I was suspicious of Animae (969 Pacific Highway, Downtown). The cross-cultural Asian fusion concept seemed so very 20 years ago, and not necessarily in a good way. We’d been there before, as had Brian Malarkey with Burlap. Did we really need to do go there again?
Then I took one step into the place and it suddenly seemed to make sense. The décor was the first clue. Art deco stylings hinted at a something beyond the obvious. All the soft surfaces and big, cozy banquettes spoke of high-end New York places of yesteryear (and in a good way): comfortable, eclectic and sophisticated.
But did the food deliver on that promise. The first hint it would was a snow pea salad: a play on something of a Chinese classic. In the simple and perfect original, pea leaves are lightly wilted in garlic-infused oil and sauced with a bit of Shaoxing wine. How, I wondered, could Malarkey and Chef Joe Magnanelli improve on it? The answer was texture. They swapped slices of the snow peas themselves in for the leaves and crumbled garlic chips in for the oil. Herbs and a nori vinaigrette rounded out the flavor profile.
Snow Pea Salad at Animae.jpeg
Animae’s glazed black cod feels like it floats.
There’s a sense of opulence in what Animae does. Take, for example, the butter dumplings. The plate is covered with a sheet of wagyu beef carpaccio sprinkled with a layer of lemon zest and chives. This, in and of itself, would be a luxurious dish that might not have been completely out of place at Magnanelli’s former shop, Cucina Urbana. But then he crowns the carpaccio with a wild play on Chinese dumplings. Instead of a pork or shrimp filling these are stuffed with escargot: snails. It’s cross-cultural fusion, alright. There are, it seems, no rules except that it has to be delicious.
One of the best dishes on Animae’s menu was the glazed black cod. The fish itself was almost light and airy enough to float in the sunflower dashi. A Vietnamese caramel glaze lent sweetness to the dish and the black and white sesame seed garnish gave it textural interest.
Indeed, attention to textural detail was a through-line across the menu. Cocoa nibs, for example, provided texture to the Hiramasa crudo. That worked well. Far better than the pear compote which, frankly, overpowered the fish.
But it was the final savory dish—an off-menu special—that stole the show. Sous chef Quynh Nguyen’s purple Japanese purple yam gnocchi with Indonesian grilled peach sambal was as beautiful to look at as it was to eat. The flavors were perfectly balanced between the richness of the gnocchi, bit of heat from teardrop chiles and the sweetness of the sambal. The umami and funk of crab paste made it all work as one.
One of the fundamental problems of the cross-cultural Asian fusion movement was that it seemed, at times, to forget that the first duty of restaurant food was not to be fascinating. It’s first duty was to be delicious. And that, it seems, is something that was very much on the minds of Malarkey, Magnanelli and their team.
Yes, Animae is unabashedly a take on ’90s fusion. But it’s fusion that comes together.