Salumi, pasta and pizza: This is the holy trinity of the current trend toward rustic Italian dining, the three things that every new chef-driven, Italian-leaning restaurant must have. These three things represent hearty, everyday eating in Italy but also the chance for a chef to show off his skills. Because even though salumi, pizza and pasta are the foods of the people, conjuring modest country kitchens or bustling city pizzerias rather than hushed temples of fine dining, they're all very difficult to make from scratch.
At Bestia, the new Italian restaurant from restaurateur Bill Chait and husband-and-wife chef/pastry chef team Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis, the holy trinity is in full effect.
Located in an old industrial building now holding residential lofts, Bestia wears its brick and metal well. It's being marketed as part of the downtown arts district, but even if that's technically so, it's the outer edge — the quiet, dark, slightly desolate edge.
Inside, Bestia is all industrial glamour. The aggressive aesthetic of meat-obsessed chef culture is on full display, with chandeliers made of meat hooks and cleavers-as-decoration hung in the recesses of iron-bearing posts.
The L-shaped room features a bar running down one length, a salumi bar with marble counter seating occupying the sharp elbow of the space, and an open kitchen anchoring the dining room. It's attractive, loud and jam-packed.
As with a few other Chait projects, hype for Bestia was stoked before the place opened by using the space for a series of Test Kitchen dinners, featuring Menashe and a host of other chefs from L.A. and beyond. If the Test Kitchen dinners were messy and disorganized — and they were — Bestia seems to be operating much more smoothly. Servers are friendly and spry. On many nights, you can see Chait himself acting as maitre d' or running food to tables.
While this is Menashe's first restaurant as owner and as executive chef, he's spent plenty of time in some high-caliber L.A. restaurants, including Angelini Osteria and Pizzeria Mozza.
At Bestia, he's presenting rustic Italian dining, often taken to its cheffy extremes. Instead of beef tartare, there's beef-heart tartare; rather than the trendy but now widely accepted sautéed chicken livers, there are chicken gizzards. They're served with beets for a Halloween-worthy effect, a plate smeared with vegetable blood under a jumble of chicken guts — sproingy, delicious chicken guts. (Menashe grew up partly in Israel, where tangy piles of chicken hearts are a common comfort and street food.)
It's in the antipasti section of the menu, though, that Menashe most flexes his creative muscles, with combinations like those iron-rich beets matched with iron-rich offal — unexpected, slightly offbeat, more often aimed at ramping up flavors than with contrasting them. Tender grilled octopus comes with oily, crispy wild mushrooms one night, giving a subtle whisper of forest floor to the dish. Startlingly fresh scallop crudo comes sprinkled with squid ink bottarga, tiny bursts of fish-intense flavor on top of the sweet, silky fat slices of scallop. A dusting of breadcrumbs adds crunch; a drizzle of chili oil adds the slightest hint of piquancy.
And then there's the trinity. Menashe is curing meats and making charcuterie, with great results. Unlike some other chefs in town playing with this art form, Menashe understands fat, its mellowness and funk, well enough to know where one should begin and the other should end.
Pastas also are extremely well-executed. The cavatelli has just the right amount of bite and comes swaddled in the earthy funk of black truffle (real black truffle, not a hint of truffle oil); a plate of sweetbread ravioli is delicate and firm at the same time, salty and buttery and lavish.
Of the three holy menu items, it's the pizza that suffers. The toppings are just as good, and as bold, as the rest of the menu (there's a margherita, of course, but also house-made spicy sausage or anchovies with rapini). But the crust is a touch too doughy, and not quite tangy enough. The blistered surface has the requisite smattering of char, and the pizza's faults are minor structural issues. Yet the too floppy, too doughy pies are an anomaly on a menu where most everything else is spot-on.
If I were providing a road map to dining at Bestia, I'd probably have you stick around a while in the antipasti and pasta regions rather than use that precious stomach space on entrées. But if larger plates are what you want, then that part of the menu certainly is worth a visit.
A grilled whole orata is stuffed with rapini and lemons, its delicate white flesh complemented by the slightly bitter vegetable. There's fantastic meaty fun in the cassoeula Milanese, a stewy jumble of braised pork and veal ribs, greens and cabbage with a soft, house-made pork sausage plopped in the middle of the plate. This is winter eating at its most generous.
As with most Chait restaurants, there's a very serious cocktail program, here created by bartender-extraordinaire Julian Cox. Most drinks start balanced and finish bitter, which primes your belly for what probably will be a heavy meal.
The wine list, overseen by young, enthusiastic sommelier Maxwell Leer, is hardly encyclopedic, but for its size it does provide a fun range, from straightforward to downright geeky. I do wish the restaurant offered more choices by the glass — two whites (both too light for this food) and three reds make the glass option a tad unwelcoming.
Genevieve Gergis, Menashe's wife and co-owner, is in charge of desserts, and like Menashe in his role as chef/owner, this is her first position as pastry chef (she also helped with the space's design). You'd never suspect a newbie, though — the wicked kick of salt in a chocolate budino tart is sophisticated without being showy.
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On a recent evening, we ordered the chestnut zeppole with coffee gelato, called "coffee and donuts" on the menu. Gergis came to the table to apologize. "I have five or six orders of zeppole ahead of yours, and I only have one little fryer." We didn't care — we had wine to drink, conversation to have. But when they came, the zeppole were good — pillowy, crunchy with sugar, addictive. I can easily see them becoming a signature of this restaurant.
If the crowds continue to show up at Bestia, Gergis is going to need a bigger fryer.
BESTIA | Three stars | 2121 Seventh Place, dwntwn. | (213) 514-5724 | bestiala.com | Tues.-Thurs. & Sun., 6-11 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 6 p.m.-mid. | Reservations recommended | Full bar | Valet parking