The new Asian-inspired restaurant from Brian Malarkey and his team of creative geniuses is ultra-glamorous, almost uniformly delicious and quiet as hell. It continues the success the celebrity chef found in his Little Italy hotspot Herb & Wood
There are multiple ways to cause a sensation, Brian Malarkey has taught us.
There was the celebrity chef twee-look-at-me superficiality of the Searsucker/Herringbone era.
There were the hater-muting sexy energy and vibrant cooking of Little Italy’s instant classic Herb & Wood.
And now, there’s the stunningly plush and luxurious Animae, with its rule-busting, dynamic Asian-inspired cuisine.
Resplendent in dramatic olive green velvet curtains and booths and carpeting evoking an impressionistic koi pond, Animae was designed to be “the quietest restaurant in San Diego,” according to Malarkey’s partner Chris Puffer. The hushed acoustics are indeed remarkable, particularly for a huge, 7,600-square-foot, 175-seat space. The Art Deco-meets-boudoir (in a good way) dining room envelops diners in a serene, sumptuous sophistication that will make you never want to eat at a club-thumping restaurant again.
But, shhhh, here’s the true genius of Animae: Herb & Wood’s success obliterated Malarkey’s reputation for career ADD, one-dimensional flash. Yet the oh-so-quiet Animae sends a very loud message that it wasn’t a fluke, and he’s not done raising the bar for San Diego dining.
I am thrilled to admit that I erroneously thought Herb & Wood — which long ago surpassed its nationally famous neighbor Juniper & Ivy in relevance and quality — was as great as Malarkey was going to get. But $5.5 million and one unconventional collaboration with pasta king Joe Magnanelli later, Malarkey has bested his best.
Now that a few early menu bumps have been smoothed out, two-month-old Animae — with credit to not just Malarkey’s vision but Puffer’s out-there aesthetic, executive chef-partner Magnanelli’s spirited flavors, pastry chef Adrian Mendoza’s spot-on creativity and general manager-partner Lucien Conner’s front-of-the-house polish — is a downright sensation.
Like Little Italy’s Born & Raised and Hillcrest’s new Rare Society, Animae embraces swank and modernizes it, looks toward the future, while reclaiming the best elements of the past. In a year of unprecedented deliciousness, Animae is another eye-catching example of San Diego maturing and coming into its own as a dining destination of substance.
And by maturing, it’s not in an “OK, boomer” kind of way. It’s an outright rejection of the food-delivery, foosball dining experience, order-by-tablet, no-service-staff age. This boomer is very OK with that.
Your meal starts with a civilized, warm, lemongrass-scented hand cloth and only gets more refreshing from there.
The menu is a mashup of cuisines from Baja to Italy, France to Japan, Korea and China. Ingredient, flavor and texture combinations are unconventional and work, surprisingly. Malarkey’s obsession with bright, bold acid and fresh herbs guarantee that the dishes will be vivid. Magnanelli, the former longtime executive chef at Cucina Urbana, brings an Italian know-how of developing deep flavor and perfecting al dente noodles. No dish better exemplifies this than his crazy rich beef cheek brothless ramen, with shiitake mushroom, egg jam and bok choy. It’s a noodle bowl so hearty, it almost begs for cold weather.
Likewise, the soul-satisfying yuzu egg noodle, with pork belly, calamari, bok choy, peanuts and water chestnuts is the kind of dish you slowly slurp, and it only gets more lusciously complex. The ultra-upscale, $34 black garlic udon noodles with lobster, chili, choy sum greens, bisque, espelette pepper and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, is destined to become Magnanelli’s signature dish.
On the already-updated fall/winter menu, the steelhead trout poke has been replaced by silky Ora King salmon with pomegranate ponzu, pepitas and ginger oil providing crunchy, sweet heat. The fabulous hiramasa in watermelon yuzu aguachile, cucumber, lime and trout roe has given way to even more exceptional hiramasa in pear yuzu with pink peppercorn, cocoa nib (genius!) and hemp (imperceptible!).
The menu is strongest in the hot shareable plates category, where the standouts include the miso-buttery purple potato pain d’epi rolls, hot and sour tom yum mushrooms with luscious burrata and absolutely addictive Baja Asian street corn, with kimchee aioli, cotija cheese, almonds and togarashi spices. The roasted duck bao buns with maple miso, blue cheese and persimmons are pillows of contrasting flavors and textures, while the smoky, grilled Baja oysters, with ponzu butter, breadcrumbs and tiny, popping sea grapes is among the top shellfish dishes in town. Butter dumplings — two words that bring a smile to my face — have escargot tucked inside and when you release the butter, it coats a layer of Waygu beef carpaccio. Appetizers don’t get much more decadent than that. And do enjoy the soft Dungeness crab and cabbage yaki discs, with trout roe and oyster sauce, but use caution with the overly salty Old Bay crème fraîche sauce they sit on.
Except for the whole Gonestraw Farms Korean fried chicken, I haven’t ordered any of the meats (Wagyu filet, bison strip loin, coal-grilled koji — fermented mold that’s essentially an umami delivery system — pork tomahawk, 45-day, dry-aged bone-in ribeye and a Wagyu porterhouse steak). Cost was a factor; they’re priced between $55 and $160. But there’s also so much a chef can do with a steak, and I wanted to get the best sense of what Malarkey and Magnanelli are cooking up.
Such as the whole fried snapper, which is deboned and descaled, then reconstructed before frying. Lightly battered in rice flour and adorned with olives, orange, fennel, lime and aji amarillo, it’s a visually striking dish that also underscores the importance of the chefs’ focus on bright flavors. It’s $55, but easily feeds two.
Four meals in (three at the restaurant, one at a pre-opening tasting), only one has been mixed. A few early kitchen missteps — a hard, somewhat greasy crust on the fried chicken, bland Chinese long beans, black cod overwhelmed by its Vietnamese caramel glaze — are distant memories, particularly since the main ingredients had all been perfectly cooked, just finished with a thud.
Animae has an extensive sake selection, and if you’re, like me, completely in the dark about the differences between them, seek out sommelier Brandon Lervold, who can wax poetic about their subtleties. If he’s off at Herb & Wood, or the just opened Herb & Sea in Encinitas, your very well-trained server can walk you through the sake menu, as well as the cocktail choices and thoughtful wine list.
And if some of the ingredients are unfamiliar to you, the menu offers a handy glossary tucked in the corner under “Wagyu & WTF.”
Under no circumstances should you skip dessert. Mendoza, the executive pastry chef, has clearly relished pushing the boundaries for what he can do with Asian-influenced desserts. The petit fours shows that on a plate. The various treats — cookies, macarons, caramels, mini-pastries — exhibit classic technique with a twist. I’d order it just for the matcha Madeleine with yuzu glaze.
Mendoza’s malasadas — warm, light and fluffy Portuguese dough balls — are a revelation. They’re rolled in with coffee sugar, filled with velvety coconut cream and come with served with a mind-blowing Thai curry ice cream. The Black Velvet, a charcoal sponge cake with banana caramel, miso (!) and ancient grain brittle, is out there conceptually, and worth every calorie.
Speaking of worth it, Animae is obviously an expensive night out, with per-person tabs easily topping $150 with alcohol. If that’s too steep for your budget, consider going just for some of those hot appetizers and dessert. Or, you can get a flavor for Animae at its new sister daytime eatery next door, NIMA Café, where an array of Magnanelli and Mendoza’s breakfast and lunch creations are available.
But dinner at Animae gives you the experience of seeing, and tasting, the heights that San Diego dining has reached. And you can’t put a price on that.
Address: 969 Pacific Highway, downtown San Diego
Phone: (619) 432-1225