Rebirth of a Room
Pork Rinds, Veal Sweetbreads, and a Banana Split at La Bête
La Bête is the prettiest place that's ever sold pork rinds. For those of you who would like to commence grousing about foodies and their ridiculous trends and the endless upscaling of everything: Yes, these pork rinds cost $5, and that's $3.01 more than pork rinds have cost before anywhere ever, and it is an outrage, and you may be excused. If you're thinking that pork rinds made exactingly by loving human hands—pork rinds served so fresh from the deep fryer that they make alarming POP!s as they cool in front of you—would be completely, absolutely worth $5, or maybe even $6, come over here and sit by me and have a pork rind, friend.
They're alchemical, these pork rinds: pig turned into big, baroque curls of gold. The icky, hard rind part has been hand-trimmed away, so it's all subcutaneous fat, looking like glowing alien bubble wrap. They make the loudest noise of anything you've ever eaten when you bite into them, and they are also the loudest thing you've ever chewed. They make heads turn, neighboring tables talk to one another, people laugh. Each bite coats your lips, and your mind, with lipid delight; it's an apex of fat and crunch, with house-made vinegar-jalapeño salt for saline heat. A tiny dish of pickled shallots, almost sweet, recalibrates your mouth when need be. When they're gone, don't worry; you'll get to watch (and hear) the people at the next table eat theirs soon, then watch (and hear) as a wave of pork-rind-ordering travels around the room.
La Bête is where Chez Gaudy used to be, hidden in plain sight on Capitol Hill's Bellevue Avenue. Gaudy's name was not inaccurate; all that's left of the cluttered warren that used to be there is the crown molding around the ceiling. The overhaul achieved something very rare: The space feels like it's been exactly how it is since the lovely old building was built, brick by brick, in 1927. It's old-fashioned, but not at all precious. An open kitchen with counter seating and a small bar give the room life, and the urge to cram in as many tables as possible was resisted, giving it air. The ornate ironwork guarding each window from the outside makes it feel like you're in an antique birdcage. It can get loud, but it always feels intimate in a kind of private-club way.
Two guys who met while working at Ethan Stowell's recently departed downtown temple of fine dining, Union, are the chefs at La Bête, and they know what they're doing and then some. Aleks Dimitrijevic (who, according to La Bête's website, is also known as "The Vapor") also has experience at Bouley, Harvest Vine, and Licorous, and Tyler Moritz ("The Beastmaster") has cooked at the W's Earth & Ocean and Lark. The menu focuses, as per current dictates, on (fairly small) shared plates made with Northwest ingredients and fearlessness when it comes to flesh ("la bête" means "the beast" in French). They're smoking their own sockeye salmon ($15); it's lush and only hints at smoke at all, melting on the tongue. It's served with a fennel and endive slaw to cut the richness, then crème fraîche and salmon roe to ratchet the richness back up again, along with miniature slices of fingerling potato so you can assemble adorable, delicious little stacks. A dish of gnocchi with braised rabbit ($16) tastes precisely like autumn, with pulling-apart-tender meat, squishy-light dumplings, skinny sage leaves, crunchy whole hazelnuts, and the smallest cubes of butternut squash and apple in a brothy, savory, buttery sauce. This is the kind of food that makes you not care if it gets dark at 3:00 p.m., that makes you think of winter holidays and warm hats. You could serve the veal sweetbreads ($17) at La Bête to the person most opposed to both veal and sweetbreads in the world, and they might end up converted; they'd definitely at least go crazy for the accompanying potato puree, a cloudlike goodness that doesn't rely on bludgeons of butter or cream for flavor.
The most startling thing so far at La Bête, besides the pork rinds, was, unexpectedly, a soup ($11). Served in a teacup on a little palette-shaped tea platter (La Bête has the best china), it is made out of kabocha squash and tastes of comforting pie spices—but it has a swirl of Tasmanian peppercorn, which, out of nowhere, violently seizes the taste buds. (Tasmanian peppercorn, like its Szechuan counterpart, causes temporary numbness wherever it hits.) With the soup comes a crisp, light popover stuffed full of melty, pungent blue cheese—another aggression—with some red onion jam to boot. It is all complicated, odd, and really good. On the other hand, one night's scallops ($20) were precisely cooked but subtle to a fault, with very thin, mild slices of matsutake mushrooms, a little cabbage, the bittiest of bacon bits, and a watery, vaguely Asian broth. And a beet terrine with white anchovies ($11) begot the discovery that beets and anchovies taste a lot more like each other than you might think, in a not- necessarily-great way.
Not everything's perfect at La Bête, but a lot is magical. Right now, it's the dining room for lots of restaurant industry people—Ethan Stowell checking in on his former employees; a couple young chefs visibly stoned out of their minds, attacking each dish like they're doing emergency surgery; the whole waitstaff of another place occupying the bar. Everybody here looks, surreptitiously or openly, at what everybody else is getting, in the way that the non-food-obsessed check out other people's dates. (For dessert, few can resist a banana split with Olympic Mountain chocolate, vanilla, and blackberry ice cream. Shakes, malts, and alcohol-based floats are coming soon.) Speaking of dates, everybody's tousled and happy at La Bête's weekend brunch, which just switched to an all-hiphop soundtrack—good for waking up a little before, hopefully, you go back to bed.