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Beast and the Hare: Meat as Art 

Wednesday, Feb 16 2011
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Time was, most of the vegetarian restaurants in town had either a religious bent or a mission statement, as if meatless food required two pinches of higher purpose for every pinch of salt in order to taste good. But in the past half-decade, the omnivores have gotten competitive, spelling out their own manifestos in humanely raised animals, lesser-known sea creatures, and gristly pig parts.

You can smell the meat pride steaming off the menu of Beast and the Hare, Ian Marks and Dylan Denicke's new neighborhood bistro, which has gastropub leanings and perhaps the best restaurant name of the year.

Chef Ian Marks spent a few years working under master charcutier Taylor Boetticher at Fatted Calf and then ran the kitchen at the Ferry Plaza's Hog Island Oyster Bar for almost five years. He loves — and we're talking pure passion here — playing with sustainably sourced meat. In one meal at Beast and the Hare, for instance, I consumed nine animal species, and that's only because we decided against ordering a plate of oysters to round it up to 10. The food waffled between the extremes of meat-driven cuisine today: offal artisanry and KFC's Double Down, the exquisite and the shlubby.

Regarding that first meal: Species number one came to the table in the form of bruschette smeared with goat cheese and heaped high in savory tangles of roasted red peppers, black olives, and squid tentacles, the squid more a flavor intensifier than a distinguishable presence. Meats number two and three: a plate of glorious fried chicken ($16), brined and battered, the pebbly coating sloughing off the juice-drunk bird except in the spots where it was held down by a pimentón-spiced gravy. The chicken was splayed across creamy grits and the meatiest collard greens I've ever eaten, braised with smoked pork at a ratio of 2:1.

Then there was the meal's pièce de resistance, "ambrosia" tacos ($6 for two). Marks braised veal sweetbreads, beef brisket, more veal, lamb, and pork belly together for so long that they melted together into a sort of fudge, as concentrated a source of deep flavor as a bouillon cube. He scooped a half-cup of the shredded mixed meats onto rustic corn tortillas, then spooned on a tomato salsa bright with cracked coriander seeds and red padrón peppers. The taco wasn't in the least Mexican — or subtle, for that matter. A red-meat-leaning omnivore might consider getting a second plate.

Beast and the Hare looks like a bootstrap effort, a quick renovation of the space that last housed La Provence, located on a sleepy corner of Guerrero that has always seemed to encourage restaurants to loiter aimlessly, smoking cigarettes and bitching about the popular kids on Valencia. The room is tiled and furnished sparsely, with a two-person cooking station at the back. Its distinguishing characteristic: a deep-blue floor-to-ceiling paint job the color of a police uniform or perhaps Cookie Monster. In the month between my two visits, business seemed to double, the room filling with slouch-haired couples sharing a plate of oysters, eight-tops of women with style-y eyeglasses and mounds of chicken wings, and boomers who'd strolled down from Liberty Hill for a lamb shank and a couple of glasses of Minervois.

Marks divides his menu into smalls and bigs. The dishes are hearty enough to encourage drinking.; however, if you don't order a salad or two to balance them out, the cumulative richness can feel like an onslaught. Especially when the chef's polish cracks: There was a savory bread pudding, for instance, that tasted like mushy, unseasoned milk toast, with lettuces and a black-edged fried egg inexplicably piled on top. (Animal number six: a couple of pickled anchovies on the side.) The pleasure of eating a fritto misto is in its lightness, the illusion that you're not consuming an elephant ear's worth of fat; when the batter is dense and spottily applied, as it was on Beast's fried cauliflower, purple-potato coins, long beans, and sardine filets ($9), it just tastes like a Fry Daddy party. The New Orleans beignets ($6) we ordered for dessert, as airy as a slice of pumpernickel, had the same problem.

Still, the service was super, and Beast and the Hare's charcuterie plate ($8 for one kind, $16 for three, $26 for six) warrants a visit in its own right. The rabbit rillettes, submerged in sweet pork fat, spread across a piece of bread with the ease of softened butter. Slices of pale lardo were tangled around tart green apples, the fruit crunch fading out just as the cured pork fat melted onto the tongue. And the gossamer slices of duck — species number nine — were so delicately smoked that I skipped the bread, buoying them to my lips on the single tine of a fork.

On my second visit to the restaurant — only a five-species meal, though we consumed five or six different cuts of pork at one go — the charcuterie plate again defined Marks' capacity for delicacy. The pâté de campagne was all opulence, the pork-liver spread crowned, both literally and figuratively, with a layer of toasty pork fat, while the coppa was sliced into stiff, translucent petals that melted in a wash of paprika, garlic, and pork fat. Although it wasn't on the charcuterie platter, a plate of avocado bruschette ($6) belonged there: Mashed with olive oil into a coarse puree, the avocados were topped with pickled anchovies, their marinade just vinegary enough to deflate the inflating richness of fruit and fish.

The meal ended with two simple, lovely desserts (both $6): a cloudlike panna cotta topped with dried figs marinating in a hefty slug of rum, and a s'more pie, with graham cracker crust and browned whirls of marshmallow fluff, that reveled in the density of its chocolate-mousse filling.

Again, though, the cooking could be off-kilter enough to make me focus on its calorie content rather than its flavor. Oil glistened and pooled in the crevices of honey-mustard chicken wings ($7), each wing a giant, unsegmented triangle, and the exterior wasn't nearly crisp enough to warrant eating more than a few greasy bites. A pressed duck leg ($16) had been cooked under a weight to melt out the excess fat, but then it came out mahogany-skinned and overcooked, perched on a warm salad of farro, red cabbage, and green olives shiny with too much oil. The servers were bustling a little more to attend to the crowded room — they were just as affable as the last time, but they forgot the salad we'd ordered, leaving us with a vegetable-free meal that I swear left my spleen a little achy. I got the feeling that Beast and the Hare needs one more line cook, since most of the flaws seemed to stem from a lack of attention.

Countering the crise de foie was a pappardelle with smoked pork cheeks ($16), inch-wide ribbons of pasta tossed with a tomato ragu and chunks of braised pork. Just enough smoke lingered between the fibers of the tender meat to subdue the brightness of the tomatoes, but not enough to stomp all over the dish. The ragu was proof that when Marks controls his brawny side, he stays on message: presenting meat as art, not extreme eats.

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Jonathan Kauffman

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