Son of a Gun- Los Angeles, CA
That was my initial response when I first got wind that Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook of Animal Restaurant were opening up a seafood-focused eatery in West Hollywood. After all, I was likely the only food-obsessed dude in Los Angeles that questioned if the celebrated duo could pull it off. Yes, I adore Animal and have enjoyed numerous meals there over the past few years, but Vinny and Jon cooking seafood? I mean, they’re practically the patron saints of bacon!
Being an offal lover, I go to Dotolo and Shook’s hallowed eatery to indulge in a head-to-tail testosterone-laced tour de force of porcine goodness. Bring on the headcheese! Two orders of sweetbreads! More deep fried pig ears (topped with a fried egg, please)! And if I’m feeling particularly gluttonous, perhaps an order of biscuits topped with a slab of seared foie gras and covered in a maple-sausage gravy. It’s so luxuriously rich and flavorful my heart practically stops -both literally and figuratively- with every bite.
So Vinny and Jon cooking seafood? Outside of say, battered cod deep-fried in rendered pork fat, I had a hard time imagining the sight. This I had to try for myself.
My friends Steph, Mike, Alex, and
EricSteven were seated at the restaurant’s sole and spacious banquette set in a bay window near the entrance of the restaurant. One look at the cramped tables strewn across the rest of the restaurant and clearly this was the best seat in the house. Reserve this table if you can.
Our order of Smoked Steelhead Roe with Maple Cream and Pumpernickel arrived first. It was heavenly. Taken all together, it tasted like a deconstructed pumpernickel lox bagel. I nibbled at it slowly savoring the varying textures; crispy razor-thin shards of pumpernickel shattered between my teeth. Maple-flavored cream slathered my tongue, and the bursting of the smokey roe, releasing that addictive briny flavor? Sublime.
Next was Albacore with Sesame Seeds, Radish, and Citrus Soy. It seems like I see some version of raw albacore prepared with a tangy-sweet vinaigrette nearly everywhere I go. The best in recent memory was Ludo’s version at Ludobites 5.0; this was average– a bit too sweet for my liking (I prefer the sweet-tart flavors of ponzu), but the sesame seeds gave a nice hit of umami.
A lobster roll followed that was roughly the size and shape of a small russet potato; perhaps Vinny and Jon might want to reconsider its name. It’s not so much of a lobster roll as it is a lobster bite, as the potato chips perched on top nearly dwarfed the tiny roll. Quality mayonnaise melded sweet, tender lobster meat with various herbs; as good as any respectable lobster roll should be, but at $7 a bite, I’d rather make my own at home.
And then out of nowhere, It Arrived: the Fried Chicken Sandwich, with Spicy B&B Pickle Slaw and Rooster Aioli. My lame picture certainly does not do it justice; it was so good our waitress might as well have sounded trumpets upon it’s arrival. One bite left our table speechless and ten minutes later we ordered another one. The chicken was tender and juicy with a crunchy outer shell. Married with the crisp slivers of lettuce, tart pickles, and that addictive rooster aioli (I’m guessing sriracho mixed with mayo and some other herbs), I couldn’t help but think this is what Chick-Fil-A tastes like in heaven. I might love it as much as my mother (just kidding mom!).
Phenomenal shrimp toast arrived next. The incredibly sweet filling possessed perfect texture, neither too mushy or whole. The bread, likely equal parts butter and carbs, was decadent while the herbs and sriracha mayo kept the sandwich from getting too heavy. I’m certain there was a preternatural bond between the sandwich, my hands, and my mouth. Not a single crumb touched the plate until the sandwich was fully and gloriously consumed. I licked my fingers when I finished, and I’m sure you will too. If you’re looking to make the shrimp toast at home, my good friend Dylan of Eat, Drink + Be Merry made his homemade rendition. Looks like I’ll be in the kitchen this weekend!
The slew of dishes that arrived next were good but didn’t quite reach the stratospheric heights of the previous two sandwiches. Brook Trout Roe with Blueberry Buttermilk Sorbet, and Parsnip Crisps was an interesting play between savory and sweet but nothing I haven’t seen before.
Grouper with herbs, lime, bok choy, in a Pho Fumet tasted like the fish was poached an intensely herbal broth spiked with galangal, lemongrass, and basil. Vietnamese-inspired and perfect in execution but somehow soulless. Perhaps a part of my brain longed to be slurping the soup while sitting in a cramped, sticky table in Westminster (the Vietnam of Los Angeles) for the full experience.
A plate of Alligator Schnitzel, Heart of Palm, and Orange was interesting, with the reptile tasting like frog legs but with a firmer texture closer to veal. I liked those the accompanying citrus brightened up the innovative dish, and I certainly wouldn’t mind trying this a few more times.
Linguini and Clams with Aglio-Olio and Breadcrumbs resonated with the heat of garlic and coddled my palate with the sweetness of the uni and clams. A satisfying dish but an ingenious twist but I certainly wouldn’t brave rush-hour traffic for it.
The one standout entree was Mussels with Tarragon, Fennel, and Pernod. My mother, the consummate mussels fan in my family, would have adored this. She wouldn’t have to shell them, the mussels were perfectly tender, and the broth was intensely aromatic, with the Pernod imbuing the dish with a licorice-like undertone that matched very well with the sweetness of the fennel.
Desserts were quite good, starting with a Frozen Lime Yogurt with Graham Crumbled and Toasted Meringue that tasted like a deconstructed key lime pie, only better. Replacing the traditional key lime filing with lime yogurt turned out to be a genius move– tangy and refreshing vs cloyingly sweet? Sign me up. A Flourless Chocolate Cake with Caramelized Banana and Coconut Ice Cream was also a pleasant experience, with bits of peanuts the key ingredient in tying together the caramelized banana, chocolate, and ice cream. Perhaps this was Vinny and Jon’s take on a banana split sundae?
But leave it up to the two Dudes who “raised Boy Food to the level of a genuine cuisine” to make the crowning achievement of this night’s desserts the Hoboken Special, essentially chocolate ice cream with pineapple soda poured on top. No frills here with the staff serving you the pineapple soda in its Fanta can.
I’m at a loss for words to describe how good this is. After all, I’m not Jonathan Gold. You just need to try it. It’s like a sophisticated root beer float, with the traditional drivers of the flavor inverted. Instead of the sweetness coming from vanilla ice cream, it came from the pineapple soda, and instead of the slight bitterness coming from the root beer, it came from the chocolate ice cream. Whatever the case, it’s simply mind-bendingly good, with each frothy pineappley-chocolatey-bite more awe-worthy than the last.
So what do I think about Vinny and Jon cooking seafood? They do a damned good job! Whereas Animal wowed with gourmet preparations of Dude Food, Son of a Gun shows impressive restraint (I didn’t spy bacon anywhere on the menu!), resulting in an arguably more mature, graceful, elegant, and refined cuisine.
Comparisons to Animal will inevitably ensue, but one thing is for sure– whether with bacon, seafood, fried chicken sandwiches, or hoboken specials, Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook clearly show no contempt for the pleasure principle and understand dinner’s highest calling: to taste great.