By Frank Sabatini Jr.
In the occasional attempts made by San Diego restaurants (steakhouses in particular) to create luxurious atmospheres beckoning to the days of formal dining, something always seems amiss. Either the seats aren’t cushy enough, the lighting is harsh, the use of steel and concrete is excessive, or most often, soundproofing is sorely lacking.
At the splendidly designed Animae, such faux pas are avoided. It’s where diners can sink their tushies into $5.5 million worth of comfort while supping on pan-Asian cuisine stamped largely with big, complex flavors.
Heavy draperies and plush carpeting flow amid furnishings and décor that brilliantly mesh together accents from the Art Deco and midcentury periods. Compared to so many hyped restaurants that have hit the local scene over the past couple decades, Animae defies them all in style and comfort. Even in a full house, there’s enough space between tables and circular booths to allow for audible conversation.
Staying true to fine-dining haunts from a century ago, there is no open kitchen. So what you don’t see are the charcoal-fueled grill and oven working their magic on various proteins, or the noodle-making skills of executive chef Joe Magnanelli, who partnered with designer-entrepreneur Chris Puffer and celebrity chef Brian Malarkey to open Animae late last year.
The venture falls into the portfolio of the Puffer Malarkey Collective, which owns Herb & Wood, Herb & Eatery, Farmer & The Seahorse, and Herb & Sea. It is anchored in Downtown’s spanking new Pacific Gate luxury condo building.
Magnanelli honed his pasta skills while working as executive chef for San Diego’s Urban Kitchen Group, which operates a fleet of Italian-style “Cucina” establishments. Although he wasn’t on duty the night of our visit, which might explain why the black garlic udon noodles with lobster we ordered didn’t rank among our meal’s epic dishes. More on that in a moment.
Several starters, however, were spellbinding.
A snow pea salad with Japanese mustard greens, fresh mint and crunchy bits of garlic offered an orchestra of flavors tied together by nori-vinaigrette. Refreshing, grassy and teasingly tangy, the medley was as ultra-healthy as it was delicious.
A bowl of Baja-inspired street corn tossed in almonds, Japanese chili spice (togarashi) and kimchi aioli is the mother of all corn recipes with its varied textures, zesty kick, and buttery essence obtained by finely grated Cotija cheese. The Mexican-Asian fusion worked seamlessly.
Nutty-tasting “forbidden black rice” is the bedding for kung pao prawns, which are given a Hawaiian twist with sun-dried pineapple. Broccolini, lotus root, chilies and white sesame seeds played keenly into the scheme while elevating it way above ho-hum versions of Chinese kung pao.
As a lover of meats cooked over charcoal, the honey-lime chicken skewer sent me over the moon. The charred flavor of the meat (all thigh pieces) ran deep — almost more so than chicken cooked over briquettes at backyard barbecues. Lively papaya slaw underneath was a fitting bonus.
Yet my craving for udon noodles was met with disappointment. Cloaked in an appealing bisque-like sauce and strewn with chunks of lobster — some of them overcooked — the noodles were too dense and clumpy for my liking. Served al dente, a friend who ordered the same dish a week later said her noodles were also overly weighty. And the promise of black garlic went missing.
Our desserts returned us to the level of sensationalism from which we began. A long, rectangular platter was the vessel for “East meets West” featuring a lineup of petite confections such as chai cookies, rum-soaked butter cake, ponzu caramels, a matcha madeleine, and more.
Equally ravishing was a fluffy puck of chocolate pavlova with yuzu mousse and coconut-lime ice cream. Every forkful tasted delightfully different from the last.
Animae’s menu is a study in originality, which one should expect when a European-leaning chef like Magnanelli finds himself working under the partial direction of a showman-chef like Malarkey. Their offerings are meant to deliver flavor surprises, whether it’s in a whole fried snapper accented with citrus, fennel and olives, or butter dumplings served over beef carpaccio — dishes on my radar for a second visit.
Better yet, the ambiance within this high-ceiling space returns you to the glory days of fine dining, and with just the right amount of whimsy tossed into the mix.
969 Pacific Highway
Prices: Starters (hot and cold), $7 to $22; noodle and rice dishes, $16 to $34; meat and seafood entrees, $27 to $160
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.