The Dining Report – BEAST – Take This Food and Like It!

First of all, before I get to my usual endless written wanderings, there are a few other subjects I would like to spew forth on –

After our dinner at Lovely Hula Hands, I actually had a pleasant email from Sarah, at aforementioned restaurant, telling us they appreciated our appreciation of their place, and elaborating a bit on their dining space. It turns out the second floor of their building is a dining area of approximate size to the dining room on the ground floor, so they actually have double the capacity I thought they did, and probably when patio months roll around, close to triple the space. So please don’t resist going there because you might be afraid they don’t have room for you, they are certainly busy at peak times, but from what I’ve witnessed in most of these revitalized North/Northeast dining areas, most of the popular places are. So thanks Sara for illuminating me on that, and for acknowledging Restaurant Roulette’s tiny and weird contribution to the Portland Dining scene.

Another thing I wanted to mention, which I’ve been thinking about lately, is the fact that while many PDX restaurants still seem quite busy, I’ve noticed that over the last 6 months or so, I’ve generally had a much easier time getting our group in at more desirable dining times, like 7:00, rather than the 8:00 or 8:30 that seemed to plague us a year or so ago (or course I realize I should not touch this subject with a 10 ft. pole, as it could lead to a sudden reversal of fortunes.) I do tend to wonder, however, if this is a sign that Portland has become so over-saturated with excellent places to eat, that even many of the really great places that we visit now need as many patrons as the can get these days, with Portland’s gigantic thriving dining scene sprawling all over tarnation. Just something to ponder, something good perhaps for groups like ours, but bad, perhaps, for the health of a lot of good restaurants in Portland, especially many that are not viewed as the “hot” places of the moment.

But speaking of “hot” places of the moment, on to Beast ….

One reason I suppose I started with the subject of restaurant over-glut is because at least at this point in time, Beast, already making a name for itself, still isn’t too difficult to get into, small though it is. I knew there were only 30 seats available, all at communal tables, with two main reservation seatings, 6:00 and 8:30 (or so,) and I did call around nine days in advance, but this was plenty of time to reserve the spaces I needed. It was nothing like the ordeal that Adele went through tying to make a reservation at the similarly sized Le Pigeon. It could be that Beast is still quite new, and Le Pigeon is heading into its second year, and has been nationally recognized. But the two restaurants do have many parallels, with daring young chefs, similar spaces, and French tinged menus. On a basic level, Beast seems more expensive, with its fixed price menu ($45 for 5 courses, $52 for 6.) It’s also perhaps scarier, as you must eat what they put before you, or not eat, but I thought a great deal about Le Pigeon while I was eating at Beast, and wonder if Beast will make a similar upward trajectory, especially after a relatively glowing review in the A & E a couple of weeks ago.

I rather like novel approaches to dining, and I must admit I found the idea of “you pay a relatively high price, and you eat what we want you to eat, or you eat nothing” rather intriguing. It’s a bold idea, especially coming from a well-regarded chef whose entire world and reputation was seemingly imploded over the last couple of years, and especially in Portland, where quality dining and the choice of wonderful restaurants is now a given. I was also a bit scared by the proposition, as I’m famous for being close-minded about meats and their by-products I don’t want to eat, things like lamb, veal, and foie gras. And Beast has already made a name for serving a great deal of these items on their meat-centric menu. But I like to think Restaurant Roulette is not only about having great food, and unique conversation, but very importantly, about stretching one’s dining boundaries. So prodded by an insane little voice in my head (always the loudest in there, it seems,) and our most ardent diner-out and fine food lover, I decided a special dinner at Beast was in order. It’s true, not too many people took the bait for this dinner, there were only three people this outing, (with three unfortunate cancelations,) but what this dinner lacked in quantity, it whole-heartedly made up for in quality, it was a great dining experience from beginning to end.

About five minutes before reservation time, I was the last to arrive (I’m not used to these Saturday dinners, so my usual routine was a bit disrupted.) Beast is on that now excellent dining corner of 30th at Killingsworth, where numerous diverse places have sprung up to eat at, Authentica, La Grolla, The Cup and Saucer Cafe, Yakuza, and now, Beast, actually tumored on to the front of Yakuza. Yakuza looked like a nice space, and I’m finally hearing some good things about the food there, so some day I will really take a group to this establishment. At the right front side of Yakuza, there glowers Beast, square and red and demanding sounding. The restaurant inside, however, is quite pleasant, open ceiling, with soothing dark walls in shades of blue gray, gray, and chalkboard black. As everyone has mentioned, (including Beast’s own website,) the chairs are the exact same wooden ones that gave everyone conniption fits at ClarkLewis, but I personally found them much more comfortable than those torture contraptions on the second floor of 23Hoyt, or those ghastly tuffets at Marrakesh, so comfort is in the eye of the beholder’s butt I suppose (hey, don’t expect me to constantly make sense.) The open kitchen is on the south side of the restaurant, and all over the walls pithy things are written in white chalk (and good handwriting,) things like “Praise the Lard” and “Toilet.” Okay, that one isn’t so pithy, but important when you need it.

To make one other comparison to Le Pigeon, although the dining spaces are of a similar size and configuration, especially the communal tables, I like Beast’s space quite a bit more, it’s really clean and tidy looking, casual but still elegant, especially with the load of fine silverware they parade out for you during your meal. There is obviously no faulting the food served at Le Pigeon, what could be better, but I’ve never been too keen on the space, there’s something rather old and patched together about the restaurant. Who knows though, perhaps those are just vibes I get from the two chefs, I have no problem imagining Garbriel Rucker sitting around a messy apartment in a torn old undershirt nursing a PBR (just because he likes fine cuisine and wine doesn’t necessarily preclude him from swilling cheap beer after all,) while Naomi Pomeroy is easy to visualize heading home to a meticulously spotless modern condo where she lets her hair down by slapping around some servants and drinking expensive wine from the wrong kind of wine glass. I’m totally joking here, as I don’t know anything about either young chef (except for all the dirty laundry everyone has heard about the ill-fortuned Ms. Pomeroy,) but everything at Beast really did seem extremely neat, organized, and down to the letter perfect, and many of those vibes certainly emanated from the kitchen area, where Ms. Pomeroy was cooking her butt off and turning out her mini food masterpieces one after the other.

The music at Beast was not so orderly, however, the first song I noticed after assuming my place at the table being T-Rex’s “Bang A Gong,” played at a somewhat distracting level (luckily I have a childhood fondness for this particular tune.) Once the conversation and food got going, I lost track of what was happening with the music. At one point I made a comment to the waitress about being too distracted by T-Rex to grasp her comments on my wine selection, and after that it seemed like I didn’t notice the music again, so perhaps they turned it down.

Glenda (as always) and our lost long (but luckily re-found) member Jody were having a spot of bubbly when I arrived, but as someone lacking a fondness for carbonated liquor, I instead asked Jody to read to me the listed choices for white wine by the glass. (Yes, my shame is beginning to know no bounds, now I’m having people read the menu for me.) Almost all of you by now are getting to know the comedy of errors that is me trying to read small menu type in darkish restaurants, but Beast was extra dark, and the menus are only 3″ x 5″, with about 8 point type, so I couldn’t even tell the dinner menu from the wine menu (although the back of the dinner menu does have an adorable little pen and ink drawing of a pig on the back of it.) The selection of wines is relatively brief, and I’ve heard chosen to compliment the ever evolving menu (which seems to change at least twice a week, judging by their website,) and although none of my favorite white wines were in evidence, I did have a nice Sauvingnon Blanc that was not at all biting, and went down very smoothly (and added $7 to my bill.) I nursed it as long as I could, however, as I knew I could not afford another glass on this already costly evening.

It really didn’t bother me that I could not read the dinner menu, since I had no choice anyway, I decided to sit back and be surprised by what came my way, and instead of being prejudiced against ingredients I might not normally like, just experience the various flavors as they occurred, and even try to figure out just what they might be. That was a good plan at Beast, as everything is full of multiple flavors. The three girls at the other end of the table (strange evening, our table had two groups of three women at either end,) had began receiving their food right before we did, so everything they had was a preview of our food to come. It really was rather fun to see the same items carried all around the room and hear everyone oooh and aaaah when they arrived (the vittles at Beast fall into that “Food as Art” category,)

I could tell from the minute I had plunked my keister down that this was going to be a night of excellent service, and while the room seemed to be basically sharing only a waiter and a waitress, except for one tiny weird incident between the waiter and Glenda over dessert vs. cheese vs. dessert and cheese, the service was wonderful, another of those places where people seem really happy to be serving the food they are serving. The aforementioned waiter was perhaps a tiny bit formal at times, but the waitress was note perfect, in a friendly, down to earth sort of way. At one point when I remarked how much I had liked something, she seemed so genuinely pleased, you would have thought I was the only person who had ever uttered a compliment there, rather than what probably was more likely the case, that everyone had kind words for everything consumed.

The first item to come our way was a bonus whim item (and an additional free course!!!) I suppose something Naomi had just decided to whip up for fun that day. As it wasn’t on the menu, I really have no clue what it was actually supposed to be ( although Glenda, of course, was quite familiar with what they were, having them had them numerous times before.) I’m hardly a walking dictionary of French cuisine, but originally I thought it was a little round potato oozing delicious cheese. It turns out it was actually more of a fritter/pastry sort of affair, and starving as I was, I gobbled it with delight. Jody seemed in the same confusion boat as I was, as we both grabbed our knife and fork to eat this golden brown orb, but Glenda, old pro that she is, actually picked it up and nibbled it like an oversized donut hole. She only took a couple of small bites, and discarded it, however, as she thought this version heavier than what she was used to. (She also tends to watch out for excessive carbs I’ve noticed.) As for me, I gladly would have eaten about five of them, I thought them delightful (if only I knew what they were supposed to be, inferior version or not,) and I didn’t see Jody having too much trouble choking hers down either.

About this time, the last two people arrived to fill our communal table, actually carrying three bottle of their own wine (corkage fees be damned, I guess.) These people made quite the entrance, the woman somewhat resembling Vampira, in a long dark cape, and the man juggling his three fancy bottles of vino and seemingly familiar with various staff members at Beast. As happens with communal dining, conversation ensued, and it turned out the fellow (a sweet, baby faced sort) worked at a Vineyard (thus the three bottles of totally different wines,) and the woman must have been a midwife, and their conversation was of a strange, formal arthouse variety that we rarely hear in these parts, all about the experiences of witnessing and assisting birth compared to the joys of consuming great food and wine, and a running commentary of all the incredible nuances in the food (the guy, although probably in his early 30s, was like a walking, talking gourmet food encyclopedia.) Really, their entire conversation seemed scripted from an alien screenplay about how earthling yuppies converse at fancy restaurants, but they seemed like nice people, and not at all intoxicated after drinking three bottles of wine. Later, when we left, they complimented us on what delightful dining company we had been, so who could ask more than that from strangers?

But, back to the food. After all, it’s all about THE FOOD right. (Not to mention all this other meaningless gibberish I continually insist on adding at every opportunity, and then some.)

The second course (the official first course,) was a tall demi-tass of Cream of Carrot Soup. I wager to say there has never been a creamier, silkier soup, and this one came with a cheese Dorrito, so how could that be topped? Actually, the menu’s description was “Cream of Carrot Soup, Tarragon Creme Fraiche, Parmesan Tuille.” Parmesan Tuille, Dorrito, whatever. Seriously though (??) the soup was wonderful and complex, and so smooth, and the Parmesan Tuille was much more delicate than a Dorrito, and probably looked more like an overgrown 1-sided Chex, but I like to get those scornful looks at the dinners by insisting to people like Glenda that Parmesan Tuilles are Dorritos

Next up was the Charcuterie Plate, which was actually more of a Charcuterie Platter. It was a big honkin’ white plate, with various small morsels of photo quality meats and vegetables colorfully and beautifully prepared and composed in a purrty design, with lots of white space in between because of the size of the serving vessel opposed to the size of the adorable little morsels. The menu described it as being “Pork Rillettes, Basque-style Pork Terrine, Steak Tartare, Foie Gras Bon-Bon, and Accompaniments.” The poor waitress, who was having to explain to everyone what every cotton pickin’ thing was every time she delivered another plate, advised us to do the foie gras bon-bon last, as it was the masterpiece of the composition. So we all chipped away at our individual little servings, avoiding that foie gras bon-bon until the exciting conclusion of our charcuterie dining extravaganza. To be honest, once the server left the table I couldn’t remember what was supposed to be what. The accompaniments were two slices of high-end salami, pickled vegetables and a mini-mini-mini gerkin in some really pungent homemade mustard, and the steak tartare was obviously the ground up red pile, but I don’t really remember much about the pork rillettes at all (why does everyone suddenly have rillettes? Toro Bravo, Lolo, and now Beast all have rilettes. What exactly is a rillettes, I sure don’t know, and is there some public interest group out there pushing them or something?) and the basque-style pork terrine. Basque was some of my favorite food in Spain, but it seems like terrines generally sound better than they taste. They always remind me of some perverted meatloaf dealy-bob type situation. (See, I’m a walking glossary of gourmet food terminology as well.)

As for the foie gras bon-bon, it was always easy to spot, crouching there like a little mushroom, or a fairy’s chapeau (it was only about an inch big, although Jody actually managed to cut hers in half. You can’t gobble a foie gras bon-bon!!!) As I’m not a complete food goober, I know foie-gras is allegedly some poor goose’s liver poked, prodded and often pureed to almost nothing, but for the life of me, liver was nothing I could taste in this particular bob-bon (and I hope I never taste in any other bon-bon,) the prevalent flavors were vanilla in the pate, and peanut butter in the little specialty cracker placed underneath. Certainly unique, but unlikely to be something I will sit around craving in my every waking moment.

About this time, I could see the entree offering being delivered to various people in our vicinity, and knew my fear was about to be realized, as the “dreaded lamb” was on the way. Often I see people order lamb in restaurants, or notice pictures in pretty cookbooks, and think, wow, that looks tasty. This is mainly because correctly cooked lamb looks like perfectly prepared fillet mignon or other yummy beef. The times I have tasted it though, ewwwwwy yuuuucckky pooo (more fancy food words,) too gamey and nasty tasting. I know I could have just tossed it aside, or given it to Glenda or Jody, and just moved on to my next course. But to be honest, I’m way too cheap for that. I was paying a decent amount of money for this dinner, so I was going to try every item, and eat as much as I could choke down of my entree as well. Afterall, it did look good, rare, thinly sliced, with a mysterious mound of chunky greeness on top, creamy looking potatoes, and a seemingly wonderful brown gravy sauce over everything.

The Beast menu’s official description of this dish was: “Leg of Lamb, Goat Butter, Mint, Pistachio and Seville Orange Salsa Verde with Potatoes Joel Rubichon” (???). Whomever Joel Rubichon might be, if I was him, I would be proud to have my potatoes existing on the same plate with the rest of this stuff, as naturally the stinkin’ lamb was delicious. No strong flavor whatsoever, incredibly tender, and tasting just like beef (to my lame old bumpkin palate.) People always go on about complexity of flavors, but the combination of the mint, pistachio, orange, and the reduction type gravy/sauce over everything approached amazing, and old Joel’s taters weren’t bad either. I actually considered licking my plate, which the waiter told me people often do. Naturally I ate every morsel, as everyone around me did (although Glenda shunned most of her potatoes, that carb thing again. No such willpower with me!! That’s why people call me Mrs. Potato Body.)

So, did this revelation in lamb change my mind on the merits of its consumption? Nope. It’s true, this was extraordinary lamb, and it was delicious. But what made it special for me was, it tasted like beef. Why not just eat beef? It’s cheaper. The average restaurant has more luck preparing it correctly. And sad though the average steer’s life might be, at least that creature made it to adulthood. I just cannot stand the notion of snuffing out babies, especially not adorable white fluffy babies (or baby cows for that matter.) I already eat way too many living things as it is, with my guilty but hungry conscious, I have no interest in adding any others to my repertoire, especially any that probably will never again taste as good as this. I applaud Naomi Pomeroy for being such a skillful chef that she made me enjoy lamb, and if I go back to Beast, there is a chance I will be eating it again, but given a choice, any choice, I miss most likely always select another meat.

Now, on to those senseless vegetables, who cares what age we snuff their lives out at? In the European tradition, the salad was served after the entree. As people have heard me endlessly prattle on about, I love things continental, and European, but this salad after the main dish, when you are relatively food glutted and just trying to save room for dessert, it seems a waste of decent lettuce to me. I understand it’s the same amount of food either way, but I find I enjoy my salad so much more when it comes at the beginning, when I am really hungry, and it’s not just tacked on the end as a palate cleanser. Especially if it’s a hearty salad, I certainly don’t want it after heavy food, and before my dessert. The salad this evening was a “Radicchio and Frisee Salad, with Duck Confit and Candied Kumquat Vinaigrette.” It was quite good, with a relatively light sort of dressing, but when the duck confit made its contribution, I have no idea. As all the courses at Beast are of a modest size, I had no problem eating the salad, and the dessert that followed, but I noticed others only ate a couple of bites, as they were saving room for cheese/dessert, and/or one or both.

At this time, the waiter made his approach, wanting to know whether we had made our all important life or death choice, 6 courses or 5, cheese and dessert, or one or the other. Although we all know I am a HUGE CHEESE FAN, I just didn’t have it in my budget (especially with three relatively expensive RR dinners three weeks in a row,) to spend $9 for a few additional dibs and dabs of cheese, although we all know I’m just wasting away from a lack of fat in my diet. Jody also abstained, but as I knew Glenda would, she wanted the six courses, as she’s our queen of all out food adventure! This ended up as the one of the strangest moments of the evening, as the waiter pointed at Jody and I and said, dessert but no cheese for you, then pointed at Glenda and said “cheese, no dessert for you.” When Glenda protested, saying “but I want dessert” the waiter practically bit her head off, saying “I didn’t say no dessert for you.” I don’t know, sometimes I miss nuances in speech, but all three of us agreed that “no dessert for you” sounded pretty much like “no dessert for Glenda.” As the service was so good, it was a kooky moment in our evening, and seemed to indicate that the waiter was wound a bit too tightly.

Another somewhat odd moment, when the waitress (thank heavens) delivered Glenda’s cheese plate, Glenda asked if she might have a bit of bread with it, as there was lots of soft loose cheese and honey and such to deal with. The waitress gave it her best effort, but it turns out there was not a rind, crumb, or scrap of bread to be found on the Beast premises. They did offer her some extra “graham and cocoa nibs” to help deal with the apples, cheeses, and wild flower honey, but instead, Glenda just managed by using her apple slices as crackers. It seems odd for a European sort of restaurant to not have any bread, but I suppose if you only have a few items on your menu each night, those are the only things you buy and prepare, especially if you have to prepare a lot of those things.

The last rather out of the ordinary incident happened while we were waiting for our dessert (a moment of immense excitement.) I was just sitting there, minding my own business (as always, of course,) when I felt this large drip of freezing cold water drip down my back. As I was sitting by the window, with no one behind me, I found this phenomenon rather confusing, and leaped up, looking all around me and towards the ceiling. The waitress saw this and asked if I had “a drop.” She sincerely apologized, saying this was an unpleasant issue with the Beast building. As Beast has an open ceiling, with beams and pipes and such exposed, apparently there is an problem with condensation, so water builds up overhead and then drips down on people. She did say, however, that they would not charge me additionally for a shower, so it was my lucky evening.

The featured dessert for this evening was listed as “Brown Butter Crepes, Prune-Armagnac Ice Cream, Caramel, Soft Whipped Cream.” Oh crepe!, not prune ice cream again! Naturally the crepe was delicious, the caramel was really delicious, and the prune ice cream was really, really, really, really, really delicious. This is just the sort of dish that shows what a bold, skilled kitchen Beast is, who makes prune ice cream? And who would think about pairing it with thick, homemade caramel? Jody was in dessert rhapsody, especially with the wonderfully smooth, refreshing intensity of the prune flavor of the ice cream and the combination of all the different tastes. As for me, this was another of those instances where I thought about climbing under the table to lick my plate (that would keep those water drops away.)

Sometime around dessert, Glenda asked me if we could have another dinner at Beast, and suggested this week. I told her I didn’t think I could quite afford that, but that I would certainly think about taking another group there soon. Sure, it’s expensive, but I would have to say it’s probably worth it, everything we were served was either interesting or exceptional, the atmosphere is quite close to festive, and the service is great. Although I had lunch at ClarkLewis once, before this I had never had a Naomi Pomeroy experience, and I must say I was terribly impressed. After all the bad publicity of the crash and burn of the “Ripe empire,” I’m really glad to see that Ms. Pomeroy has landed on her feet, she’s obviously a skilled, inventive, and incredibly bold chef. Everything about Beast seems bold, the name, the red building, the no substitutions rule, even the kooky things written all over the walls. But BOLD in a good way, bold as in a “I know what I’m doing and you’re really going to like it” kind of way.

The Beast has been unleashed, and I predict that soon it will be consuming an incredible amount of Portland foodies, and they will be consuming an incredible amount of Beast.