If landing a table at Bestia wasn’t challenging enough (I could teach a puppy to play chess in less time), when you arrive at the graveyard of derelict factories on the darkest of alleys in the so-called “Arts District” of downtown Los Angeles – a mere Molotov cocktail away from skid row – that uncomfortable lump that you feel in the pit of your stomach is a curious mixture of anticipation and regret: The thrill and satisfaction of finally being able to sample one of LA’s white-hot “it” places, diluted by the frightening realization that this might very well be your “last supper!” But you surrender your car keys to the shadowy figure emerging from the darkness anyway, realizing that there’s just no going back.
The former warehouse is a crowded hive of exposed light bulbs, raw bricks, time-weathered steel girders and industrial doors. And in stark contrast to all the old wood, antique bric-a-brac and semi-middle-aged crowd, there is youthful electricity oozing from the asymmetrical hairdos of the gaggle of handsome, black T-shirted twentysomethings, whose charm and hospitality are only eclipsed by their cocky confidence as they rattle off recommendations from the exhaustively prolific menu. Even the open kitchen, running the length of the room, exposes more than just the hearty preparations of 41 items – it reveals an even cockier bandana-clad cooking crew of even more twentysomethings. The kids have clearly taken control of the ship – and they’re teaching the grownups a thing or two about a thing or two! Not that we tried to or anything, but there wasn’t a single query that could stump our waiter. Even the origin of the stemware was just another aspect of his limitless lexicon of information.
Executive chef Ori Menashe has created far more than just an eclecto-rustic Italian test kitchen. His prowess as a truly gifted salumiere, pizza & pasta maker, and his uncanny ability to sidestep conventional ingredients to give his hearty dishes an unpretentious reinvention, will inspire future snout-to-tail toques, who from hereon out will be referred to as the “Post-Bestia Generation”.
The plates grow in sharability as you move down the page. Things start timidly enough with Homemade Country Bread (Menashe grows his own yeast), which reappears toasted under a variety of Crostinos, from Chicken Livers with herbs to Sea Urchin (the latter having to regrettably yield its briny flavor to the garlic and chilies).
But then there’s a noisy explosion of options, building from the delightfully sweet and tangy Farro Salad in a pickled chili and avocado dressing, to the much-blogged-about Roasted Marrow Bone, and of course the adorably photogenic aged-wood plank of 4 or 5 impeccably house-cured Salumi (including duck), with sour pickled vegetables and a mild, mermaid-green mustard for company. Thanks to the revocation of the California law, Foie Gras Terrine has returned to the menu, and the spreadable ‘Nduja sausage makes a number of spicy appearances – as the flavor driver for Mussels and Clams and as a feature in one of the three San Marzano tomato-based pizzas.
I’m always a bit weary that an octopod can become mushy when tossed in a dressing. But chef Menashe keeps his cheerful Grilled Octopus and Calamari moist, tangy and shatter crisp, with a refreshing and citrusy chili vinaigrette. His pastas aren’t just house made, they’re house leavened! The melt-in-your-mouth worm-shaped Pici with hearty chunks of deliciously salty lamb ragu and crunchy breadcrumbs will emit a sigh of delight from even the staunchest of Italian die-hards.
Given that Bestia means beast, the selection of land animals is surprisingly short, but the family style Prime Aged Ribeye, fileted to boast a succulent pink interior that tears apart effortlessly, delivers a simple, salty, fire-grilled, tender morsel of umami heaven.
Pastry chef Genevieve Gergis (Menashe’s wife) peppers her half dozen desserts with seasonal fruits like persimmons, tangerines, winter lemons or pink lady apples, but the olive oil and salted caramel Valrhona Chocolate Budino is by far the strongest contender.
Bestia might well be LA’s turning point in defiance of convention, categorization, expectation and formality, heralding a brand new genre of dining on the left coast.