Ora king salmon crudo dish
I missed out on the first iteration of Animae. I was traveling when the lavish, 5.5 million dollar restaurant hosted a media preview, and was still tucking away pennies to splurge on a high-end dinner there when the pandemic showed up to shut down the restaurant, and fine dining as we know it.
969 Pacific Highway, San Diego
Animae is a rather posh-looking, special occasion restaurant from the Puffer-Malarkey restaurant group. That’s the team responsible for Little Italy’s Herb & Wood, the wood fire restaurant that has become a personal favorite for special occasions since opening a few years back.
The Malarkey here would be Brian Malarkey, a local TV chef most recently seen on Top Chef All Stars. But the opening chef behind coal-fire kitchen of Animae was former Cucina Urbana chef Joe Magnanelli. However, between the time Animae closed in Mid-March and re-opened in mid-August, Magnanelli had exited.
Wagyu beef carpaccio
So, for its return Animae had a new menu, created by a new chef. That would be Nate Appleman, who brings with him a rather interesting national profile. Since being named a James Beard rising chef in 2009, he’s gone on to take the culinary lead at the likes of Chipotle fast food, an airport food service company, and the Umami burger chain.
That Appleman has retained his fine dining chops is evident when the first round of appetizers show up at the table. The colorful ora king salmon dish ($18) has quickly become an Instagram favorite. Further blurring the lines between sashimi and crudo, the richly hued, raw salmon is sprinkled with puffed rice and contrasted with preserved apricot and green serrano chilis. A fermented sauce, yuzu kosho, balances the buttery fish with a hit of acid.
Dungeness crab with papadum, tamarind, and vadouvan butter
Even better, and nearly as photogenic, is a Southeast Asian-inspired wagyu beef carpaccio ($17). Like Herb & Wood before it, Animae puts outstanding ingredients front and center, and the raw, thinly sliced beef almost over-performs, dressed with a sprinkling of toasted jasmine rice, ginger, lemon cucumbers, mint, radish, tomatoes, and chilis. Your party will fight over the last bite.
Another shared plate that shines is the Indian-styled Dungeness crab, served under crispy papadum flatbread, with a trio of condiments, including a vadouvan butter good enough to recalibrate my entire understanding of curry. I worried the spices would overpower the delicacy of the crab, but they paired beautifully.
Seaweed and miso butter steamed buns
To review the Animae experience properly, I should probably discuss entrees, but to be honest, the skirt steak and lobster pasta entrees I tried were overshadowed by the shared plates and appetizers. I would never expect to heap greater praises on a simple plate of steamed buns over lobster, but the adorable little $6 seaweed and miso butter bao are done to perfection.
And, maybe it says more about my tastes than Appleman’s talent, but his lemongrass pork sausage rates among the best sausages I’ve eaten anywhere, Bavaria included. It’s served with roasted chilis and a strawberry infused version of sambal, the Indonesian chili paste.
Lemongrass pork sausage with strawberry sambal
You might need to order from the wagyu steak portion of the menu to outdo that sausage for pure savory bliss, and the sausage is made that much better for the bright inclusion of strawberries.
Indoor dining may be allowed, and Animae’s glamorous million dollar dining room might make it worthwhile, but while outdoor dining remains intact, a special occasion dinner at Animae’s Marina-adjacent location could be the best meal you’ll eat downtown this season, whether or not you make it to the entrée section.
Pro tip: the whole setup pairs well with champagne and an engagement ring.