It’s 9:25 pm on a February Tuesday night. Snow could be falling, crowds hibernating in the warmth of home, and the weekend still too far away to even consider.
And then the one remaining table, a twelve top high table no less, becomes filled inside this bursting-at-the-seams restaurant of the moment. The fashionably late arriving crowd eating Madrid-style must have been either a work or birthday party. At 9:30 pm on Tuesday night.
Well, this is Los Angeles. It doesn’t snow here.
February or July. It’s really all the same unless you become picky about 70 vs 75 degree days. And every night is a weekend it seems, with diners eager to head out to the latest and greatest taco truck or intriguing pop-up regardless if its Monday or Saturday.
This might sound like a restaurant in the weeds that will bog down any moment under its own weight. It might strike you as the classic West Hollywood “scene” restaurant, generally a term we writers use inter-changeably with restaurants determined to be all about flash and appearances, neglecting the actual reason diners usually choose to eat at a restaurant (to dine/eat).
Welcome to Bestia, the toast of Downtown Los Angeles and for good reason. We’re a world away from the West Hollywood and Beverly Hills scenes.
Last week we featured Bestia’s impressive wine program and its equally fascinating director Maxwell Leer in our continuing series covering some of the world’s most interesting wine personalities. To fully understand how unique Bestia is and how Leer’s pairings work with chef Ori Menashe’s Italian meets California meets the world cuisine, let’s delve a little deeper into Los Angeles restaurant history.
Indeed, Bestia is a scene but that’s because of its popularity. The restaurant isn’t overwhelmed. It functions smoothly or at least manages to give off that vibe perfectly. That popularity stems from some compelling channels that nobody could’ve seen when the restaurant opened late 2012.
It is the centerpiece of twin renaissances in Los Angeles: the large-scale civic transformation for Downtown Los Angeles and the small-scale chef-driven movement that wavered towards funky fusion cuisine in the 1990’s after Wolfgang Puck and Michael McCarty’s 1980’s farm to table emergence at Spago and Michael’s respectively, and now is being rejuvenated by a host of young chefs across the metropolitan area. It’s about place and ingredients.
Location matters. Bestia is in a fairly out of the way, kind-of Downtown gentrifying industrial region known as either the Warehouse District, the Arts District, or a mélange of both depending on who you talk to. In other words, it’s your classic example of an urban neighborhood shift where hard-nose warehouses and sheet metal clad businesses morph into lofts, Belgian beer brew bars, and ambitious restaurants. So when you’re told that Bestia is in an old warehouse by the dry Los Angeles River, chances are you’re in good hands already. This is exactly the type of hidden environment that fosters Los Angeles new exciting breed of restaurants.
Strangely, the warehouse labeled “Bestia” is actually not the restaurant. Bestia is the brick façade building with an old shipping dock next door. There’s a front patio and a side patio by the entrance because this is California and you can sit there every night with a heat lamp. Inside is a sleek L-shaped contemporary industrial room that captures your attention with an open kitchen filled by razor-focused chefs at their respective stations, a salumi bar, and the cocktail bar. The chandeliers made of meat hooks are slightly off-putting at first, then remind you of Bestia’s name and nose-to-tail focus.
The gems of Los Angeles eating and drinking are never clearly apparent. The city’s premier craft cocktail bar is a speakeasy in an old French dip-specialist restaurant. Los Angeles’ new “Chez Panisse” equivalent that was proclaimed 2013’s “Best New Restaurant” by Bon Appetit resides next to a club with “hostess dancing.” The mighty restaurant from the city’s favorite chef to adore or critique, Ludo Lefebvre, is in a former greasy pizza joint. They definitely like to veer slightly from the norm around these parts.
Heck, what even counts as Los Angeles? Are Culver City, West Hollywood, and Beverly Hills even part of Los Angeles The City? The County? Both? Neither? I don’t know. I don’t think they even know. California is the Land of Fruits and Nuts. Los Angeles is a rough-edged Dr. Seuss fantasy land.
When I moved to Los Angeles initially six years ago, I was told that the number one way to judge a restaurant’s success is nit by its number of covers or Jonathan Gold Essential 99 lists—but by its number of valets. A dozen valets? Now that’s where we should go! Keep things in perspective obviously when weighing a behemoth like Lawry’s to a tiny 25 seat chef-driven neighborhood seafood spot and oyster bar in Silver Lake.
Now, are you surprised about Bestia’s success despite its not so prominent address? Not anymore.
Second, ingredients matter. Aside from two or three farm mentions, Menashe doesn’t recite the background of every ingredients à la Alice Waters or 50% of the restaurants it seems today. But the sourcing shows in the layers of flavor every dish displays. Nothing is only 75% the flavor profile of what the ingredient should be. That celery root in the quadretti tastes more of celery root than any celery root purée before. The hazelnut ice cream doesn’t taste of Nutella. It tastes like pure, untouched hazelnut. Nothing gets diluted.
Trends come and go. But since the glory days of a young Spago and Michael’s, this importance of ingredients lives on courtesy of places like Bestia.
The other vital note to understand Bestia and Los Angeles is the always fickle discussion of “Italian” restaurants. The best known Italian restaurant(s) in Los Angeles would be at Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich, and Nancy Silverton’s Mozza Compound (Pizzeria, Osteria, and Chi Spacca) at the corner of Highland and Melrose. Even before that, the likes of Pierro Selvaggio at Santa Monica’s Valentino and Evan Kleiman of the now-closed, dearly missed Angeli Caffe showed Los Angeles the rustic simiplicity that is truly the cooking of Italy. Valentino persuaded diners that France isn’t the only country with haute cuisine. Angeli had the definitive roasted chicken and linguine with clams and “tons of garlic” as the menu reminded you.
Wolfgang Puck gets most credit for starting the wood-fired pizza phenomenon years ago at Spago. Now you can’t go five blocks without a neighborhood bistro focused on that concept. You’ve got your red sauce, massive meatballs, and fettucine alfredo spots aplenty too. Los Angeles could be Italy without the wine regions.
And Bestia has the perfectly blistered, puffy pizzas. You bet there are meatballs. But they’re not red and white checkered tablecloth joint pizzas and meatballs. And of course there’s no fettucine alfredo. Dinner here provides a chance to experience powerful, personal cooking rooted in Italy that shows an exceedingly rare eye for details and creativity for such a high-octane operation. On the night of my visit, Menache was under the weather and his staff didn’t skip a beat.
Nor did Leer’s pairings with various dishes. Please put yourself in his hands or at least let him guide you to the right glass or bottle to accent a few courses.
The evening’s culinary star was the not-so-sexy-at-first beef tongue. Chefs today love to throw offal meat cuts on the menu just to get diners to ooh and aah or to squirm. Menashe was born in Los Angeles but grew up in Israel, where beef tongue was a staple in the local diet. Appearing like a lobe of foie gras with a bronzed caramelized surface, an initial pressure cooker session followed by grilling a la plancha renders the tongue pleasantly soft and not the least bit gelatinous.
In the words of Leer, it’s a “holy shit, melt in your mouth texture.” It sounds better when he says it. Think of the offspring of Wagyu beef and a foie gras torchon. Yes, I’m going that far to describe it. The mid-sized filet served comes atop a fragrantly dressed bed of Umbrian lentils, covered by arugula, along side spicy pickled beets and a salsa verde.
And the wine pairing? I can’t comment since Bestia’s strong cocktail program necessitated an opening beverage other than wine (among the tempting choices, opt for the “5th and Adams” that perfectly calbrates the ratio of tiki to smoke with Single Village Mezcal, pineapple, and ginger syrup). But perhaps a lighter red like 2011 Kobal Blaufrankish from Slovenia would have been spot on.
Between heartier antipasti came a gorgeous tableau of wafer thin octopus carpaccio, perked up by both tangelo and blood orange wedges showing the best of wintertime produce life. A Trocken Riesling was the right compliment with the 2012 Hofgut Falkenstein “Krettnacher Altenberg” from the Mosel.
With fellow 2010 clichés pork belly and beets with goat cheese, it takes an adamant plea from a waiter to convince me to spring for meatballs. They’re superb here with the hefty grill char, leading to a strong beefy flavor and juicy interior. Instead of marinara, the sauce is the lighter Spanish-style sofrito. Again, welcome to Bestia, not everything has to follow strict Italian rules.
Tied for most daring and fulfilling pairing was the 2011 Batic Pinot Gris Rosé “Ramato,” again a wine hailing from Slovenia. Pinot Gris as a Rosé? With meatballs and braised beets greens? Yes, please. Appearing like a glowing Amontillado Sherry with a healthy copper glow, the Ramato is not at all an oxidated orange wine. There is no bitterness at all despite 10 days of maceration with native yeast in oak barrels. Maple mingles with bright citrus for a wollop of a wine to hold up to the beef.
If beef tongue and meatballs are the featured highlights in niche roles, the pizzas and pastas are the essential, big name actors. Every table has a pizza, most often covered with the creamy housemade sausage spread called ‘nduja. Lighter and free of tomatoes is the gorgonzola, kale, and mozzarella pie that hits all the right earthy and bitter notes. This is Los Angeles after all where kale dishes outnumber cars. But this isn’t just another kale salad.
I thoroughly enjoyed continuing with the Ramato here but could easily see a 2012 Schiava by Gumphof from the Alto-Adige of Italy working here too.
Before venturing to pastas, Leer wants diners to have a dinner equivalent of a sports’ game halftime. Instead of a coach’s pep talk, take a break with the elegant Vergano Moscato Chinato “Luli” from Piemonte. Think Moscato but with much more muscle, balancing traditional orange and vanilla notes with almost a touch of Campari’s lush floral bitterness. It’s a unique treat that preps everyone for the final savory lap.
You probably haven’t encountered too many celery root pastas. Menache stuffs quadretti with celery root, then teams a veal, pork, and duck ragu with celery root puree. Gnocchi’s close sibling cavatelli, dumplings made of ricotta, are the most talked about pasta in a black truffle-fueled cavatelli alla Norcina. I’d point you to the Agnolotti alla Vaccinara, small parcels stained by cacao and tightly filled with sweet and savory braised oxtail is a close runner-up. I can’t neglect the classic sea-faring blast of Spaghetti Rustichella blending uni, squid ink, bottarga, breadcrumbs and subtle Calabrian chilies. Come on, it’s never fair competing with bottarga and uni.
Joining the bottarga and uni, a sea-faring white is needed to cut the intense salinity. The Austrian winery Schloss Gobelsburger’s 2007 Riesling is the answer. Balance is the key, walking the fine line of crispness and ripe fruit.
You get the idea of Menashe’s cooking and how Leer borrows from all over Europe to compliment it.
Sure, it’s Italian food. But there is plenty of Middle Eastern influence and California too with kale fermented chilies. We’ve also seen Spain and France. I like to think of dinner here as Italy-centered, Eastern Europe heavy, with Western Europe and California accents.
Let us not forget dessert. As off the wall as Leer’s pairing at first seemed to be, the duo of the Dupont Pommeau and a chocolate budino tart couldn’t have been more in harmony. Sometimes I don’t care about pairings. I just want to eat this and drink that. This made me realize just how important they can be after careful experimentation.
Even amongst apple and candied quince crostata and a frozen Meyer lemon custard tart, it seems every table concludes with at least one Valrhona Fair Trade (to be precise on the sourcing) bittersweet chocolate budino tart. If possible it’s even better than it sounds and possibly one-ups the vaunted butterscotch budino over at Pizzeria Mozza. Most important is the soft custard of fiercely intense, high quality dark chocolate. The cacao biscuit crust is the opposite of the usual stale crusts that tend to be this sort of dessert’s downfall. A kick of good olive oil and generous sea salt crystals counters the sweetness. Bestia becomes even more of a party at budino time. Then it’s almost out of control festive when the budino is paired with a Normandie Apple Pommeau, an unfermented fortified wine blend of Calvados and fresh-pressed cider.
Wait, what? Pommeau and chocolate? Sugar clash, right?
Leer isn’t doing this just to be different. He’s clearly worked at these matches and just has a knack for obscure pairings that click. The pairing proved masterful because the subdued sweetness of the Pommeau helped absorb the sharp sweet-salty notes of the dessert.
I waltz back into the Los Angeles night after a parting glass of the sweet but not cloying “Les Churelles de Juchepie” Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley’s Domaine de Juchepie. And the restaurant in this far-off corner of the nation’s second largest city is still mostly full with smiling diners learning about new wine regions from Leer’s list.
Do pan-roasted chicken gizzards work with wines from Tokaj-Hegyaljal? Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. I’ll leave it to Leer to advise me on on that during my next Bestia experience.