Beast + Bottle: From farm-to-fork, nose-to-tail, this restaurant is full of delightful surprises
Beauty and the Beast: Bone-in loin chop with Western Slope cherries at Beast + Bottle.
Like many writers, I'm an introvert — drawn to written rather than spoken words. My hunch is that Paul and Aileen Reilly, the brother-sister duo behind Beast + Bottle, have the opposite temperament. I say this based on admittedly circumstantial evidence: Paul's ease and openness with me, a stranger, over the phone; Aileen's preference for the front of the house, which attracts about as many introverts as medical-device sales. Then there's the fact that the winsome restaurant they opened in March, the restaurant Paul says they've "conjured in our heads since we were kids," is a place that only extroverts would design.
It helps to be an extrovert if you dine here. The narrow dining room, though cozier with a coat of white paint and earth-toned fabrics than it ever was in the gray Olivea days, is small enough that you can hear the talk at the next tables. And there will be lots of talk. To understand the scope of the menu and make a fully informed decision about your meal, you have to ask questions. Lots of them. If you don't, you might feel you've ordered omakase style, letting Paul just send out what he wants. Which is likely to be very good, but can also be surprising.
See also: Behind the Scenes at Beast + Bottle
Nearly all dishes come with at least one relatively unknown ingredient. One night, I overheard a server fielding more questions than an algebra teacher introducing the concept of X, moving from lola rossa (lettuce) to Lou Bergier Pichin (cheese) to guanciale (cured pig jowl) to barigoule (artichoke stew). While that might be too much talking for introverts, it's the kind of dialogue that Paul, a graduate of New York's French Culinary Institute, intended. "Part of our mission is to educate the diner," he explains, "so people ask questions and servers have a chance to say, 'This is something you haven't heard of; this is why we're using it and why it's incredible.'"
The Bangs Island mussels are definitely incredible — with a backstory worth hearing. Mussels are common menu items in landlocked Denver, but much of what you see here are slender-shelled creatures from Prince Edward Island, off the eastern coast of Canada. In contrast, these behemoths, offered as a small plate but big enough for an entree, are from a bay in Maine about 500 miles to the southwest. Paul discovered the little-known species while studying responsibly harvested seafood on a prestigious work/study grant from the James Beard Foundation. "I loved how succulent the meat was and wanted to showcase those in Colorado," he says, so months later, when he was opening the restaurant, he worked with the Seattle Fish Company to track them down. Now he serves them not as he did that first night in his hotel kitchenette, but in a mild broth nuanced with celery-root purée, shallots, garlic, wine and cream, with crusty bread to sop it up.
Depending on how comfortable your server is with chatting, you'll hear about how Beast + Bottle is a nose-to-tail restaurant, with lambs and a hog butchered weekly in-house and every possible piece used somehow on the menu. Thankfully, the tale is generally told in less detail than The Old Man (sorry, Paul) and the Sea; I didn't need to hear more about those knives. But I certainly liked the results, especially the slightly spicy braised lamb-shoulder ragu over wide, housemade pappardelle, and the guanciale draped over the fig + pig, a signature fig-and-Gorgonzola flatbread that Paul brought over from Encore, the restaurant he and Aileen ran on Colfax Avenue. Another standout is the loin chop, a hefty bone-in chop with so much flavor you can't help but apply the concept of terroir to ranching. The night I had it, the chop was accented with plump Western Slope cherries and a tangle of beans in mustard vinaigrette, but with cherry season ending, the dish is bound to change.
That's because Beast + Bottle is also a seasonally inspired farm-to-fork operation. Even if your server doesn't offer that description, you'll probably piece together the story line as you tuck into a corn soufflé topped with pale yellow leaves that turn out to be edible corn shoots, with an earthy side salad of grilled corn kernels, radishes, shaved celery and truffle crème fraîche. Or you'll infer it from the ring of silky garlic-carrot purée underneath nuggets of chewy Yukon Gold gnocchi, or from the nectarine chutney and turnip variations (sautéed greens, roasted baby turnips and raw shavings) that accompany the pan-roasted lamb.
Paul seems to enjoy surprises, which might explain why the menu refrains from describing dishes in greater detail, and why the fine print states that not all ingredients are listed. "That way, things are a surprise to the diner, like, 'I didn't know there were radishes in here,'" he says. But some of those surprises take away from the experience rather than enhance it. After ordering a $33 piece of fish, you don't want to discover that uni isn't seaweed, as you'd assumed, but sea urchin roe. One night, instead of the pork chop my friend ordered, the server delivered a plate of lamb and walked away — not to reappear for some time. Another server was far more attentive: After hearing we were celebrating a special occasion, she wished us well and brought out a complimentary dessert. But what should've been a nice gesture made us feel awkward, since we were already halfway through our brandied plums and chocolate dacquoise and couldn't begin to do this surprise dessert justice.
A meal at Beast + Bottle doesn't have to be complicated. The Reillys added brunch less than a month after the restaurant opened. Since then, Beast + Bottle has become one of my favorite spots to spend a morning, with dishes that are true to the restaurant's mission but easy to understand: pork-shoulder tostadas, lamb-belly burgers, and sourdough waffles with apple compote and pecan praline. Arrive early for a spot on the umbrella-covered patio; dining al fresco here on a sunny Sunday can be a real treat, for extroverts (socializing) and introverts (people-watching) alike.
Given all the competition in the nose-to-tail and farm-to-table arenas, you might think Beast + Bottle has come a little late to the party. Far from seeming passé, though, the restaurant feels expansive, quirky and worldly, as the menu travels from Colorado to Maine to Italy to North Africa in the span of twenty dishes. On many nights, this place is the party. And maybe we shouldn't be surprised that the kitchen hit it out of the park so soon after opening: Paul Reilly's been playing restaurant all his life. Now he just needs to expand on the script (a glossary, perhaps?) and instruct servers to include it in their spiel.
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