Beauty at the Beast
Old World finery takes a magical culinary tour at La Bête.
THERE ARE FOLKS who believe that a region with a potent enough sense of place can quicken into living breathing form. By this theory, the Sasquatch is the soul of the wild Pacific Northwest—made beast.
This mad notion flitted through my head as I ducked through the glass door of La Bête, the current toast of Capitol Hill. If the overpopulated, youthful, culturally alternative, architecturally vintage western slope of Capitol Hill were to assume restaurant form, La Bête would be that restaurant. Inside the brick storefront, one encounters an almost breathtaking Old World loveliness: twinkling candles, wrought-iron filigree at every wood-framed and lead-glass window, creamy moldings, elegant chandeliers dripping crystal, place settings prettified with tea china and hotel silver. It’s the twilit apotheosis of the holiday season dining experience.
But spend a little time in here and you’ll see that La Bête’s grandmotherly delicacy is shot through with a debauched Bohemian streak. Oversize acid-trip art fills the walls. Big unexpected music—a little Danger Mouse, a little Ween, a kind of Muzak-y hip-hop at brunch—fills the air. Even the tabletops, which appear from a distance to be classic dark wood, enclose beneath their lacquered surfaces fanciful found objects, like fossils trapped in amber. Look, a beetle.
La Bête is Alice’s trip through the looking glass, and the effect is so subtly displacing it feels magical. It’s quite unlike Chez Gaudy, the quirky labyrinthine lair that previously inhabited this space. Also quite unlike the late Union, the establishment haunt where owners and chefs Tyler Moritz and Aleks Dimitrijevic met; or Lark or Licorous, the Johnathan Sundstrom restaurants where Moritz and Dimitrijevic each labored, refining the small-plate aesthetic of their current collaboration.
The young men overhauled the tattered Chez Gaudy, naming their enterprise after the “beast” it is to create the living, breathing organism that is a restaurant.
Fitting, as the thought they pour into every last aspect of the operation befits a living thing. “Welcome to La Bête!” smiled our young waiter—the first in an uninterrupted stream of staff so warm and efficient they seemed, forgive me, about twice their age—taking care to volunteer helpful information, like the fact that plates are sized for a roughly two-per-person ratio, and never missing a chance to refill a water glass.
Old World delicacy is shot through with a debauched Bohemian streak.
In fact as we plunged into the menu—divided into “snacks” and “plates,” it’s a meant-to-be-shared kind of list—we found items from the latter group to be sufficient for one person’s dinner, particularly the meaty ones. (Priced in the $16ish range, these can make a meal here a bargain indeed.) A dish of beef cheeks starred a viscous hunk of delectable meat atop a melange of farro, chard, and porcinis. I found it lovely, executed with precision, until my fork uncovered dark orbs that I figured for olives but turned out to be grapes, at which point it went stunning —an intelligent balance of acids and bitters, sweets and savories, and fun to eat.
A pretty presentation of kabocha squash soup in a teacup, sweetened and deepened with pumpkin-pie spices and served alongside a popover oozing tangy red onion jam and Bleu d’Auvergne cheese, likewise succeeded with its textural and tonal contrasts, and, again, meticulous execution. (If you couldn’t tell these chefs were perfectionists from their preparations, you’d know it watching them at work: Moritz cooks like he’s performing frontal lobe surgery.)
But the coolest thing about this dish was its vibrant interplay of Old World refinement—the fancy china, the autumnal squash puree, the old-fashioned popover—and edgy intensity: pungent blue cheese, tart onion jam, the very mysteries of the cosmos in the soup. In short, robust dinner and an eloquent comment on the soul of La Bête. Old and new each elevate the other here.
And so pork rinds—pork rinds!—arrived all crackly and salty and lacquered with grease (and oversensitivity; they went stale quick), alongside an inspired, trendy complement of pickled shallots. That homespun favorite, bread pudding, came as a main dish, swollen with the musky savories of no fewer than four (hon-shimeji, chanterelle, cremini, shiitake) varieties of mushroom. Sometimes the commanding flavors resulted in something overwrought (a dish of blush-perfect slices of lamb leg with pickled ramps, lamb sausage, and—kapow!—harissa) or unmitigated, like salt cod croquettes whose citrus-kissed brininess grew tiresome.
Other times all the overthinking landed the chefs in the realm of the great-in-theory, as in the case of a nuanced scallop dish, served in a fragrant broth with bits of apple and matsutake mushroom and cabbage and bacon. Was this soup? Then it needed to be billed thus on the menu. Was it a main dish? Then it needed some form of starch to bolster, complement, or sop all the juice. (Menu descriptions can be misleading here: A knockout creamy compilation of gnocchi and shelled Manila clams, enriched with truffles and celeriac, was billed as Manila clams with gnocchi, celery root, chive, and truffle; conjuring a bowl of clams in shells rather than the stewy marvel that arrived.)
But for the most part, these chefs land on the balmy shores of sweet success. Brunch is less distinguished but more satisfying, with some of the dishes from the evening card along with populist crowd-pleasers like a journeyman burger (a fatty, with bacon) and coffee cake that ate like butter held together with veins of sugary cinnamon.
It reminded me of a dessert we demolished at the close of one dinner: A banana split with scoops of Olympic Mountain vanilla, chocolate, and blackberry astream with hot fudge and anointed with whipped cream. No bells, no whistles. Just $10 worth of ridiculous goodness, done real. “Our vision is really just to make the food we want to cook,” Moritz told me later. That’s a slogan that could be needlepointed onto a sampler, then hung amid La Bête’s abstract art for all the demimonde to enjoy.
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