I’m not very good at comparing meals. A distant, yet perfect meal tends to lose out to the one in front of my face. This is what I love about eating. Every time you sit down, there’s a good chance you’ll experience what may seem to be the best thing you’ve ever eaten, even if that’s not actually the case.
I remember once feeling like a particular peanut butter sandwich was the best thing I’d ever eaten. A few months ago, it was Dai Due’s biscuit with sausage and gravy. Later today, it may be something else. I’m okay with this.
In the case of Animal, I’m not going to fall into the “best ever” trap, even though I am tempted to. I will say this: Animal was one of my favorite meals of all time. (I’m not saying it wasn’t one of the best—but that would miss the point.)
Food has nothing to do with rationality. There’s no best and there’s no right. For me, there’s just the ongoing fear that I’ll end up hungry, forced to pick away at some low-fat salad topped with skinless chicken. (Anxiety rules most of my life. Food is no exception.) So I try to make the most out of every meal. After all, you can’t just skip around from dish to dish the way you can with mp3s or TV channels. It’s a one-shot deal, at least until the next meal a few hours later. You may as well enjoy yourself and not worry to much about being right.
These days, a lot of people are telling us what we should (or more often, shouldn’t) be eating. It’s telling that this advice is often described as how to eat right. It’s all done in the name of virtue. But the problem with these finger-waggers is that they take the fun out of food. They flip the lights on, unplug the stereo, and say, “Party’s over.” To these Culinary Ascetics, eating has nothing to do with taste or enjoyment. It’s a moral exercise in self-denial.
All of which brings me to Animal. Why was it one of my favorite meals ever? Because Animal points a middle finger in all the right directions.
First there’s this little disclaimer on the menu: “changes and modifications politely declined.” Animal is not trying to please you. They’re trying to change your life. You should let them.
Then there’s the spartan look of the place. Notice the absence of anything on the walls. Nothing superfluous. Nothing to distract from the food. Not even a sign.
Animal’s menu features a lot of small dishes that are best shared. So in fact, what I said earlier about not being able to skip around from dish to dish? That’s actually not true here.
Our meal started off with what I assume was some sort of practical joke, by which I mean there was no meat involved. Remember this restaurant is called Animal. It is a celebration of the carnivorous lifestyle, of the refined meathead school of cooking. So this dish, while delicious, was a bit like watching Michael Jordan play baseball. Impressive, but ultimately a diversion.
Next was a dish that is near and dear to our hearts: chicken liver toast. This interpretation had a smoother texture than the one we fell in love with at the Spotted Pig, but we had no complaints. The real food had begun.
Next up: fried pig ear, topped with a fried egg. This was the highlight of the night. I was so excited for this one I forgot to take the customary glamour shot before we dug in. Ever since eating this, I like to just say the phrase “fried pig ear” around vegetarians from time to time. Throws them off their game.
Quail has become one of Eliza’s favorite dishes lately. This one was fried. This was roughly when we stopped speaking to one another, focusing instead on licking all silverware and plates clean.
Pork belly sliders on brioche bun. Now things were getting weird. Do these guys have some kind of pleasure map of our minds? Seriously Animal. Get out of my brain. You’re starting to freak me out.
You may be the type of person that likes fois gras. You may also be the kind of person that likes biscuits and gravy. But even if you are both of these, you probably never thought about just putting one on top of the other. Well, Animal did. This is what I mean when I say that Animal points a middle finger in all the right directions. They’re not even going to humor you by discussing whether or not one should eat fois gras. They are instead going to blow your mind by putting it on top of a biscuit and gravy. Check and mate. You’re welcome.
I only recently learned of the existence of something called poutine, which according to Calvin Trillin is the unofficial national dish of Canada. It consists of French fries topped with gravy and cheese curds. Animal’s version was topped with oxtail meat. We had begun to lose steam, but this dish inspired us to soldier on.
We ordered only one entrée. In retrospect, it was utterly unnecessary. We ate only enough to confirm what we had realized early on in the night: Animal represents everything we love about food. It’s audacious, relentless, and unapologetically excessive. A meal eaten at Animal is a celebration, an endless parade of food. Just make sure you don’t bring anyone who wants to rain on it.