Chardonnay) and a bottle of house red (Cabernet) each for $20. That’s a great deal, especially for non-oenophiles who want a decent wine to wash down the food.

All in all, we loved Animal and agreed that it lives up to the hype.

That’s all for this road trip, friends. Please unbuckle your seat-belts and wait for the car to come to a complete stop before exiting. Take all trash with you and remember to tip your driver. See you next time!

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