Brian Malarkey gearing up for opening of $5.5M upscale restaurant in downtown San Diego

Still months away from opening his much anticipated, high-end Asian restaurant, chef Brian Malarkey is already convinced that its location near the downtown bayfront will one day become a dining destination that will rival Little Italy.

Malarkey and business partner Chris Puffer, who are nearing the third anniversary of their well-regarded Little Italy restaurant, Herb & Wood, are banking on a cluster of developments, including Doug Manchester’s $1.5 billion redevelopment of Navy waterfront property and the recently opened InterContinental Hotel, to reinvent the Embarcadero area as a culinary go-to neighborhood.

The duo’s $5.5 million Animae restaurant, expected to open by late spring, will be located in the ground floor of Bosa Development’s luxury condo tower at Pacific Highway and Broadway, where unit prices in the 41-story Pacific Gate project started at more than $1 million.

“A year ago, Nat Bosa wondered if we would do well down there, but this is an up-and-coming neighborhood,” said “Top Chef” alum Malarkey. “As soon as Manchester finishes his project, this area will rival Little Italy. In all reality, no one walks to Herb & Wood. You valet or take Uber. These are destination restaurants so we’re banking that people will travel to Broadway and Pacific Highway.”

Animae, which will also include an adjacent casual cafe open during the morning and afternoon hours, is Malarkey’s and Puffer’s most ambitious project yet.

Investors — the same ones who contributed to Herb & Wood — will help with financing the 9,300-square-foot project. There are, however, two new investors — Malarkey’s mother and San Diego skateboarding phenom Tony Hawk. All the investors are also part of the yet-to-open Malarkey-Puffer venture, Herb & Sea, set to debut in Encinitas by the summer.

The Animae concept, an amalgam of Asian cuisines, strays from the sort of cooking Malarkey is known for. That’s true as well of newly named executive chef and partner Joe Magnanelli, who has spent more than 12 years as executive chef with restaurateur Tracy Borkum’s successful Urban Kitchen Group, which includes Cucina Urbana and Cucina Enoteca. Both concepts are known for their contemporary Italian American cuisine.

Malarkey insists that he does have some background in Asian cooking, pointing to his long-closed Del Mar restaurant Burlap that he says featured “Asian cowboy” cuisine.

“Now this isn’t going to be as whimsical and funny as that was. This will be more serious,” Malarkey said of Animae. “We’re calling this French Asian charcoal grill. We’re taking the fundamentals of West Coast cooking, which has French roots, and playing with Asian flavors from Japan, Southeast Asia, China, the Hawaiian islands.”

While acknowledging that Magnanelli’s background is not in Asian cooking, Malarkey said he and Puffer were drawn to the chef because of his passion and the consistent quality coming out of the restaurant kitchens he has overseen.

Magnanelli, who is still working at the Cucina restaurants, said that as much as he’s proud of what he has contributed to the dining group’s success, he is ready for a new challenge.

“It’s not that you get bored, but you want to try new things,” said Magnanelli. “I don’t want to feel stagnant or sedentary, I want to feel like I’m progressing. And I really like the idea of Asian food.”

Typical of the style of high-heat cooking in some Japanese restaurants, Animae will be using a charcoal oven and grill for many of its dishes, Malarkey explained. While the menu is not set yet, it will likely include plenty of duck, whole fish, Wagyu beef and seafood crudo. Entree prices will average in the mid- to high $30s, Puffer said.

Unlike other restaurants that Malarkey has developed, there will not be an open kitchen.

“We’re going back to old school,” he said. “We just want it to be more the experience of the food and the conversation, not the theater of the kitchen. It’s more about the guests.”

Similarly old school will be the return of “wall-to-wall” carpeting, which, along with velvet draperies and tufted velvet booths, will help silence the loud noise increasingly typical of today’s dining venues, Puffer said.

The restaurant name Animae is partly a play on anime, which generally refers to Japanese-style animation known for colorful, vibrant graphics and characters. While Puffer is a self-described anime geek and was partly inspired by that in the restaurant and cafe design, you’d be hard-pressed to see anime influences in the fine dining restaurant.

Instead, it is more elegant art deco, with its columns draped with jade green velvet and a curved, stepped-ceiling treatment above the 14-seat bar. The art deco theming is a nod, Puffer said, to 1920s-era Chinese American actress Anna May Wong (note the phonetic similarity to Animae).

“The idea was to be a kind of place Anna May Wong would want to hang out in and have a cocktail after a performance,” Puffer said.

The restaurant also includes a series of floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on Manchester’s Pacific Gateway project, now under construction.

Early last year, Malarkey parted ways with the Hakkasan Group, a global hospitality firm that several years ago purchased a majority stake in the Herringbone and Searsucker restaurants that Malarkey helped develop.

He has said a number of times he doesn’t want to repeat the same mistakes he made in the past in expanding too quickly.

“We learned from over-expansion in the early days from the ‘fabric’ restaurants and want to make sure we’re locked and loaded before doing another project,” said Malarkey. “These are two projects that are massive so while it’s always fun to daydream, this is what we’re focused on.”

lori.weisberg@sduniontribune.com

(619) 293-2251

Twitter: @loriweisberg

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