01 December 2014

killer instinct: the beast, 75003

Barbecue, arguably, is for Americans what wine is for the French.  What the subjects share is a dialectical emphasis on local cultural tradition, to a degree that handily surpasses that of, say, the New World wine industry. So perhaps it should be no surprise that Thomas Abramowicz, the young French barbecue afficionado behind hype-scorched new Parisian BBQ establishment The Beast, displays a masterful command of the finer regional nuances of barbeque: things like the provenance and flavour difference of the oak and pecan wood used in the Central Texas-style he prefers; or the origins of the sweeter, more pork-based Kansas-style. I knew none of this before the round of Wild Turkey we shared at the close of my meal at the Beast. 

While billing itself as a bourbon destination, The Beast also maintains a tight, inexpensive natural wine list, one that is surprisingly au courant, given the context. For The Beast is a laser-sighted populist commercial endeavor, replete with graphics package and a catchy koan-esque slogan. ('Meat. Fire. Time.') 

Yet the cool wine list and The Beast as whole leave me torn. The restaurant's mass appeal and commercial savvy seem to be in latent contradiction with its small size. Success seems predicated upon rapid table turnover and massive takeout business, neither of which phenomena have much precedent in Paris, a city congested in perpetuity with inveterate table-squatters. So I wonder how the restaurant will thrive without either drastically raising check averages or relocating to a larger premises. In both cases, the experience would change entirely. Hence my ambivalence about The Beast. In its current state, it is among Paris' best new restaurants. But reviewing the place is like being given a cute baby tiger and asked whether you'd like to keep it. 

Before I speculate further, I ought to congratulate Abramowicz on his restaurant's almost flawless execution. The Beast gleams. For once one doesn't get the impression that the branding effort took place in lieu of substantive content; rather, the well-appointed space is the natural accoutrement of a well-developed concept. (Ask Abramowicz about the tattered American flag that serves as backdrop to the take-out counter. The story is a masterpiece of narrative salesmanship. Abramowicz, incidentally, formerly worked in marketing for LVMH.)

Before opening The Beast, Abramowicz embarked on a barbecue pilgrimage around the USA, training with Wayne Mueller in Taylor, TX and at Franklin's in Austin, among others.

His beef at The Beast is primarily American Black Angus, which he prefers to French beef for its fat content. He gives it a salt-and-pepper rub, Texas-style, eschewing the more sauce-centric BBQ traditions. Brisket, a nigh-on unfindable cut in France, undergoes a 15-18 hour cook time, emerging perfectly pliant with a haunting, three-dimensional flavour.

Of the main courses my friends and I tasted on our visit, only the dry, under-seasoned chicken disappointed. But certain accompaniments, too, felt undersketched, like a container of steamed greens, whose steam might as well spell out in the air above it, "AFTERTHOUGHT." 

The "homemade bourbon barbeque sauce," for its part, feels actively discouraged, arriving as a lonesome brownish dot on the meat tray. Sauce ought to be in bottles, and pickles ought to be in a jar. For someone otherwise possessed of a positively Japanese attention to detail, Abramowicz has a surprisingly clumsy approach to plate presentation.

The question inevitably arises: should one expect fine plate presentation at a barbecue joint ? What about in barbecue joints that actively fetishize the presentation of their meat via wall-mounted photography?

I'm not talking about a dusting of coriander flowers or curlicues of mandolinned root vegetables. I just mean that it is in a restaurant's interest to attend to plate presentation to the extent that food items don't look tiny on the trays they arrive on.

In most other respects, The Beast is visibly the work of someone with a granular knowledge of contemporary American restaurateurism. Where the restaurant stumbles is in its presentation, which occasionally over-adapts to Parisian expectations. There are the garishly idiotic menu names. ("Big Boy," "Who's Your Daddy").

There are the posery, outdated mason jars the splendid local Deck & Donahue beer arrives in.

There's also the "Beef Rib XXL," whose name belies its rather modest size on the tray. A ballerina could eat it for breakfast.

Such are the challenges of opening a barbecue joint in Paris, however. Everyone - not just me, presumably - will be looking for traces of fussiness and sissy-fication, for Parisians tend to do that to concepts they import. (C.f. brunch.)

This reminds me, however, of an illuminating conversation I once had with a wine industry friend from New York, who explained that his favorite aspect of contemporary Paris restaurant meals was their relative moderation. Flavours are delicate and plates aren't enormous. The Beast, for all its authenticity, is a contemporary Paris restaurant meal, and therefore a very new context in which to appreciate excellent barbecue.

How does excellent barbecue match-up with natural wine ? Mylène Bru's Languedoc red "Far Ouest" was out of stock on the night I visited, so I opted for a wine I know very well, Beaujolais rising-star Remi Dufaitre's 2013 Brouilly. It didn't so much pair with the XXL beef ribs as run fleeing from them. I returned to beer, and some sips of the Native Companion's bourbon.

My friends in the US wine industry are continually floating wistful ideas about how they might sell US wines in Paris. As much as I myself prefer drinking French wine in France, I'd be remiss not to point out that The Beast is the one Paris venue I can think of where serious US wines might sell at their relatively stratospheric prices.

And who knows? That might prove necessary to feed The Beast.

27, rue Meslay
75003 PARIS
Métro: République
Tel: +33 7 81 02 99 77

Related Links: 

Meg Zimbeck at Paris By Mouth took the unusual step of bestowing a ton of positive press the day the restaurant opened. 

Wendy Lyn at The Paris Kitchen was, for once, more reserved. 

Le Fooding's vaguely offensive English language version of their Beast blurb, which describes the Beast's clientele as "hordes of Americans, enticed by the smell..." If only Le Fooding's English were remotely readable! Then when choosing restaurants us hick Americans wouldn't have to rely solely on our noses like cavemen.

An early interview with Thomas Abramowicz at TMBBQ, unfortunately riddled with curious errors. At one point Abramowicz rightly credits Kristen Frederick of Le Camion Qui Fume with starting the food truck craze in Paris, and the website follows it with a link to her competitor, Cantine California. The author also thinks "des" and "viandes" together comprise one single word. 

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