Photographs by Misha Gravenor
It’s only been open since February, but Son of a Gun, the latest project from chef-owners Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, feels like it has been on 3rd Street forever. The framed deepwater charts, captain’s wheels, and arcing marlin that hang on the walls give the tight L-shaped room the vibe of a hoary bar with a seafaring clientele. Of course it is anything but; there’s not an anchor among the tattoos here. The communal table is packed with a chicly disheveled crowd that delights in salt-crusted mounds of peel-and-eat shrimp dappled with Old Bay spice and Hawaiian poke salad—a surfer shack classic with luscious California stone fruits. Crammed with dishes that delve into Americana, it’s clear the venture is modeled on those beloved lean-tos with trestle tables and weathered signs that cling to our landscape in the face of the plasticizing shit wave that has swept up so many beloved old hangouts.
Yeah, I went there. The anarchic energy of the duo’s cooking must be affecting my writing. Rules vanished during Shook and Dotolo’s rise to prominence. They had a book deal in the works and a TV show on the air by the time they opened their first restaurant, Animal, in 2008. What could have been one more promotional gambit for the pair quickly became a sensation. They tweaked a baseline nose-to-tail ethos with influences as diverse as French gastronomy and the late-night 7-Eleven food run. Glowing underneath dishes like foie gras and Spam loco moco was a joyful fixation on absolute taste. That they located the business two doors down from the original Schwartz Bakery made a claim of sorts, too: The days of shtreimels, bubbes, and Riga sprats might be numbered on Fairfax, but the future was bright, or at least interesting.
Sitting on a cupcake-friendly stretch near the Beverly Center, Son of a Gun shifts the focus from the land to the sea. Though the restaurant is sometimes billed as “the fish place from the Animal guys,” it is much more than that. Hanger steak with breaded oysters and coleslaw-laden fried chicken sandwiches fly out of the kitchen as often as anything aquatic. While the encrustation of nautical gear could come off as gimmicky, it doesn’t; it feels personal. After all, Shook and Dotolo met as culinary students in Fort Lauderdale. Given their network rise (you can book them as motivational speakers through the same agents who represent Magic Johnson and Katie Couric), maybe they’re yearning for the simpler times of a Florida youth spent among the mangroves.
But the place is too smart to get bogged down in sentimentality. The waitstaff—young women dressed in plaid shirts, jeans, and sneakers—is efficient and bubbly, the hostesses eager to find seats at the bar to squeeze diners in. Not some insufferably deconstructed concoction made with muddled herbs and rare spirits, my piña colada, delivered promptly after being ordered, was a slushy old-school homage bearing two maraschino cherries on a plastic saber. Even the wine service has a wink: a rusted old charcoal starter that serves to keep Sancerre chilled.
Although they’d worked at various kitchens in L.A. (including Ben Ford’s Chadwick) before launching Animal, Shook and Dotolo built their reputation on catering gigs. That background is apparent in the pressurized power of the teeny lobster rolls that arrive on parchment paper. A pocket of brioche that owes as much to the Twinkie as to the New England standard, the morsel hikes the fat content by making the base a golden crouton rather than a browned roll. A heap of cool lobster salad is inserted into the slit in the bread before heat is added by fiery potato chips that protrude from the tiny creation like fins. One bite and you’re hooked.
The pair have an obvious appreciation for fat as the great vector of flavor. Butter, lard, cream, the ribbons of bacon slices, the trimmings of ham haunches—these have formed a culinary linchpin from homestead days to gastropub nights. Shook and Dotolo ricochet between the two poles with a kind of buccaneer abandon. A helping of Benton’s country ham, sliced paper thin, becomes a salumi plate by way of Tennessee. Far saltier than Italian cured hams (the humidity of the South demands the extra salt for curing), it begs for contrasting lushness, and the boys bring it with corn bread shaped like ears of corn and a schmear of honey butter. Layered with mayo and ignited with sriracha, the shrimp toast sandwich—rectangles of toasted white bread with shrimp paste between them—has the gloppy satisfaction of a po’boy.
Occasionally the two chefs are steam-rolled by their predilection for inventiveness. They try to Animal-ize their rendition of aglio e olio pasta, the oil-and-garlic staple, with a dollop of uni roe. While the uni has its merits—lending a bass note to the scattering of freshly steamed clams—the pool of orange-tinged oil at the bottom of the dish has none. The Ovaltine ice cream that sometimes is offered as a dessert special is gritty and pasty when it wants to be comforting.
Despite the down-home allusions and the kitschy decor, Son of a Gun likes to flirt with elegance. Osetra caviar is available for $120. Finger towels come out after the peel-and-eat shrimp shells have been cleared away. And the chefs have a subtle hand with sauces. Lime sharpens the angles of the pho broth—served with cod and fried shallots instead of beef and vermicelli. An OJ-
yakitori sauce runs along the razor’s edge of sweetness, but it is precisely what’s needed to release the latent fish wallop in the darkly roasted cured salmon collars. However, even the glorious roast chicken jus that bathes the escolar with creamed corn, chanterelles, and truffled pomme purée can’t mask the fact that except for the fish, everything is cold. Good technique demands that your sauté cook and your garnish person work as one.
Better thought out is the salad of octopus confit. A kind of marine beef jerky, the flesh is served with plump chickpeas, hand-torn radicchio leaves, and a carrot-and-onion mirepoix, but it is given backbone by the bracing acidity of a chile-red wine vinaigrette. It’s a perfect example of how Shook and Dotolo match their savvily promoted frat boy enthusiasm with straight-up culinary rigor. The blending of the two is part of the excitement that percolates beneath everything they do. Smoked steelhead roe with clouds of maple-infused whipped cream and pumpernickel toast leaves you unsure whether you’re at IHOP or watching a National Geographic special on America’s culinary heritage; still, there’s no doubt that precision is at the dish’s core. If the cream weren’t whipped soft or the toast thin and crisp—indeed, if the toast didn’t have the Nordic bite of pumpernickel—the whole would collapse under its cargo of allusions.
Though the daily fruit pie is good (you can see it through the kitchen’s open door cooling on top of the ice cream maker with its juices oozing down the pie tin), the must-have dessert is a scoop of frozen lime yogurt served with graham cracker crumble on one side of the bowl and toasted meringue coating the other. If key lime pie is the archetype, this one is deconstructed and reverential. The combination of citric acidity (courtesy of Schaner Family Farms), billowy sweetness, and dark sugar crunch that made the pie a classic are all here, but they don’t weigh you down the way traditional key lime pie does.
Cooking by its nature is an emotional enterprise, and creating a sense of place is one of the ways chefs channel those sentiments. Sitting in that cramped room over four visits, sipping Hemingway daiquiris as platters of oysters drifted by, I began to feel like a Tom McGuane character who’d stumbled into an air-conditioned spot after the Fairlane died along the A1A highway. The trucker caps, the fried hominy at Animal—Shook and Dotolo have never hidden their Southern roots. But here Southern cooking is on an equal footing with the French and the Polynesian and all the other elements that infuse the menu. The alligator schnitzel is an embodiment of the chefs’ evolving style, in which the cutlet’s crisp breaded exterior is topped with juicy heart of palm slaw and sweetened with a syrup of Myers’s rum and vanilla. Less renegade and more sincere, it’s a skilled interpretation that salutes where Shook and Dotolo’s road began.