At Animo restaurant in Sonoma, there is no exterior signage.
That could be a sly nod to its exclusivity or that owners Josh Smookler and Heidy Mu He can’t afford one just yet.
One of the buzziest openings of the year, Animo has taken Wine Country by storm, with its whole Spanish turbot, Iberico pork, striking apple wall and fiery hearth-cooked food appearing on just about every local chef’s Instagram page.
But look beyond the gleaming parrilla and dry-aging cabinets and you’ll see a repurposed picnic table under the butcher paper and glassware. There’s a cracked window, a hastily redecorated bathroom, mismatched chairs and a banquette 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 futures on the line for a 26-seat restaurant that defies precise definition.
It’s sort of Basque with touches of Korean, but that’s about as far as they’ll go in nailing down their vision. Smookler is the kind of cook who thinks nothing of flying to Texas to investigate an acorn-eating pack of pigs for his soup bones or aging a piece of steak for 462 days just to see what happens.
“There is no real definition, and why does it have to be defined?” said Smookler, an alum of some of New York’s top restaurants, such as the former Bouley and Chef Thomas Keller’s Per Se.
The thrill for them with Animo is in recreating special meals from their travels and with an evolving food scene that embraces diverse cultures and flavors.
“I always believe in full commitment,” said Smookler, who spent two weeks sleeping on patio furniture inside the unheated restaurant before it opened. “We couldn’t afford a hotel.”
Best ramen in New York
Animo’s enthusiastic welcome 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.
Though Mu Ramen was a cautious toe-dip to see if the neighborhood could support a ramen shop, Smookler obsessively sourced the best bones for his tonkotsu ramen stock, critic Pete Wells lauded.
But not all press is good press, and within a few hours of the review’s release, Smookler had nearly 2,000 reservation requests, smothering business and leaving readers irate at Wells for killing Mu Ramen.
And though the couple had a thriving brick and mortar spot 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 done with ramen. It just didn’t get me up in the morning,” Smookler said. In 2020, as the pandemic raged, they closed the restaurant, draining their savings, he said.
Mu He worked at Panda Express to help pay bills. “We were that desperate,” she said.
‘We want to be a gem’
Now, Smookler is cooking what he’s passionate about.
The turbot, a fish that looks like it’s been steamrolled into a flat pancake, is a chef’s fish Smookler calls “the most special fish in my life.” Aged briefly, the delicate white meat is cooked above fiery coals, with grates rising and falling to control the heat. Served de-boned on a white platter, it’s a wildly impressive dish ($130).
For the pork dish ($56), the meat is sourced from Iberico pigs raised by La Grange, Texas-based Acorn Seekers, a cultish food producer Smookler has been supporting for years.
“Let’s find the best ingredients, and like a child, how do I optimize its potential? I just want to make clean, simple food with the best ingredients,” Smookler said.
“The menu is an agreement I make with guests. If I don’t do my best, if it doesn’t come out right, I don’t charge,” he said.
Mu He handles the front of the house and though she’s comfortable in the kitchen, she creates a welcoming hospitality for every guest, whether a deep bow to Japanese guests or a wide smile for regulars.
But rather than bucking for Michelin stars or haute cuisine, the couple wants 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.
That means the same graciousness for someone who just has a glass of wine and an appetizer as for a table of eight ordering hundreds of dollars of food.
“We just want everything to be magic,” Mu He said.
The menu is brief but difficult to experience in a single go. The turbot is a great starting place 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 appetizers, and they’re excellent.
Boquerones Toast, $14: Here’s an example of the specificity of Smookler’s cooking. The tiny grape tomatoes are peeled before roasting for the sweetest flavor, the anchovies on top are creamy and light and the toast is gently crisped — a must-try.
Kimchee Fried Rice, $16: A nod to Smookler’s heritage (he is Korean-born and raised by a Jewish family), but more simply a tasty addition to the meal, with pastrami from NYC’s Katz’s deli.
Asparagus, $14: This spring vegetable likely will move off the menu, but Smookler has a magical way with vegetables that brings out their flavors rather than smothering them in sauce.
There’s a chance Animo, like Mu Ramen, could fall victim to its success with so much attention being thrown their way so early. Hopefully, the well-studied menu and Smookler’s dedication in the kitchen help them weather the admiration.
18976 Sonoma Highway, Sonoma. Instagram: @animo_restaurant. Parking is limited. Reservations are highly recommended through OpenTable.