How best to describe Beast, the new bar
and restaurant in Prospect Heights? First, there’s the name,
which alternately conjures up images of meat roasting on spits
- and an S&M bar.
Then there’s the physical reality of the place.
From the outside, the less-than-lovely, brick-fronted facade that makes a backdrop for a few umbrella-topped tables, could be any nondescript watering hole; the bar area is part dive, complete with two TV screens and an old Tapper video game in the far corner, and part old school lounge with a few vintage leather banquettes lining one wall. The back dining room, with its soft-green walls and smattering of tables, could belong to any casual bistro.
Regardless of its name and hamburger joint ambience, Beast is a bar with a serious wine list and menu of surprisingly sophisticated fare. Owner-chef Deborah Bicknese is fond of mythological creatures, so a few are depicted in paintings and sculptures on the walls - hence the name.
When she opened in February, Bicknese and co-chef Megan Fisk aimed for a Spanish-style tapas place. But small portions soon gave way to entree-sized dishes - not the super-sized American kind, but more like European servings, which are ample enough.
"People in this neighborhood didn’t really get the tapas concept," she said. "They thought we were being stingy."
Bicknese, who was a sommelier at "Molto" Mario Batali’s Otto in the Village, and a cook in Fort Greene’s Viennese eatery, Thomas Beisl, describes Beast’s cuisine as "mostly Mediterranean."
"I grew up in an Italian family with great cooks, so their style has rubbed off on me," said Bicknese. Their influence can be seen in hearty dishes like Parmesan potatoes, layered with mozzarella, then baked, and her wine list that leans toward the sunnier climates.
I’d love to see other restaurants adopt the "quartino" as Bicknese and Park Slope’s Tempo have done, and as they do in so many ristorantes in Italy. The "quartino" is a quarter liter, or about two good-sized pours, for a third of the cost of a bottle. It’s a great idea, as it enables diners to share several varieties during one meal. In addition to the well-chosen wines, there’s an esoteric selection of international dessert wines, sherries and grappas.
The menu is divided into "Starters and Snacks," which consists of smallish bites like the luscious Spanish tortilla; and larger plates that are labeled "Earth," mostly vegetables and cheese; "Land and Sky," meat preparations; and seafood items, which fall under "Ocean." The Spanish tortilla boasts layers of eggs, caramelized onions and tender potatoes cut into squares and served with a hearty splash of olive oil and a few pungent black olives.
With the dishes comes a basket filled with slices of a brittle-crusted Italian loaf from the venerable Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan, and chewy house-made bread charred on the grill and addictive when dipped into a tiny saucer of olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt.
The large bowl of short ribs, served off the bone, are braised in lager for at least five hours until the meat is soft enough to be eaten with a spoon. The reduced sauce begs to be sopped up with the bread.
Spicy chorizo slices add heat to red wine and brandy, while the liquor mellows the pungent meat. Thankfully, there’s plenty left over for dunking.
I wouldn’t pass up the pile of grilled sardines with a mound of eggplant relish, as much for the briny, meatiness of the fish as the nutty quality of the vegetable and its hit of saline capers.
Silky, grilled Spanish "piquillo" peppers, with a filling of under-seasoned and unpleasantly coarse salt cod, didn’t wow me.
The "decadent Beastly desserts," as they are referred to on the menu, are anything but beastly. There’s a lemon tart with a thin buttery crust and creamy filling that is superb. The tart’s quartet of pastry, thick whipped cream, drizzle of passion fruit coulis and plump blackberries, so sweet and glistening I wondered if they had been soaked in sugar syrup (but they are "just great fruit," Bicknese assured me) make the dessert memorable.
Another dessert featured a scoop of house-made pistachio ice cream, which melted slowly over grilled baby bananas that sat in a puddle of warm caramel. They were good, but not as wonderful as the tart.
As for brunch, well, in some places it can be an assortment of dismal breakfast items tossed together by bored cooks who’d rather have stayed in bed. At Beast, even the hamburger is thoughtfully prepared.
On a recent Sunday, a table of women celebrated a birthday while Billie Holiday crooned in the background.
Crusty, large burgers, made with a mix of pork, veal and beef, were served on coarse Sullivan Street rolls that absorbed the patty’s juices yet stayed crisp. With the burgers came a salad of new potatoes mixed with an assertive dressing, heavily laced with bleu cheese, that stood up to the bold meat, and an accompanying pickle that tasted as if it soaked in a brine of pure garlic. For me, it was love at first bite.
A must to try is the chorizo hash - an oily mash of the spicy sausage and chunks of potato topped with a poached egg and chipotle-laced hollandaise sauce. The strong, rich coffee is brewed from beans purchased at Gorilla Coffee, a shop on Park Slope’s Fifth Avenue.
Beast may be a simple bar for some, and a casual eatery for others. For everyone, it holds the promise of an exciting meal.
Beast (638 Bergen St. at Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights) accepts American Express, Diners Club, Discover, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $6-$13. The restaurant serves dinner daily. Brunch is offered from 11 am to 3 pm on weekends. On Tuesday evenings local musicians and bands perform with no cover charge. For more information call (718) 399-6855.