Animae reopens outdoors with a new chef, more approachable menu
James Beard Award winner Nate Appleman plans to serve California cuisine with a Southeast Asian flair
When the pandemic struck in March, chef Brian Malarkey and designer Chris Puffer were heartbroken over closing their stunning $5.5 million downtown restaurant Animae, just six months after its grand opening.
But Malarkey said the unexpected 4-1/2-month closure gave him and Puffer — who together run the Puffer Malarkey Collective of restaurants — the rare opportunity for a do-over. Although the 170-seat, ultra-luxurious restaurant/bar near the Embarcadero was doing well, Malarkey said the menu by original chef Joe Magnanelli wasn’t a good fit for the Japanese-inspired space and some of its unusual dishes turned off diners.
So, when diners arrive tonight for Animae’s grand reopening, they’ll find more than an all-outdoor 60-seat dining area on the garden patio at the Pacific Gate by Bosa condominium tower. They’ll also discover that Animae’s menu has been completely reimagined by new chef Nate Appleman, who is San Diego’s first James Beard Award-winning chef.
In 2009, a trifecta of honors put Appleman at the top of America’s culinary heap. He was named a Rising Star Chef by the James Beard Foundation. He also was named to the “best new chefs” list by Food & Wine magazine, and his “A16: Food + Wine” cookbook with co-author Shelley Lindgren was named cookbook of the year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
For most of the 11 years since, the 41-year-old Appleman, has worked in the culinary corporate world. But he was hungry to return to the independent restaurant kitchen and the Puffer Malarkey Collective was eager to reel in a chef with Appleman’s credentials, cooking skills and mid-career maturity as both a menu developer and a kitchen leader. Despite the huge challenges of starting over in the midst of a restaurant-killing pandemic, they’re hopeful the second time’s the charm.
Appleman is not an Asian-trained chef. His passion is coal-fire cooking and pizza. But he has traveled and dined extensively in Southeast Asia and loves making Asian food, in part because his son his half-Filipino. He was inspired to create the new menu at Animae after touring the restaurant with Puffer, a lifelong fan of Japanese anime art who designed the space to resemble Japan’s Shikoku firefly forest.
“I didn’t realize until I talked to Puffer how personal the inspiration was for him so I decided I had to make the menu just as personal for me,” Appleman said. “I think, before, Animae tried a little too hard to be different. I would hate to alienate anyone with my food. I want to feed people.”
To prepare for the reopening, Appleman developed 70 new dishes including the desserts, then honed that down to about 37 items. He describes the menu as California cuisine with a Southeast Asian twist. Instead of the heavier Chinese-influenced dishes on the original menu, Appleman’s menu eschews strange ingredients in favor of simpler, more approachable fare with locally raised proteins, seasonal local produce and Mexican chili peppers. Everything on the menu is new except for the popular tom yum roasted mushrooms with burrata. He also kept butter dumplings on the menu but developed his own recipe.
“One of my cooks told me the new menu is not esoteric or ‘weird to be weird.’ It’s super smart and complex,” Appleman said. “My aesthetic is lighter fare and brighter flavors that wake up your palate.”
Malarkey said Appleman’s ingredients are more recognizable and his presentations less fussy, but the flavors are extraordinary.
“He’s got this swordfish with black garlic chili sauce. It’s just sauce on a piece of swordfish, but you eat it and oh my God. Twenty-four hours later you’re still daydreaming about it,” Malarkey said. “Nate and I are in a similar place in our careers. We’ve been arrogant and cocky, cooking the food we wanted to cook. Now we’re at a place where we’re cooking for the customer and we’re not embarrassed to be simple.”
The new menu has a large raw seafood and cold plates section, hot appetizers, plated entrees like lamb ribs, steamed rock cod and whole grilled Baja bass and an expanded American Wagyu beef program. Cold and hot starters are in the $14 to $22 range. Plated entrees are $18 to $41, and Wagyu steaks range from $50 for an 8-ounce short rib to $160 for a 32-ounce porterhouse.
Appleman said he pushed to bring in the heavily marbled steaks from Idaho’s Snake River Farms because they’re a good fit for the restaurant’s retro “Great Gatsby meets Mad Men” vibe and they’ll give pandemic-weary diners the option to splurge.
Raised in Ohio, Appleman has worked in the restaurant industry since his first job at 14 as a dishwasher at a country club. After culinary school, he cooked his way around Seattle, New York City and Italy before landing in 2004 at A16, a fast-rising Southern Italian restaurant and Neapolitan pizzeria in San Francisco. Five years later, his work at A16 would bring him the industry’s top honors, but things were falling apart at home.
In 2009, his then 2-year-old son Oliver was diagnosed with Kawasaki disease, a vascular condition that can damage the heart. To prioritize his family, Appleman left the restaurant industry for the saner hours and better insurance benefits of the corporate world. He spent seven years as culinary director for Chipotle Mexican Grill, two years with OTG Management, which builds restaurants in airports, and seven months last year with the Umami Restaurant Group.
In 2015, Appleman and his former wife moved to San Diego to be closer to Oliver’s world-renowned Kawasaki disease specialists at UC San Diego Medical Center. At the time, he considered opening a restaurant in San Diego but his style of light California cuisine wasn’t in sync with the gastropub fare most popular at the time. After moving back to New York, Appleman and his wife divorced and she eventually returned to San Diego with Oliver. That is what led Appleman to give Malarkey a call in January to see if there might be a future job opportunity here with the Puffer Malarkey Collective.
At the time, Appleman’s goal was to open a pizzeria under the Puffer Malarkey shingle. He wouldn’t serve the the Neapolitan style he cooked at A16, but the “crunchy, chewy and really cheesy” pizza he now prefers. Originally he planned to spend 2020 traveling the world studying pizzas from Canada to Colombia. Then the pandemic struck and he changed directions. Despite the uncertain future for restaurants, Malarkey and Puffer committed to Appleman and invited him to move to San Diego to relaunch Animae.
Until public health orders barring indoor dining lift, Animae’s kitchen will be serving just a third of its normal diners outdoors. That leaves room in the kitchen for menu fine tuning and development. Appleman said he expects it will take six months for the Animae menu to be exactly where he wants it. Meanwhile he’s also working with Malarkey to relaunch Nima, the adjacent cafe space which will sell takeout/street food-style versions of Animae’s menu.
Appleman will also start experimenting with pizza in the Animae kitchen. Malarkey said Animae will temporarily serve as the takeout-only “ghost kitchen” for Appleman’s as-yet unnamed Puffer Malarkey pizzeria brand.
Appleman said that when he was a younger man, he was rigid, controlling and temperamental. Now he’s embracing the unexpected and happier than he’s ever been. He’s making the food he loves in a city with the “best produce on Earth,” and he now lives just a few miles away from his now 13-year-old son, who he enjoys bicycling with along San Diego’s bayfront on weekends. He also recently met a woman in San Diego who he describes as the love of his life.
“I used to be so inflexible. But I’ve learned it’s OK to change,” he said. “It’s OK to go right instead of left. I went right, and right was the right choice for me.”
Animae is serving dinner from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays at 969 Pacific Highway in San Diego. Visit animaesd.com.
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