Unorthodox combinations await at this recently opened downtown restaurant.
Tom Yum mushrooms are served with luscious burrata. Duck bao buns are topped with pungent blue cheese. Lobster udon are topped with until-you-say-‘when’ parmesan (spoiler alert: I’m never saying ‘when’).
Adding cheese to East Asian dishes is but one expression of the impertinence Animae was built on.
Developed by the Puffer Malarkey Collective (who also introduced Herb & Wood in Little Italy), partner/owner Brian Malarkey and executive chef/partner Joe Magnanelli wanted to surprise guests with a little thoughtful irreverence.
In addition to surprising flavor combinations, the pair have also eschewed popular wood-fired ovens in favor of a Mibrasa oven, in which dishes are cooked over charcoal.
The 7,600 square foot dining room was designed to be a stage for the creative dishes, with plush booths, curtains, and carpet ensuring that no discomfort or excessive noise will distract you from the menageries that will appear on your plate.
A crisp and refreshing snow pea salad is meant to awaken your palate with light, bright flavors. The delicate peas are served with mizuna (Japanese mustard greens) and mint, tossed in a nori vinaigrette, and topped with crunchy slivers of fried garlic.
For the Baja-Asian street corn, housemade kimchi adds a Korean spin to elote-style corn that’s warmed with pickled jicama and shallots and topped with togarashi and cotija cheese. Most notable in this dish is the texture, with corn that’s almost al dente, like a perfectly cooked pasta, thanks to that Mibrasa oven.
A bit heartier, are the pair of bao buns filled with roasted Mary’s duck, topped with blue cheese, and served with persimmon.
“Once the duck is cooked, we cure the duck leg first with sugar and salt and add some coriander, cilantro, and lime leaves,” explains Chef Magnanelli. “Then, we braise them in water, salt, vinegar, sugar and lemon grass. Then they are tossed with the maple miso and put in the Mibrasa oven so it gets this charcoal, smokey thing going for it.”
Tom Yum mushrooms, sourced from Mountain Meadow Mushrooms in Escondido, offer a hot and sour counterpoint to cool, creamy burrata. “Wanted to create the unexpected and make people ask why,” says Chef Magnanelli.
For dessert, black velvet charcoal sponge cake is the Instagram-favorite, but the chocolate pavlova might be the best dessert in San Diego.
Executive Pastry Chef Adrian Mendoza’s version, combines a chocolate meringue with a mouthwateringly tart yuzu mousse and coconut-custard lime sorbet. “The yuzu mousse is actually a custard curd that we make out of sugar, butter, yuzu juice, lemon zest for extra flavor, eggs and egg yolks,” says Chef Mendoza. “For the meringue, it’s just sugar and egg white that are swissed meringue-style. We don’t bake the meringue all the way through, that way it’s dry on the outside and creamy on the inside.”
The house specialty dessert (and Malarkey’s personal favorite) is the warm malasadas served with a Thai green curry ice cream that reveals bold layers of flavor from lemongrass, galangal, and Kaffir lime, which will alter your notions of what ice cream can be.
“Malasada dough is intensively mixed. We make it first thing in the morning everyday, so it has plenty of time to relax in the fridge. They’re generously filled with a coconut pudding that we make and then served with the Thai curry ice cream,” explains Chef Mendoza, who sees the dish as a labor of love that’s well worth the effort.
“The Thai curry ice cream has so many ingredients that go into it, including lots of aromatics that are all hand chopped and picked. I’d say in total, it probably takes about two hours of physical labor to make the ice cream.”
Skip wine and order the sake flight to sip alongside your dishes. Your server will whisper the profiles of each of the three sakes like she’s sharing missile launch codes, and even when the restaurant is completely full, you’ll hear every soft word, since Animae was designed to be San Diego’s quietest restaurant.
969 Pacific Highway, Downtown San Diego