Field Notes: An Anniversary at Animal
You might have read our piece from roughly a month ago, about The Catbird Seat’s original chefs Josh Habiger and Erik Anderson, and their upcoming reunion at beloved Los Angeles restaurant, Animal. And if you have read said piece, you very well may be pleased to read the field notes on said occasion, bringing the whole experience to life thereafter. (Spoiler: it was an amazing experience!) If you haven’t read it however, you should go on and do so to get some backstory. And then feel free to dive right into Lauren Kessinger’s Field Notes: An Anniversary at Animal, below. Lauren is chef Josh’s wife and she had the abundant good fortune to fly out to LA for the dinner. Better yet, she detailed [almost] every delicious moment.
Field Notes: ANIMAL | 10th Anniversary Fairfax Tour
Jon Shook & Vinny Dotolo came to eat at The Catbird Seat in 2013 as guests of Tandy Wilson. I imagine their convo went something like this: “Hey, there are two other chefs who are total buds like us doing a restaurant. We should go and be friends with them!” (Jon & Vinny, if you read this, please comment on the accuracy of this below.)
So...who are Jon & Vinny, you ask? They’re just two guys named Kevin and Bob, who own a restaurant group called… okay, I kid. Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo opened their namesake Italian restaurant, Jon & Vinny’s, on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles. They are also responsible for other well-known restaurants including Son of a Gun, Trois Mec, Trois Familia, Petit Trois, and Animal, just to name a few. Over the years, they’ve become beloved by Angelenos for catering film sets and exclusive parties, providing resident families with killer grub, and bringing up the next generation of talent in their kitchens. There is a lot of incredible trivia about them, but here are my two faves: 1) Their mega-catering operation makes the meatballs for Delta Airlines’ first-class passengers flying out of LAX, and 2) they have been best friends forever. (Before they had their own restaurants, they worked and interviewed as “a package deal.” So lovable, right?) One more fact: In 2016 they won James Beard Awards for Best Chef: West. Together.
And why are we discussing two Los Angeles chefs here on Broad Varieties, might you ask?
Let me set this up for you. I am chef Josh Habiger’s wife, Lauren. Josh was invited to cook at Animal as part of Jon & Vinny’s 10-year anniversary tour in September of 2018 but wasn’t sure if he would do it. Long story short, he decided he would. Why wouldn’t he want to do it you ask? The man loves to travel! He does not, however, love to leave his restaurant. Maybe you can call him a helicopter parent but he doesn’t like to be away from his baby!
Back to that dinner at The Catbird Seat. I wasn’t in the picture then, but Catbird lore is in my wheelhouse. So what made the restaurant so special that Jon & Vinny would travel from LA to Nashville? I think because Catbird asked something of its guests and rewarded them with an authentic surprise in return—something Nashville did not have going on prior to its opening in 2011. It was exclusive - you had to book well in advance, at midnight on the dot, and often had to try many times before you could get a reservation. The menus were handwritten (hastily). The playlists were made by the chefs and updated on the fly. There were two head chefs and you got to hang out with both of them every single time you ate there. You had to find a nondescript entrance hidden behind a stairwell and take an elevator up one floor with a smiling stranger who handed you champagne before you walked down a hallway covered in psychedelic hot pink wallpaper. Then you strapped in and embarked on a journey, surrendering to these guys who seemed pretty cool, serving and entertaining you with course after course of creative, delicious, visually, and sensorially satisfying plated genius. (This should be feeling mighty familiar to any fans of Josh’s new restaurant, Bastion.)
After Jon & Vinny ate at Catbird, they invited co-chefs Josh Habiger and Erik Anderson to cook at their new spot, Animal, which they did back in 2013. Since then, Josh and Erik have embarked on separate careers, so this year’s anniversary dinner at Animal was to be a reunion in more ways than one.
Partnerships are a special thing. I read once that couples just need three common interests to make it work. Jon & Vinny’s are probably Italian food, marijuana cigarettes (legal in CA!), and hugs. Josh and Erik’s were maybe girls, booze, and music. My friend of 20 years, Becca, is a Los Angeles native and was my date for the Animal dinner. We like all six of those things so she and I are set for life.
I flew out before Josh (remember that thing about him not liking to leave work?), and on Sunday morning Becca and I retrieved him and his giant cooler bags from LAX and headed to the Chateau Marmont, where Jon & Vinny had very generously put us up. The place is F-L-Y. Everything feels positively haunted with debauchery yet you’re as comfortable as you might be chilling at some friend’s rich parents’ house who are conveniently out of town. When we got to room #62, we were greeted with two great bottles of wine, customized Chateau stationery (swoon), and the cutest Jon & Vinny swag: a long-sleeve tee with the Fairfax tour dates on the back, custom slip-on Vans, and a Jon & Vinny’s pizza box…filled with doughnuts and cookies!
The next day, Becca met me at the Chateau and we drank wine on our balcony and watched helicopters fly over a brush fire in the distance that was being extinguished. This felt kind of normal. We got dressed and looked very damn cute. We took a picture in the lobby mirror and headed to Animal.
It was bumping in there: lights down, music up. People were having a GREAT time. Josh came out quickly and greeted us with a smile. He complimented the kitchen staff at Animal and said they were doing an excellent job with the dishes. I was happy to see him be so supported by the restaurant; they were making sure that Josh and Erik had fun, too.
And now, the meal.
First course was a riff on a Bastion dish, Raw Scallop with Avocado and Rhubarb Aguachile. The soft sweet scallop bathes in hot pink broth, and the avocado is sliced thin and rolled into tubes. Becca couldn’t get over the color of the aguachile.
We also got an off-menu single bite of fermented corn fritters under a veil of country ham. Salty, umami, and fun—plus, I love corn. It helps to know people, wink wink!
Next up was French Onion Custard, which comes in one of my favorite formats: dip. I expected French onion dip flavors, except the elements Erik used more closely mirrored onion soup, with a layer of melted cheese between the rich onion custard on the bottom and the top crunchy layer of sesame, truffle, and thyme. A plate of very buttery toast was placed directly between Becca and me, which might have caused a catfight had there not been an even number of slices.
Course three was Josh’s N’Duja Agnolotti — almost as much fun to say as it was to eat: spicy sausage inside puffy pockets of dough on a bed of creamy, stretchy potatoes, underneath a fluffy foam that magically suspends razor clams, super fresh lima beans from the Hollywood Farmers’ Market, and little round slices of haricot verts. My favorite of the evening.
Seaweed Udon was the next offering from Erik Anderson. His dish instigated an investigation of the many seaweeds, some that almost eluded our chopsticks and others that had little bubbles in the leaves that did a briny pop in your mouth. Inky black noodles and slices of delicate abalone completed the bowl.
Pork Toro with Tonnato & Late Summer Vegetables was the course from Jon & Vinny, who were not only at the restaurant but aproned up in the kitchen, cooking and hanging out. The playful circular plating of the elements in this dish was delightful and the pork toro was aptly named —just as silky and special as it sounds. This one was a celebration.
By the time we got to dessert, we were bombed — we had partaken in the wine pairings and the pours had been…substantial — but a few bites of the Burned Sugar and Rosemary Ice Cream was irresistible. Josh’s Foie Gras Stroopwafel made me proud, because it’s delicious and adorable and thoughtful, like he is. Having ample wine streaming through my veins, I so felt emboldened to sneak one into my purse.
We had friends and acquaintances around us, and soon the evening turned social. I met Erik Anderson for the first time. I met Jon & Vinny for the first time, mostly in passing, but I had a chance to thank them for their generosity and to see the twinkle in their eyes. For real, they are just so special. They love life and share that with others. I hope for more time with them in the future.
I wish we had a Netflix-style special ending with everyone telling boozy stories around a fire, but we didn’t do that. We were very satisfied and sleepy. Vinny, Erik and Josh all had early flights, and there was a general consensus that the evening had been a great success. Hugs were given, and we returned to the Chateau and climbed back in our fancy bed. I wish you all could have been there. But only at the dinner. Not in our fancy bed. That would have been too much.