May 23, 2022

AmericanHummus

Food & Travel Enthusiast

Korean American and Basque cuisines go surprisingly well together at this new Sonoma restaurant

I really enjoy the look on people’s faces when I try to explain Animo, a restaurant that quietly opened on Sonoma County’s Highway 12 earlier this year.

It’s got the feel of a Basque seaside restaurant, I say, but the chefs are more of an open book than that sounds. Yes, there’s gorgeous seafood, the creatures’ skin and shells noisily cracked and blistered over a super-hot wood fire, as is the thing in Basque country. But you pair those dishes with kimchi fried rice, mixed with pastrami flown in from New York City, or steamed Manila clams, served with chorizo and a vibrant and fishy dipping sauce of nam jim.

That’s all to say that Animo, led by owners Heidy Mu He and Joshua Smookler, is a singular sort of restaurant. Not only because of its unique menu, which is executed by the team with finesse worthy of a fine dining restaurant. What makes it notable is how well it occupies a culinary middle ground in a region where restaurants with ambition generally focus on courting tourists and Michelin inspectors.


The pastrami fried rice at Animo, Friday, April 22, 2022, in Sonoma, Calif.


Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

The ribeye steak (dry-aged for 45 days before cooking) at Animo, Friday, April 22, 2022, in Sonoma, Calif.

The ribeye steak (dry-aged for 45 days before cooking) at Animo, Friday, April 22, 2022, in Sonoma, Calif.


Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle


Top photo: Chef and co-owner Josh Smookler prepares grilled turbot, a flatfish imported from Spain, in the kitchen of his restaurant, Animo, in the city of Sonoma. Above left: Kimchi fried rice comes in a stone bowl with luxurious slabs of pastrami sourced from Katz’s Delicatessen in New York City and topped with a sunny-side up egg. Above right: The rib eye steak is dry-aged for 45 days before cooking. Photos by Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

On the contrary, without an elaborate resort setting or other high-end Wine Country touches, Animo seems engineered toward locals hoping for a nice night out to eat something special. Though for anyone outside of the North Bay, those qualities also make it well worth the drive.

At its best, dinner at Animo is a torrent of sensations and little moments that will make you throw back your head in delight.

In Smookler’s riff on Japanese ochazuke ($45), there’s the tender bite of perfect, pearlescent rice that holds its own in a dish where butter-poached lobster is the headliner. But then your attention is seized by the tiny haystacks of XO sauce, rich with savory shreds of ham and dried seafood. The rice and lobster are an island in a sea of shiitake and lemongrass tea rippling with earthy and citrusy aromas.

With the aim of experiencing as much as I can, I rarely order the same thing twice when I scout out restaurants, though here I had to repeat myself with the sugar snap peas ($12). Usually, those juicy seasonal treats are treated plainly: maybe sliced into a salad or blanched to serve with beurre blanc. But here, the peas catch a direct glimpse of fire, the spots of char granting a slight bitterness that works well with their vegetal sweetness.

Animo owners Josh Smookler and Heidy Mu He bring a casual, welcoming vibe to their small but singular Sonoma restaurant. He has a ready smile and manages the small dining room while Smookler takes any chance he can get to chat with customers.

Animo owners Josh Smookler and Heidy Mu He bring a casual, welcoming vibe to their small but singular Sonoma restaurant. He has a ready smile and manages the small dining room while Smookler takes any chance he can get to chat with customers.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

Another rice dish, a kimchi fried rice ($20) served in a stone bowl, is rife with elemental delights. Instead of bacon or Spam, it’s fortified with luxurious, rosy slabs of pastrami sourced from Katz’s Delicatessen, the legendary Jewish deli in New York City. The glistening yolk of the sunny-side up egg laid on top is just waiting for you to break and stir it into the rice. The dish is a tongue-in-cheek autobiography of the chef, a Korean adoptee raised in a Jewish household in Long Island. Simple, but exceptional in all the right ways, this dish is something I’d be happy to come here for just by itself. Especially paired with a glass of one of the restaurant’s more interesting sojus.

While He, always smiling and dressed in crisp chef’s whites, manages the small dining room with another front-of-house staffer, Smookler also takes any chance he can get to talk to tables. Sometimes he’s toting a thoroughly marbled piece of Wagyu beef or accepting an autographed bottle from a local winemaker’s party. Other times, he jokingly asks if you hated the food. His self-deprecating humor, and He’s eye rolls, are as much a part of Animo’s ambiance as anything else.

It was Smookler who talked me into ordering the turbot ($120/$140), a hefty flatfish imported from Galicia, Spain, and a frequent sight in Basque fishing villages. Here, the carcasses hang freely in the glass-doored meat fridge behind the chef’s counter, destined to be enclosed in besugueras, custom grilling cages formed like the spade-shaped fish. A grilling session, punctuated by splashes of a yuzu-based vinaigrette, turns its white flesh into a silky, sumptuous mass, enriched by the fish’s ample supply of collagen.

The Manila clams at Animo, Friday, April 22, 2022, in Sonoma, Calif.

The Manila clams at Animo, Friday, April 22, 2022, in Sonoma, Calif.


Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

The Turbot at Animo, Friday, April 22, 2022, in Sonoma, Calif.

The Turbot at Animo, Friday, April 22, 2022, in Sonoma, Calif.


Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle


Above left: Steamed Manila clams are served with chorizo and a fishy dipping sauce of nam jim. Above right: Grilled turbot is a silky, sumptuous meal brightened with a yuzu-based vinaigrette. Photos by Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

When delivering the dish, the chef urged me to pick out the fish’s spiny fins and taste those, too. Half of the bone is charred, while velvety gelatin clings to the interior half. The bright flavor of the yuzu vinaigrette unites them. The minute pleasure of sucking gelatin off a fragile, tiny bone reminded me somewhat of eating chicken feet at a dim sum restaurant.

Animo’s only dessert is Basque cheesecake ($16). Plump, barely burnt Basque-ish cheesecake is a fixture on Asian American bakery menus in the Bay Area, but here the dish is expressed at its most straightforward. The top is a distinct layer of blackened sugar and milk fat, while the center relaxes onto the plate with the ease of a long sigh. Cooked wedges of Asian pear are too delicate of flavor to be a counterpoint, though they do keep the dish interesting.

Though Animo opened in February, there’s no website, and you’ll have to dig through OpenTable or Yelp photos to get a sense of the menu, which changes often. What propelled it in those early days was word-of-mouth from Sonoma residents, who spoke of it with the semi-secretive air of juicy gossip. Even finding the location, sandwiched between an auto repair shop and a McDonald’s, can be a challenge.

Josh Smookler in the dining room of Animo, where everyone seems to know each other and rejoice in their possession of a mutual secret.

Josh Smookler in the dining room of Animo, where everyone seems to know each other and rejoice in their possession of a mutual secret.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

The first time I visited, I was struck by repeated scenes of different parties walking in, recognizing someone in the dining room and erupting in jubilant salutations and hugs. Everyone seemed to know each other, and they rejoiced in their possession of a mutual secret.

You can tell that this space used to be a taqueria — in fact, three in succession — from the simple, cream-colored tiles to the open chef’s counter. It’s easy enough to imagine some Sonoma taquero carving bright red shards of pork off a spit in the space the wood-fired oven now occupies. You’ll find little hints of that past life here, like the cactus-themed outer gate and a pylon sign that reads, under a white cover, “Las Diablitas.” Gone are the sombreros and lusty murals of Mayan warriors; now, the main wall by the entrance is dominated by a curious set of shallow shelves holding row upon row of rosy red apples, arranged to lend their aroma to the space.

I like to think some of the taqueria vibe remains. The space surely remembers what it used to be, and perhaps that helps keep things at Animo so casual, so familial and so honest.

18976 Highway 12 (between Harley Street and Verano Avenue), Sonoma. 707-721-1160 or www.instagram.com/animo_restaurant/

Hours: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday.

Accessibility: No steps. Roomy gender-neutral restroom.

Noise level: Moderate.

Meal for two, without drinks: $150-$200.

What to order: Turbot, lobster XO, Manila clams ($25), sugar snap peas, kimchi fried rice, any of the steaks ($48-$130).

Meat-free options: Few.

Drinks: Beer, wine and soju.

Transportation: Street parking, with handicap parking in front of the restaurant.

Best practices: Reservations required. Meats and fish are generously portioned, so bring a crew.



Soleil Ho is The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @hooleil