Eagle Rock, the mostly residential enclave sandwiched between Glendale and Pasadena, has a lot of neighborhood dining options. There are pizza joints and diners, burger shacks and sandwich shops. There are a lot of places that would serve as great backdrops for police procedural dramas, and, in fact, there are a lot of cops who enjoy lunching at these places. There are even a couple of old-school, date-night spots — a French restaurant, a steakhouse with enough camp to quicken the heart of any lover of martinis and kitsch.
But what Eagle Rock hasn't had, until now, is a little New American bistro, the kind serving burrata and peaches. A place with a patio decked out in twinkly lights, where you can bring your kids and socialize with your neighbors.
That's where Little Beast comes in.
Located in the Craftsman bungalow that used to house Larkin's, the "modern soul food" restaurant that closed last year, Little Beast asserts its "desire to have a restaurant on the Eastside that rivals the great 'foodie' spots that so easily populate Silver Lake and to the west." In other words, to serve the kinds of customers who might appreciate a little burrata with their peaches. And because Eagle Rock's demographic over recent years has grown to include a fair number of young professional families and older artist types, there's plenty of demand for just such a place.
Little Beast is owned by a husband-and-wife team: Deborah Schwartz-Lowenthal, who owns a photographer's agency, and chef Sean Lowenthal, who has been working as the sous chef at the Chateau Marmont since moving to L.A. from Boulder, Colo., where he was the chef at a fine-dining restaurant and wedding venue.
Little Beast's name is taken from the couple's term of endearment for their 10-year-old son, Miles. If this alone isn't enough to scare off those of you who hate dining with children, be warned: Little Beast is incredibly kid-friendly, and all those young couples are flocking to the place with toddlers in tow. Early in the evening the patio can look like a family reunion of a particularly fertile clan, with tables passing babies back and forth and children munching happily on $3 pasta with butter and $2 "yummy broccoli" from the kid's menu.
The house's front rooms and wrap-around porch are less kid-crazed. In fact, they manage to feel quite grown-up, the perfect location for a gossipy dinner with friends or a low-key date night.
Living in L.A. it's easy to forget the pleasure of an old house–turned-restaurant, as so many of our eateries are in buildings that were never anything but commercial. Little Beast shows how it's done: A nook of the house is used to accommodate a small bar tucked off to one side, and the wooden floors creak charmingly when a waitress stomps by in her cowboy boots.
The menu is brief and familiar: 11 small plates, including both a charcuterie plate and a cheese board, and six entrees. Many of the small plates are salads, which can be either pleasing in their simplicity or a tad dispiriting. The aforementioned burrata and peaches, served with arugula, basil and balsamic vinegar, is a quiet testament to the bounty of the season. On the other hand, watermelon with feta was too straightforward, a (small) step above the cubed watermelon you might bring on a picnic in Tupperware. Yes, there's crumbled feta atop the cubes, and some radish slices, but nothing to distinguish it from very basic snack food.
You're better off ordering something requiring a little more finesse — the wild salmon tartare, for instance, which is a bit of a throwback dish but tasty nonetheless. It's stacked with avocado, kumquat and salsa verde, and layered with "gyoza crisps," which I take to mean the crispy wonton rounds that add some texture, never mind that in real life gyoza are actually dumplings. OK, so the dish is a little confusing — Little Beast's food sometimes is far too simple and sometimes it's a little overwrought.
But there are places where the kitchen hits its stride and gets this brand of gourmet comfort food just right. A recent special appetizer, fresh tomato tart, showcased the sweetness of local tomatoes against buttery puff pastry. A loose corn risotto with pecorino, Meyer lemon and chervil was tangy, sweet and heartening. You can add fresh crabmeat for $4 extra, but the dish doesn't need it.
Roasted organic chicken with asparagus and roasted corn is the summery dish you might have made at home if you had the time or inclination — the chicken skin crisp, the flesh juicy, the whole dish bathed in a savory cognac jus. A recent special of cioppino, the tomato-y fish stew invented in San Francisco, was an example of the success of the simple approach. Fresh seafood, plus herbs, tomato and wine, turns out much better as a simple mix than if the kitchen tried to throw in a ton of creativity on top.
A filet of beef, served with spinach, outrageously vinegary cippolini onions and a blue cheese–rich sauce was as satisfying a hunk of meat as is available anywhere for $22, cooked to bloody excellence and charred just right. I wish the blue cheese in the sauce were a little less assertive, but all in all it's a bargain.
That can't be said for the entire experience at Little Beast. In fact, the whole enterprise would be far more appealing if it were just a tad less expensive. It's hard to say where exactly the priciness sneaks in — in the $14 cheese plate that presents only three small pieces of cheese, in the $10 watermelon salad that's a handful of cubed fruit with a smattering of feta.
If dinner for two were likely to come in at less than $100 with drinks, Little Beast might make for a fantastic weekly treat. As it is, that number is more likely to creep up to around $120, making it more of an indulgence than a regular haunt.
But the wines and beers are smartly chosen and food-friendly, the gracious staff a blessing after a long day at work. Desserts are a high point, like dark chocolate pudding with just the right hint of salt at the edges, or a fresh peach shortcake made with a crumbly, sweet biscuit.
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Little Beast may not be perfect, but it's the exact restaurant Eagle Rock was waiting for: charming, friendly and built on a foundation of family and community.
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LITTLE BEAST | Two stars | 1496 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock | (323) 341-5899 | littlebeastrestaurant.com | Tues.-Sat., 5-9:30 p.m. | Beer and wine | Very limited lot parking, street parking