Before opening his new restaurant, Animo, in the town of Sonoma, chef Joshua Smookler gained cult status for making some of the most slurp-worthy ramen in New York City at his former restaurant, Mu Ramen. Today, he has set aside the chopsticks for food that speaks to his heart. Inspired by the Latin term ex animo, which means “of the heart, sincerely,” Animo restaurant serves food that Smookler and his wife, Heidy He, love to eat.
“Many of the items on our menu were inspired by the things we eat at home — things that make us say, ‘Oh my God, this is so good!’” says Smookler. “That is how our menu came to be. It features the things we hold dear.”
Smookler and He arrived in Sonoma from New York with their two young daughters late last year, eager for a new beginning after closing Mu Ramen during the pandemic. They ruled out several other California locations before becoming intrigued by the small-town community of Sonoma and the opportunity to access high-quality ingredients from local farmers. “It was always a dream of mine to open a restaurant in Wine Country,” says Smookler, who once worked at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York. “I knew we had to give it a shot.”
The couple’s new restaurant is located just west of downtown Sonoma in a former tacqueria, now painted white and simply made over, with a large cooking hearth open to the dining area, stacks of wood out front to feed the fire, and tall palm trees arching overhead. One interior wall is lined with row upon row of fresh apples — an aromatic art piece inspired by New York chef David Bouley and by the couple’s former life in the Big Apple.
Smookler, who was born in Korea and adopted into a Jewish family in New York, has created a menu that ranges widely.
Many dishes are served family-style, including an elegant rib eye for two, lobster with XO sauce, and Manila clams with chorizo and fish sauce. “Everything here has deep meaning to me,” says Smookler, motioning to a large glass-front cabinet used to age prime cuts of beef, Iberico pork, along with whole turbot the size of dinner plates. “I use Flannery Beef from San Rafael — not just because it’s the best dry-aged beef in the country — but because they’re committed to quality, and I’ve used their products for years. I source Iberico pork from Acornseekers in Texas because I’ve witnessed how much they love and care for their pigs. It’s the most beautiful thing.”
While Smookler remains focused on perfecting the food, both he and wife He have become passionate about hospitality — something they know is imperative in Wine Country. Future plans for Animo include new decor, spots to dine outdoors, and seasonal updates to the ever-evolving menu and wine list.
“The goal of this restaurant is to make the very best food I’m capable of,” says Smookler. “This is just phase one. We can’t wait to see the evolution of this place, because it’s a living thing. The beauty is the growth of it. And I just want to put my heart on the plate.”