Brian Malarkey breaks all the rules with ultra-glamorous Animae
The former ‘Top Chef’ celebrity, whose Herb & Wood proved he was a kitchen star, ramps up the glamour and innovation with his new Asian-inspired restaurant
Is Brian Malarkey going soft on us?
He is when it comes to the plush carpeting, olive green velvet booths and sofas, chairs and ceiling-height drapes that have turned his latest restaurant venture, Animae, into a spectacularly sumptuous culinary cocoon.
The lavish fabric is more than a cinematic, Art Deco feast for the eyes and the touch. It’s intended to muffle noise. It’s designed to give the just-debuted $5.5 million downtown San Diego stunner a romantic feel. It’s meant to signal — quietly, of course — that Malarkey is breaking all the rules with what he’s calling a “coal-fired, Asian-inspired” restaurant that’s "#Animazing.”
“It’s unlike anything we’ve ever done,” he said of the Malarkey Puffer Collective of eateries he has opened with partner, and design maven, Chris Puffer, including the wildly popular and critically acclaimed Herb & Wood in Little Italy.
“It’s exciting that it has gone in an entirely different direction than anyone else has gone,” Malarkey said, becoming increasingly animated during a pre-opening tour of the curved, 7,600-square-foot space on the ground floor of the 41-story ultra-luxury Pacific Gate San Diego condo tower in the Embarcadero.
“It’s Puffer’s ooh-la-la moment. He’s really spreading his cape with this one,” he said, as Puffer dramatically wrapped himself in an opulent curtain. The longtime partners play off each other like a vaudeville act — waving arms and accents, completing sentences for each other.
“There’s not an Edison bulb in sight! Look, no open kitchen! And carpeting — who does that?” Malarkey called out. “Who? Nobody does that,” Puffer clapped back. “Has anyone done that?” Malarkey continued, his arms now flapping, “when was the last time you went somewhere and could have a conversation?” Puffer jumped in again: “We’re tired of going into these dark, masculine men’s clubs. We wanted it to be feminine, sexy.”
If the 2016 opening of Herb & Wood marked Malarkey’s evolution from overexposed celebrity chef to serious chef and restaurateur, Animae is a vivid statement that while this master of reinvention still loves his shtick, he’s now an innovative trend-setter to watch.
As more restaurants opt for a cookie-cutter casual menu and aesthetic, Malarkey, Puffer and their dream team of design firm Bells & Whistles, executive chef-partner Joe Magnanelli and general manager-partner Lucien Conner take San Diego on a sophisticated journey to the bygone era of swank while offering a provocative peek into the future of melding global ingredients and techniques.
That Malarkey would be blazing new culinary territory with Animae was clear from the start when he announced hiring Magnanelli away from the Cucina empire. The respected chef and pasta perfecter said his marching orders from Malarkey were clear: He wanted bright, bold flavors — More acid! More herbs! — and he insisted that his new partner throw out all notions of what’s traditional Asian.
“We’re tearing down the rules with flavors and cuisines. It’s playful, it’s whimsical,” Magnanelli said during a recent informal tasting of several of Animae’s dishes, including black garlic udon noodles with lobster, chili, bisque and — wait, what? Fish with cheese? — Parmigiano-Reggiano grated on top.
“Brian said ‘break the rules, you don’t have to follow what everyone is doing or has done. You want to put Parmesan on lobster, do it!’ ... He (Malarkey) is taking his playful nature to Animae’s approach, he isn’t taking it so seriously and that really appealed to me. I wanted to try something new, to do something completely different. It’s my mid-life crisis. It was either this or a Corvette.”
The Corvette would have been easier. After a career using his classic training, including a stint working with Gavin Kaysen at El Bizcocho, and a dozen years at Cucina Urbana, Magnanelli had to master the Japanese robata grill, working with coal and Asian spices, making his own udon noodles, and concocting dishes like brothless ramen.
While creating the menu, the Animae team traveled continuously — to L.A., Orange County, San Francisco, the Pacific Northwest, and of course, to San Diego’s Convoy district. They spent months tasting street foods and crudos, ramens, bao buns and Korean fried chicken. Animae’s resulting menu isn’t just pan-Asian — “the words ‘Asian fusion’ are not allowed in the door!” Malarkey demands — but a mélange of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Italian, French and Baja cuisines.
“It’s a love, appreciation and celebration of Asian food,” Malarkey said.
To which, Puffer, added a platitude-free assessment: “It’s an interpretation of Asian food — there’s not an authentic thing about it.”
And to which I say, who cares? If I wanted authenticity, I’d head to Convoy. If I want my senses to be wowed, I’ll go to Animae, the most dazzling and elegant restaurant to open in San Diego since Little Italy’s Born & Raised.
Last week, just days after Animae’s opening, two of us enjoyed the elements that make up an impeccable experience: a warm towel brought over as soon as you sit on your comfy seat at your marble table, impressively creative fare, spectacular desserts, a beautifully curated wine list (from nerdy-knowledgeable sommelier Brandon Lervold), charming service, and oh-so-welcome quiet. The 175-seat dining room was more than half full on a Tuesday night and yet you could use your inside voice to communicate. How utterly grown up. (And how intrepid of those diners to find their way to the still-unmarked Animae; the signage is coming soon.)
Though it’s too early for a review, there are already dishes that stand out: ugly-delicious purple potato pain d’epi with miso butter (even if the little rolls leave sesame seeds all over your fingers); pristine steelhead trout poke; escargot butter dumplings (order them for the buttery Wagyu carpaccio alone); vibrant hiramasa aguachile with watermelon yuzu; tom yum mushrooms with silky burrata; ridiculously rich beef cheek brothless ramen; and a gorgeously complex whole fried snapper with olives, orange, fennel, lime and aji amarillo.
And then there are executive pastry chef Adrian Mendoza’s desserts. If you haven’t had his croissants, cookies and pastries at Herb & Eatery or his ingenious sweet treats at Herb & Wood — black pepper and thyme gelato, be still my heart — then a) you haven’t lived, and b) you’re in for a bliss bomb.
If you only have room for one, order the malasadas. We swooned over these warm, light and fluffy Portuguese doughnuts, dusted with coffee sugar, filled with coconut cream and served with an intoxicating Thai curry ice cream. At a soon-to-open Animae cafe next door, expect more of Mendoza’s baking brilliance.
And if you’re wondering about the curious name, Animae, it’s not a typo of anime. It’s a conceptual construct that plays off of Puffer’s fascination with Japanese anime and Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first Chinese-American actress, as well as the Latin translation of anima (soul, life, air, breath).
Or, it’s just another broken rule.
Where: 969 Pacific Highway, downtown San Diego
Phone: (619) 432-1225
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