Updated 11/12 – shortened, new prices, photos, descriptions etc.
Just about everyone who reads local magazines has seen this photo of Naomi Pomeroy of Beast. One of the creators of Gotham Tavern, Ripe Family Supper and clarklewis, she is the stuff of local legend. In 2009 Naomi opened Beast, modeled somewhat on her experience with Ripe. Through her travails, she has developed a quiet strength which shows in her food and in the way she moves through her kitchen.
Some restaurants are difficult to review, because people tend to be seduced with the experience as a whole, and as with many things in life, seem to feel personally attacked if you don’t like it as much as they do. Beast, in particular, has a passionate group of followers. However, I think, when doing a review, one has to isolate himself from the experience, and concentrate on the food. Things like ambiance and service should be noted and made part of any review. But for me it all comes down to, if I am sitting by myself in an empty room, do I like the food, and would I come back. This is the question I asked myself about Beast.
The dining room is simple, a chalkboard painted wall across the back, and two large tables, flanked by the uncomfortable chairs that were banished from clarklewis when it was sold (though Naomi tells me they are being replaced soon). Music is present, but not so loud it interferes with conversation, though when the room is full you may find yourself competing to be heard. Overall, lighting is adequate, and candles on the table help for reading the menu though you don’t really have to worry since it is just a simple list of what you are having.
Seating is communal, so understand you will be sharing one of the two tables with groups of strangers. You will also be in the same space as the cooks. I enjoy sitting with my back to the wall so I can watch as they calmly go about their duties. The dual space also means you are exposed to the heat from the equipment – nice on cold days, but it can be a bit overwhelming in the summer, even with the screen door open.
The atmosphere is cozy and intimate, or as intimate as it can possibly be sharing a table with 20 plus other people. This is great when you are sitting next to folks who are outgoing and interesting, and at Beast, this is usually the case. I’ve had terrific conversations here with complete strangers.
The menu is prix fixe six-course, with the selections changing weekly depending on what is in season; check the website. Be warned, you will get what they are serving that night – no substitutions. If you don’t like something, you’ll be sitting on your hands until the next course arrives. Beast is not a vegetarian friendly restaurant, however they occasionally have an evening with an all vegetarian meals; subscribe to their newsletter to be notified when one is coming up. One note: when they say “tasting menu”, they mean it. However, by the time I’ve eaten the entire dinner, I always walk out comfortably sated.
Two seatings are available each night at 6pm and 8:45pm Wednesday – Saturday. The current price is $75 per person. On Sundays there is a brunch at 10am or 12pm ($35).
Reservations are a must. You can order six course wine pairing, with a small glass designed to match each dish ($35). All of the wines in the various pairing are available by the glass. Beast also has a small selection of whole bottles. If you bring your own, corkage is $30. I enjoy tasting lots of different wines, so always have the wine pairings. Most of the time the matching is fine, though occasionally one will fall flat. This, however, is a rather subjective thing – your results may vary. A small selection of “Belgian style” beers is available.
Meals begin with a small cup of soup, which is usually terrific. A cream of asparagus was an anthem to spring – lush, smooth and brimming with flavor. A bit of herbed crème fraîche & trout roe dressed it up just enough to put the whole thing over the top. Another successful version consisted of cream of cauliflower soup with house curry oil & trout roe, the latter giving a bit of salty crunch. On the other hand, a carrot soup with Washington mussels & saffron cream left me cold. The overpowering mélange of flavors all fought with each other. I simply didn’t like the way the sweetness of the carrots contrasted with the mussels, and while the addition of shallots gave it an interesting contrast, this isn’t something I’d order again.
A selection of single bite charcuterie follows. Most of the selections are excellent. I love the freshly chopped steak tartar on a crispy little toast accompanied by a lovely raw quail egg, and the dessert-like foie gras bon-bon which has a tiny trembling golden square of Sauterne gelée perched on top, giving a hint of taste and cutting the fat. I could eat half a dozen of either one.
The next course is a main, which tends to be interesting, though not always entirely successful. That being said, over my visits since they opened, quality has steadily increased. One evening the main course was pot pie with braised short rib, wild onion and morels accompanied with glazed turnips and sautéed turnip greens. The combination was fantastic, easily the best of the genre I’ve ever had. The crust was light, the meat tender and moist. The morels and sauce gave a wonderful earthy depth that made me reach for the bread to make sure I had sopped up every bit.
Other mains I’ve had in the past include baby lamb chops which were so small and had so little meat on the bone they needed the patience and precision of a surgeon. My whole table ended up discussing the hassle rather than the dish itself. Difficulty aside, the meat was just… fine. On another fall night, a serving of regular-sized lamb chops was much better; perfectly cooked on a bed of mashed potatoes studded with wild mushrooms. At one meal we had “braised local beef short ribs, rouge d’etamps pumpkin, golden raisin aigre-coux mustard greens with chili & garlic”. The beef was tender and flavorful, and the pumpkin provided a slightly sweet foil to the beef. The sauce was excellent, as were the accompanying mustard greens. Overall, it was a consummate winter dish. The same could be said of a slow-roasted pork shoulder with peppers and rainbow chard, a combination that spoke of earth and fall – another fine example of comfort food wrapping its arms around you. If I have any universal complaint, it is that they need to pull back a little on the salt.
On the surface the salads may seem simple, but there are frequently lots of subtle tastes and textures. Each of these had an ingredient that pushed them over the edge into the really good category. One night a simple dish of frisée, local apples, house pancetta and candied hazelnuts stood out for the perfectly composed combination of ingredients. Another evening it was lettuces, anchovy, and lemon vinaigrette with shaved radish and raisin-walnut croutons. The croutons were simple, yet imparted a wonderful flavor, which raised it far above average. One early spring I was served a perfectly composed spring asparagus & poached pheasant egg frisée. Sauced with fried prosciutto and brown-butter vinaigrette, the prosciutto added a slight crunch and burst of flavor that contrasted perfectly to the early asparagus.
The cheese course provided by Steve Jones of the Cheese Bar is always stellar. They are usually accompanied by a bit of house-made shortbread or fruit. One night we were served a delicate Piemontese tomini cow and sheep’s milk cheese from Italy, a gabicton raw cow and sheep cheese from France, and a surprisingly mild blue del monviso raw cow milk variety from Italy. This was accompanied with cracked black pepper shortbread, mars-venus grapes and wonderful champagne-poached apricots.
As with many things in life, desserts at Beast tend to be best when they are kept simple. Chocolate pots de crème with spot on coconut sorbet was a match made in heaven. Among other winners, peach and brown butter tarts that spoke of late summer, while a brown butter crêpe with local rhubarb, vanilla bean ice cream and pistachio praline whipped cream all folded together had too many flavors fighting for attention.
While it may sound like I am being hard on Beast, it is easy to find fault with a six course meal. I have been nine times, and regretted my decision only once – and that was shortly after they opened. Overall, I think the experience of eating with a convivial group of strangers, all being served the same dishes at the same time is quite entertaining and enlightening. There is nothing like a love of food and wine to bring people together. For the most part, my quibbles with the food are minor. Though the prices are a bit high, you are paying for more than dinner – your ticket includes meeting new people and watching the kitchen. Service is always professional and gracious, without a flaw over all of my visits. I like Beast, and will continue to dine there.