Highly anticipated and long-delayed, Beast and Bounty is at last in full swing in the Ice Blocks development in Midtown. The development isn’t yet complete; some residential, office and retail tenants all have yet to move in.
Beast and Bounty has been busy since its opening three months ago. Even its adjacent doughnut and ice cream shop, Milk Money, is open — albeit without the original pastry chef, Edward Martinez, who departed abruptly in August. Executive chef Brock Macdonald, who developed the concept with restaurateur Michael Hargis, remains at the helm of the kitchen; Rebecka Smith, formerly of Grange, has taken over the pastry program.
The restaurant, gleaming and beautifully designed, looks like it’s always been there, thanks in part to a main entrance that faces 17th Street rather than R, the main Ice Blocks drag.
“The unique entrance gave us our own identity,” says Hargis, who also owns Lowbrau and Block Butcher Bar.
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It also helps the establishment feel like an organic part of its neighborhood rather than a trendy newcomer.
The restaurant concept aims to bring together carnivores and vegetarians. Menu sections are named for the two parts of the restaurant’s name. The bounty changes frequently with the seasons; beast dishes, as well as some more casual items like ramen and pizzas, are more evergreen.
Beast and Bounty is thus part of a recent and welcome wave of restaurants that treat vegetables seriously. Its most obvious analogue among recent openings is Canon, with which it has certain commonalities: a strong aesthetic sense, a pan-global approach to flavor and a willingness to break with conventional notions of coursing and portion size.
In a comparison between the two, Canon skews more formal, whereas Beast and Bounty feels a little more loose in spirit and approach. Beast and Bounty has communal tables, wild variations in portion size and share plates, and an ambitious, freewheeling approach to flavor and texture that comes straight from MacDonald.
The result on my visits was a little uneven. When dishes come together, they’re a triumph, but the kitchen can turn out some challenging textures and unbalanced dishes.
MacDonald takes risks most often in plating — which is as stylized as the setting — and in the “bounty” dishes, which are fascinating studies in coaxing the flavor from often-underappreciated vegetables and fruits. The beast options are curiously tame, at least in the main choices on offer: the entrees include roasted chicken, salmon, ribeye (that, at 32 ounces, is like a gauntlet flung down) and a pork chop.
Maybe these popular cuts are intended to soothe diners made nervous by the presence of smoked-apple curry with tofu or burnt beets. Comfort also comes from that lineup of pizzas — including a vegan one, which was still listed as a summer pizza on my November visits — and both beast and bounty burgers.
The restaurant design aims to express these two different sides of the menu as well, according to Hargis. The kitchen revolves around a wood-fired oven. Instead of the familiar brooding look of many hearth-driven restaurants, however, Hargis chose a softer aura, with custom details everywhere.
Hand-stitched leather straps that anchor seat cushions match similar straps on servers’ aprons and the menu boards. The leather’s rosy hue coordinates with millennial-pink chairs and glasses — which also match up to one of the excellent cocktails, a strawberry-rhubarb mule sharp with ginger. Stylized golden utensils echo the shapes and tone of custom light fixtures.
Hanging plants suspended far above the dining room add a dramatic touch — and yes, they’re real. A worker gets up on a ladder to water and maintain them. There’s even a welcoming foyer with couches for would-be diners waiting for a table. Too many restaurants leave waiting guests to crowd in a corner or shiver on the street. Including that space adds to the feeling of welcome and comfort here.
“I feel like a vegan blogger mom who does yoga made this place,” said my 14-year-old companion at brunch one day. She might have been wrong about the design’s origin, but she was right about its overall vibe. The restaurant’s interior will launch a thousand Instagram posts — or rather, a thousand and one. Reader, I confess it: I ’grammed the coffee service. It was absolutely beautiful, with chunky handmade mugs on a tray and a tiny golden spoon for sugar.
Better yet, the coffee was good and strong, an important thing at brunch. The brunch dishes on the whole, however, need a little work. Monkey bread with butterscotch glaze and a Dutch baby soaked in maple-thyme syrup were too sweet not only for me, but also for the two teens I brought, whose palates are generally pro-sugar.
My ultra-rich salmon hash, topped with orange pearls of roe, veered the other direction to an extreme saltiness that overwhelmed the delicate poached eggs. Sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts, however, provided a tempering influence. A lighter hand with seasoning would also have benefited the biscuits and gravy, in which a heavy dose of sage and herbs made the gravy taste soapy. The light, fluffy biscuits, however, were worth the price of admission.
Brunch also offers vegan twists. A soyrizo bowl with crunchy quinoa, beans, a faux queso fresco, and avocado “crème” alongside the spicy soy crumble was a smidge dry but one of the best things I tried from the morning menu.
Lunch — some of the menu for which overlaps with dinner — felt a little more even. The kale Caesar salad had a light coating of its black-garlic dressing and crunchy, umami-rich nutritional yeast in lieu of parmesan. I ruined its otherwise excellent vegan-ness by adding the small portion of wild salmon, which made it into a marginally more filling meal but raised the price to $23.
The Beast Burger, with a brioche bun and much-maligned white American cheese, was a beefy, too-big-to-finish triumph. (Look, say what you will about processed cheese, it melts well on a burger.) It comes with “ash onions,” savory with their char; the menu descriptions are obsessed with different results of fire, which don’t always sound appetizing and carry some unfortunate and wholly inadvertent reminders of recent tragedies in the news.
Margherita pizza had a blistered, crackling crust that held up well to its toppings. I wished the basil had been added, as per tradition, after the pizza was out of the oven; it was burnt to bitterness, lacking the usual sweet freshness the herb adds to a pie. Otherwise, the flavor was good.
Duck ramen appears on both the lunch and dinner menu as well. The broth was deeply flavored and absolutely full of body, but I could have done with less of a duck-fat slick on top. The oozing miso egg, tender duck and excellent noodles, however, made this a fantastic bowl of soup.
At dinner, the options expand. Fluffy, yeasty Parker House rolls are a bit pricey, with funky cultured butter alongside, at $10, but very delicious — and, really, kudos to Beast and Bounty for finally being up front about the fact that bread service actually functions as an appetizer.
We loved the vegan fried falafel, which came with crumbled tofu brined in Castelveltrano olive juice to make a remarkably tasty approximation of feta, and an equally successful coconut-yogurt tzatziki, plus a beet hummus. I will go on record here as saying that I’m not a giant fan of smearing sauces and dips around the inside of a bowl, a convention Beast and Bounty uses repeatedly, but that’s a matter of personal taste.
Charred octopus, the restaurant’s most popular appetizer, overreached a bit. The actual tentacle, one big one arranged in a delicate crescent at the side of the plate, was silky with crispy edges. It rested on “pickled potatoes,” with a raw-potato crunch I found dismaying. A great deal of spicy aioli and slices of tough, hard-to-chew Spanish-style chorizo made for a muddle of textures and flavors.
Nobody at our table was up to eating the menu’s 2-pound ribeye, but we tackled the mixed grill with gusto. We got a bonus of steak, however; the kitchen had run out of the miso-shiitake short rib that formed one of the items on the big shared plate and replaced it with a perfect, smaller cut steak with velvety, full-bodied shiitake reduction. Bitter wilted arugula alongside provided contrast.
Porchetta, also on the mixed grill, was crunchy of rind and fatty within, though the leaner section of the spiraled meat was just a touch dry. It enclosed an herbaceous filling with the aroma of dill, sending this Italian dish in a slightly Greek direction. Duck confit made up the third meat on the big platter, its tender richness set off by my favorite thing I ate at Beast and Bounty: a sour and hot mint leaf salad with bright chiles.
The current “bounty” dishes had both big wins and off notes. The roasted celery root sounds like a quiet, even boring dish, but could be required eating for anyone unsure about the potential of root vegetables. It came with a savory demi-glace, a crunchy contrasting salad of celery and tender pears. The server aptly described it as being like a short rib in vegetable form (thanks for the descriptive assist).
Burnt beets were more mixed: the promised burnt skin, left on, lent an odd papery feel, but the whipped faux ricotta and hazelnuts were lovely. I was intrigued by the daring smoked-apple curry with a luscious coconut sauce and cubes of fried tofu. The half apple, however, needed longer cooking to yield to a utensil, and the fried tofu was an offputting bouncy texture.
Bounciness also marred an ambitious dessert, a vegan panna cotta with huckleberries that was set so firmly it clung to the bowl. It gets an A for effort, but I wonder if trying to adapt panna cotta (traditionally cream with gelatin) to veganism is too great a stretch.
A little milk-chocolate pudding, airy and mousse-like, fared better, though the chocolate flavor was overwhelmed by orange. My favorite dessert were cream puffs with a sharp lemon curd, cranberries (the fruit changes seasonally), a sprinkling of lavender mint and a textbook-perfect craquelin on the choux puffs. I was impressed both with the technical demands of the pastry itself and the way the dessert brought together several diverse flavor elements.
If all of Beast and Bounty’s high-wire culinary acts came off this flawlessly, the restaurant would be among the very upper echelon in town. As it is, it certainly has the potential — and the reach — for greatness. With a few tweaks and adjustments, I think the food’s substance can match both the kitchen’s confidence and the setting’s undeniable style.
Beast and Bounty
1701 R St., 916-244-4016
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Beverage options: Strong craft-cocktail program with a full bar, strong beer selections and a more selective wine list.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes, including vegan options and a thoughtfully designed vegetarian program — though the latter could be more clearly signaled on the menu.
Gluten-free options: Yes.
Noise levels: Extremely loud. Servers have to kneel tableside to catch orders during dinner service. Brunch, lunch, or in nice weather the patio are better choices for those sensitive to noise.
Ambiance: Gorgeous, detail-oriented design with millennial pink chairs, gold-tone utensils, earthy ceramics and glorious hanging plants make this Instagram heaven. It’s also very comfortable, with one of the nicest outdoor dining areas in town.
The style is dialed, but the substance can be a tad uneven at this see-and-be-seen newcomer from the team of restaurateur Michael Hargis and chef Brock MacDonald. Some dishes succeed wildly; others can be a tad precious or their balance off, especially at brunch. At lunch and dinner, however, the cocktails, meat plates and roasted vegetables are strong bets.
The kitchen’s ambition level is high, but the results on the plate can be uneven. Flavors are mostly innovative and strong, as in rich duck ramen, vegan “feta” made from olive-juice-infused tofu with falafel, “burnt” beets and a stellar spicy-sour herb salad atop duck confit on the mixed grill. But textures could use some work: tofu bounced and a smoked apple was hard in its delicious curry, tough coins of chorizo and crunchy potato were jarring in the charred octopus dish, and an over-set vegan panna cotta resisted the spoon.
Knowledgeable but unintrusive and highly competent. Meals run smoothly and the vibe is hospitable.
Cost-conscious diners, choose carefully: prices vary greatly and often a bit confusingly. A $24 appetizer (a single octopus tentacle), for instance, is much smaller than the $10 rolls (but then again, the latter are $10 rolls). Burgers and pizzas are $18, and shareable meat mains run $28 to $92, whereas hearty veggie dishes are $16.