Animae: A New Restaurant from Celebrity Chef Brian Malarkey

“Opulent” is the word I’ve seen most often used to describe Animae. Brian Malarkey’s “opulent” pan-Asian restaurant, where everything is over the top in a glitzy, decidedly extra way, bordering on gaudy. Admittedly, it seems less glittery at night than I expected it to after seeing photos taken during the day, and the result is an elegant, almost understated (but not quite), upscale atmosphere.

The restaurant plays on both Asian-inspired roots and the chefs’ own backgrounds, resulting in dishes like coconut-based curry flavors combined with Italian ingredients. Though Malarkey eschews the phrase “Asian fusion,” each dish combines an Asian base with at least one other influence. Is it as innovative as Malarkey and partner Joe Magnanelli envisioned, or just trying too hard?

Thai Tai—milk-washed rum, Thai tea, citrus liqueur, orgeat, lime

To start, Animae’s cocktail game is strong. The Thai Tai is my ideal tropical drink, and the lemongrass gin & tonic successfully brightened up a classic G&T without being too savory or herbal. I’ve heard good things about the Japanese highball, too. It’d be worth the trip just to come here for drinks, even if you didn’t stay for dinner.

Where the meal broke down for me was not so much the food—which on the whole was tasty, some of it intriguing, one or two things absolutely mind-blowing—but the service and the overall experience. Service was generally good, attentive, and it’s the kind of place where they fold your napkin for you whenever you leave the table. But when asking our waiter for his recommendations—and even sometimes when we didn’t ask—we found ourselves privy to a very long lecture about each dish, describing each textural component, waxing poetic about the ingredients, and promising the most mind-blowing gastronomic experiences we would have in our lives. It was as if the restaurant itself knew it was trying too hard. The longer he went on, the more uncomfortable we got. I felt like I was listening to an annoying food blogger (aka me) describe a dish that they had clearly eaten and dissected, and that I would never have the chance to. It felt like a parody of itself. If we had been able to experience each dish without the accompanying 20-minute prologue, I suspect we would have enjoyed our meal even more.

Order this: hiramasa with watermelon yuzu aguachile. Each bite of this yellowtail crudo packed a bright, citrusy punch. The fish was substantial enough to stand up to the dressing, but delicate enough to fall apart in your mouth. We shared this dish among four of us but I would have happily eaten the entire thing.

Skip this: snow pea salad with nori vinaigrette and garlic crunch. Our waiter tried to sell us on this one. It was good, but not something I’d order a second time. I think next time I’d try the grilled avocado for a similar vegetal effect.

Order this: butter dumplings with beef carpaccio. A dish that could be considered Animae’s signature, the xiao long bao here are filled not with soup, but with brown butter. You poke a hole in the dumpling and let the brown butter ooze over and slightly “cook” the carpaccio. Our waiter promised that this would be a dish that we’d keep thinking about for the next two weeks. I’m sorry to say that I probably won’t. I haven’t even thought much about it in the last two days. It was good; very good, in fact. The carpaccio peeled apart like tissue paper, and each bite had a hint of lemon that cut through the richness of the brown butter. The butter inside was a bit more solid than I expected, and it was didn’t really add much more to the dish than… well, the taste of brown butter. It was simply a case of overpromise and underdeliver for me.

Order this: tom yum mushrooms with burrata. They cook down tom yum soup to the consistency of a paste, then toss the mushrooms in it. The addition of burrata achieves the Asian-but-also-somewhat-Italian effect. If you get a bite with a piece of cilantro in it, it really does taste like Thai tom yum soup.

Order this: Korean fried chicken. Deliciously crispy on the outside and moist and piping hot on the inside, the main component of this build-your-own bao was a delight. I only wish we had a fourth bun to fit our table of four.

Skip this: duck confit. The skin wasn’t crispy, leaving pockets of chewy fat. It was underwhelming.

Order this: black garlic udon noodle with lobster. I think this was the most inventive and intriguing main dish. Spicy, with a good amount of both broth and lobster. The black garlic made the noodles a little bit sweet and lent that umami flavor to the dish.

Order this: malasadas with Thai green curry ice cream. This dessert was described as the “butter dumplings of dessert,” and to me, it delivered. This is the one that I found most intriguing, that I kept taking bites of for the sake of intellectual curiosity. How does the green curry ice cream work? That’s what I keep thinking about, not the butter dumplings. It is exactly what it sounds like, green curry made into dessert. It retains all the savoriness of green curry, but was sweet enough to work as an ice cream. The malasadas were filled with a coconut custard that paired nicely with the passion fruit. I only wish there had been a bit more passion fruit; it got lost in the rest of the dish.

Skip(?) this: chocolate pavlova. I’m torn on this one. It was good, but felt like it had one component too many. One step too far. One extra unnecessary thing that prevented it from being totally successful. It feels like a metaphor for the restaurant as a whole.

It came out to $100/person, which wasn’t bad considering we’d each had multiple drinks. Bring friends, so you can share everything family style. All in all, I’d return to Animae for a special occasion to try more of the cocktail list and maybe the purple potato pain d’epi and the duck bao bun.

More eating in San Diego…

Warm brussels caesar with fried chicken

Common Stock

The geometric chicken on their logo says it all: this is a place that understands fried chicken.

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