Believe the buzz about Sonoma’s Animo Restaurant

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At the Animo Restaurant in Sonoma, there is no exterior signage.

It could be a sneaky nod to its exclusivity or that owners Josh Smookler and Heidy Mu He can’t afford it yet.

One of the busiest openings of the year, Animo has taken Wine Country by storm, with its whole Spanish turbot, Iberian pork, striking apple wall and wood-fired meals appearing on the Instagram page. of almost all the local chiefs.

But look past the gleaming parrilla and dry-aging cabinets and you’ll see a repurposed picnic table beneath the butcher paper and glassware. There’s a cracked window, a hastily redecorated bathroom, mismatched chairs, and a bench seat from Craigslist.

Animo is a moonshot for the young couple who moved their family from New York to California, sold everything (including Mu He’s engagement ring) and put their future on the line for a 26-seat restaurant that defies any precise definition.

It’s kind of Basque with touches of Korean, but that’s about all they’ll go for to nail their vision. Smookler is the kind of cook who doesn’t mind flying to Texas to investigate a pack of acorn-eating pigs for his soup bones or aging a piece of steak for 462 days just to see what happens. past.

“There is no real definition, and why does it need to be defined?” said Smookler, a veteran of some of New York’s top restaurants, such as former Bouley and chef Thomas Keller’s Per Se.

The thrill for them with Animo is recreating special meals from their travels and with an evolving culinary scene that embraces diverse cultures and flavors.

“I still believe in total commitment,” said Smookler, who spent two weeks sleeping on patio furniture inside the unheated restaurant before it opened. “We couldn’t afford a hotel.”

The best ramen in New York

Animo’s enthusiastic reception by the culinary community here is the result, in part, of a 2014 New York Times restaurant review naming the couple’s pop-up, Mu Ramen, the best ramen shop in New York City. .

Although Mu Ramen was cautious to see if the neighborhood could support a ramen shop, Smookler obsessively searched for the best bones for his tonkotsu ramen stock, praised reviewer Pete Wells.

But not all press is good, and within hours of the review’s publication, Smookler received nearly 2,000 booking requests, stifling business and leaving readers furious at Wells for killing Mu Ramen.

And although the couple had a thriving brick-and-mortar place less than a year later, Smookler quickly lost interest. A crush of people wanting quick bowls of ramen at a breakneck pace left the couple exhausted.

“We just couldn’t control things and were working a lot. I was so sick of ramen. It just didn’t get me up in the morning,” Smookler said. In 2020, as the pandemic raged, they closed the restaurant, depleting their savings, he said.

Mu He worked at Panda Express to help pay the bills. “We were so desperate,” she said.

Gambas al ajillo, includes shrimp, roasted garlic and olive oil, at Animo, a restaurant in Sonoma, Calif., on Wednesday, March 30, 2022. (Photo by Darryl Bush/For The Press Democrat)

“We want to be a gem”

Now Smookler cooks what he’s passionate about.

Turbot, a fish that looks like it has been steamed into a flat pancake, is a chef’s fish that Smookler calls “the most special fish of my life.” Aged briefly, the delicate white meat is cooked over hot coals, with rising and falling racks to control the heat. Served boneless on a white platter, this is a very impressive dish ($130).

For the pork dish ($56), the meat comes from Iberian pigs raised by La Grange, Texas-based Acorn Seekers, a cult food producer that Smookler has supported for years.

“Let’s find the best ingredients, and like a child, how do we maximize its potential?” I just want to make clean, simple food with the best ingredients,” Smookler said.

“The menu is an agreement that I make with the guests. If I don’t do my best, if it doesn’t go well, I don’t charge,” he said.

Mu He takes care of the front of the house and although she is comfortable in the kitchen, she creates welcoming hospitality for each guest, whether it is a deep bow to the Japanese guests or a a broad smile for the regulars.

But rather than fighting for Michelin stars or haute cuisine, the couple want to be part of the community.

“We want to make people proud of a restaurant like ours in Sonoma. We want them to think we’re a gem,” Smookler said.

It means the same courtesy for someone who only has a glass of wine and an appetizer as for a table of eight ordering hundreds of dollars worth of food.

“We just want everything to be magical,” Mu He said.

Best bets

The menu is short but difficult to discover in one go. The turbot is a great place to start if you like fish, but the meatier pork is cooked to medium-rare and is an experience. You’ll be tempted to overdo it with entrees, and they’re excellent.

Boquerone toast, $14: Here is an example of the specificity of the Smookler kitchen. The tiny grape tomatoes are peeled before roasting for the smoothest flavor, the anchovies on top are creamy and light, and the toast is slightly crispy – a must.

Kimchee fried rice, $16: A nod to Smookler’s heritage (he was born in Korea and raised by a Jewish family), but more simply a tasty addition to the meal, with pastrami from Katz’s grocery store in New York.

Asparagus, $14: This spring veggie will probably be off the menu, but Smookler has a magic way with veggies that brings out their flavors rather than smothering them in sauce.

There is a chance that Animo, like Mu Ramen, will fall victim to its success with so much attention so soon. Hopefully Smookler’s well-researched menu and dedication to the kitchen helps them stand up to the admiration.

18976 Sonoma Highway, Sonoma. Instagram: @animo_restaurant. Parking is limited. Reservations are strongly recommended through OpenTable.

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