05 Aug Please The Palate Pick of the Week: Dining at Animo in Sonoma
Just west of downtown Sonoma, on Sonoma Highway, is a white-painted building that looks like a former taqueria. A McDonald’s is on one side and Smog & Auto Shop is on the other. And there are no exterior signs. But this nondescript venue is a destination. It is home to Animo Restaurant. A friend had mentioned this restaurant to me so we dined there a few months ago when I was in Sonoma. There were just two of us and we shared a number of dishes but could only tackle the Starters to Share section. But everything was so flavorful and delicious that I knew I had to go back, and next time with a larger group, so that we could try things from the Parrilla menu. So, this past week, I was back in Sonoma and this time ate at Animo with a larger group of people. The food was delicious and the atmosphere energetic, and Animo in Sonoma is the Please The Palate pick of the week.
Animo, owned by Chef Joshua Smookler and his wife Heidy He, features an eclectic menu that melds Basque and Korean cuisines with high-quality ingredients from local farmers. Chef Joshua Smookler and Heidy He, alums of Per Se and Buddakan, owned the popular Mu Ramen in Long Island City before it was closed during the pandemic. They moved from New York to the small-town community of Sonoma and opened Animo in 2022. The name is inspired by the Latin term “ex animo”, which means “of the heart, sincerely” and Animo showcases flavors and dishes that Chef Smookler and He love to eat. Animo has been open for only a year and is already listed in the Michelin Guide.
The decor of the restaurant is minimalist. But there is also an inviting warmth. There is a large cooking hearth open to the dining area. Stacks of wood sit next to the hearth and cuts of meat hang in a glass cooler next to the wood. One wall is lined with row upon row of fresh apples. This “aromatic art” piece was inspired by chef David Douley and pays homage to Smookler and He’s former life in the “Big Apple”. And each week the “bad” apples are removed and donated to a local farm to feed animals.
From the moment of arriving at our table, the hospitality is felt. The menu on the table is personalized with the guest’s name and date. Service is overseen by He who skillfully and gracefully works the floor. Chef Smookler can be seen tending the stoves but he also comes to the tables.
Many dishes are served family-style, which is why it was great to come back with a group of six as were able to try dishes from the entire menu. Between two visits to Animo, I have enjoyed almost every dish from the Starters to Share section.
Starters to Share
Fresh East Coast oysters are served with one of the most savory and delicious mignonettes I have had.
Crudo (thinly sliced yellowtail, sea urchin, yuzu evoo, truffle) – Sea urchin, truffle, and yuzu can all be powerful flavors but the delicacy of the yellowtail was not overpowered, rather there was bright umami flavor.
Sugar Snap Peas (charred, sesame salt) – We could smell the sesame salt wafting in the air before the sugar snap peas arrived at the table. I could snack on these peas all day!
White Asparagus (jumbo asparagus from France with wild mushrooms and morels, hollandaise) – When white asparagus is in season, you order it. Thick, rich stalks of asparagus topped with creamy hollandaise and mushrooms are decadent.
Grilled Mushrooms (hen of the woods, yuzu, sesame seasoning, and egg) – For my second visit in July, white asparagus is no longer in season. Instead, it was the earthy Hen of the Wood mushrooms which we picked up by hand and dragged through the sesame seasoning and egg for utter deliciousness.
Lobster XO (butter poached lobster, XO sauce, shitake lemongrass tea, rice) – This is a signature dish at Animo. The umami flavors of the XO sauce with the citrus notes as well as the delicacy of the tea, I just love the combination of flavors.
Manila Clams (Spanish chorizo, aioli, dipping sauce) – The clams are in a spicy broth with chorizo. The idea is to take the clams by hand and use them as a spoon in the dipping sauce, which is a fish sauce. That dipping sauce, tangy with sweet notes, is incredible.
Boquerones Toasts (sourdough, basil, white anchovies, grape tomatoes) – With the mild, sweet flavor of the anchovies and the grape tomatoes, these toasts are fresh and delicious.
From the Parilla to Share
The Parilla section of the menu offers large portions of meat and fish that are cooked on the open fire. As these dishes are large, they are best shared with a group of people. The protein dishes feature local Flannery beef, heritage Iberico pork from Texas, Liberty duck from Sonoma, lamb from Marin County, and dry-aged turbot from Galicia, Spain.
Turbot – The whole fish is grilled on the parilla. The meat is tender and light and the skin very crispy.
Dry Aged Duck Crown – The Liberty duck from Sonoma is a 21-day dry-aged whole duck that is roasted. The skin was crispy and there was a citrus sauce. The duck legs are confit. And the duck was served with Lyonnaise potatoes and a gem salad.
Kimchi Rice is another signature dish at Animo. The kimchi fried rice with a fried egg on top also has Katz’s Deli Pastrami, an ode to New York.
Basque Cheesecake – The burnt cheesecake with Asian pear is the only dessert on the menu. The cheese cake is so creamy and delicious but not sweet. It is the perfect end to a meal at Animo.
At Animo, each dish is so flavorful and the ambiance is so welcoming. I have had two amazing meals at Animo and am sure I will have more, as this place is definitely on my radar for when I am Sonoma!
18976 Sonoma Hwy.
Sonoma, 95476, USA