Just about a year ago Logan Square's Osteria Langhe emerged as a unique specimen among an overwhelming and frequently confounding menagerie of Italian restaurants. Scottish-born chef Cameron Grant lived and trained in Piedmont, where he absorbed the traditions of that particular hallowed regional cuisine, and put those values on display at Osteria Langhe with excellent product, proper portioning, restrained saucing, and rigorous pasta making, tempered with an impulse to innovate that very rarely overreaches.
This kind of effort doesn't come cheap, so in an apparent move to bring Cameron's food to an audience that might feel priced out of the mothership, he and owner Aldo Zaninotto have opened a quick-serve counter-service operation under the Western Blue Line station, in the space vacated by a short-lived, ill-conceived Asian burrito joint. Though not to be confused with Los Angeles's offal-centric Animal, Animale also traffics in a surprising amount of off bits for a restaurant with such a tight menu. That's along with some extraordinary pastas that rival those you'd find in the more rarefied environs of Osteria Langhe, plus a selection of panini that showcase Grant's willingness and ability to go off the ranch without corrupting the purity and intent of Italian culinary custom.
Animale gives Grant a venue in which to continue pushing the limits of the Italian cucina, starting from a solid foundation and taking off on creative flights of fancy, transforming, for example, a caprese salad into a sandwich with an oozing deep-fried mozzarella puck that serves as a base for his "house poultry" (an amalgam of shaved duck breast and chicken breast and thigh that appears winningly in other dishes) as well as a basil salsa verde and tomato fonduta dip. His carbonara panini is built with a lightly cured pancetta—almost like roast pork—sweet caramelized onions, Parmigiano, and a sunny-side up egg. The only hitch with these fine sandwiches was the focaccia supporting them, unpleasantly soft and given a less assiduous crisping than the same bread when used as a bun for the burger, which we'll get to shortly.
To add a texture to his firm potato gnocchi, Grant crumbles potato chips onto the mound of salty, savory goodness, the sweet acidity of grape tomatoes balancing the barnyard perfume of Taleggio. This free hand with tradition in the service of clearly conceived audacious departures is a pleasure to experience. And there don't seem to be any duds on the menu, not even when Grant nods to the more conventional items hungry commuters might expect at a quick stop: the burger, two thin griddled patties with fontina, pickles, and marrow-infused "savage sauce," is topped with thick, crusty focaccia that owes its crackly charm to a spell on the flattop. Same goes for the fries, here called "chunky puppies," more English chips than anything else. They're thick cut and battered before frying to achieve a rough crispiness that helps the aforementioned marrow sauce adhere, then given a poutinelike treatment, smothered with pancetta, peppers, onions, Calabrian chiles, arugula, fontina, and an egg. Meanwhile saffron risotto is wrapped around Gorgonzola and deep-fried, the gooey interior running out to mingle with a garnish of pink peppercorn-basil cream.
As with the gnocchi, Cameron's superb pasta-making skill is in evidence. Thick, ribbony pappardelle can stand on its own even without its appealing ragu of Wagyu beef cheeks. Cameron doesn't mess with his signature plin, delicate, ethereal ravioli stuffed with molten, funky La Tur cheese (a Piedmontese specialty), though an order runs $15, a dollar more than it does at Osteria Langhe.
But the most astonishing thing about Animale is its devotion to offal in such a casual environment. Seared rabbit livers mingle with Madeira-sauteed mushrooms on crispy toast. Firm blood sausages are wrapped snug in puff pastry and served over black lentils—pigs in the blanket from the depths of the Inferno. Diced Wagyu beef tongue is braised in acidic puttanesca sauce, while stewy, clean-tasting tripe teems with jalapeños and pancetta. Juicy sweetbreads are wrapped in bacon, deep-fried tempura style, and served on crisp boats of endive with spicy honey mustard. Guts to go never tasted so good.
What's odd is that this worthy and unusual food is found in a place that so departs from traditional restaurant service. You order at the counter, and sometimes you pay there, while on other occasions you might pay at the table when you're finished. You take a number and seat yourself in one of the booths that run alongside the open kitchen, from which blow waves of heat that can render the seating area stiflingly hot. Before you can blink a server arrives with all your food on warped disposable bamboo serviceware. Coursing is an obsolete relic here.
I'm sure the system works for the restaurant. There are far fewer servers to pay, and the ones that are present have a lot less to do than in a full-service restaurant. But from the diner's point of view it seems a little cockeyed. Perhaps the vision for the place is that it'll be a commuter haven (the occasional homeless encampment under the bus shelter certainly keeps it real), with grab-and-go or a quick sit-down weekday dinner replacing one's last-minute Costco chicken and bagged salad. But it feels like a mismatch to compromise the basics of restaurant service when such clearly uncompromising culinary talent is at work behind the pass. Still, it's hard to complain about the setup if it gets Grant's outstanding food into more mouths. v