Tucked away next to a McDonald's on Route 12 at the edge of the town of Sonoma, a short drive from the town square, is a new restaurant focused on Basque-style, wood-fired meat and fish, from a former New York City ramen chef.
Chef Joshua Smookler and wife Heidy He are calling their restaurant, Animo, an "American Korean restaurant focused on hearth cooking." But evidence of Basque and Spanish influence is abundant on the menu, not the least of which because of roasted cuts of Iberico pork that aren't so commonly seen on American or Korean menus.
Smookler and He previously owned and operated Mu Ramen in Long Island City, in New York City, which opened in 2014 and closed at the start of the pandemic. As Smookler told the Sonoma Index-Tribune, after years of slinging ramen and Japanese food, he was ready to pivot to something he loves: Basque-style, wood-grilled beef, pork, and fish.
These, along with some lamb chops, form the meaty core of the menu at Animo, which otherwise shows its Korean influences with the lettuce wraps that come with Wagyu steaks, and with a side dish option of kimchi-pastrami fried rice with an egg on top.
Smookler is Korean American but was adopted by Jewish parents and grew up on Long Island in New York. He said he got his start in hospitality through wine.
"I started in the wine business because, when I was a teenager, I thought wine was for affluent, educated, and sophisticated people," Smookler told Luckyrice in an interview. "I wanted to impress women. It felt like it had more cache. Silly, right? Another reason was because the pay I was offered as a cook was humiliating."
At Mu Ramen, New York Times critic Pete Wells raved about Smookler's ramen — first when it was just being served at a pop-up in a bagel shop, and then at the brick-and-mortar location, where he gave the restaurant two stars.
And now, the accolades for Animo are mostly coming via Instagram and from Sonoma locals who have been clamoring to try the new spot.
The intimate restaurant space itself — formerly a series of short-lived and dive-y spots — has cleaned up nicely but still could use some sexier lighting. But oh my, the meat is good, as are the Basque-style gambas (shrimp), the lobster in XO sauce, and the Manila clams with chorizo. And everybody seems to want to order the whole grilled turbot, which looked like a lot of food for two people.
We can only hope that some of the dishes Wells loved from Mu Ramen, none of them straight-up Japanese, might sneak there way here too — like an in-quotations "okonomiyaki" that consisted of a corn pancake topped with smoked trout and foie gras maple syrup.
But for now this is a great date spot and a good way to impress any lover of meat (or grilled fish).
And yes, they have Basque cheesecake.
Animo - 18976 Sonoma Highway, Sonoma - Open for dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 5:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday. Reserve here.