162 Avenue A, New York NY 10009 (b/n E. 10th and 11th; map); 212-228-6900; thebeaglenyc.com
Service: Casually confident, knowledgable and helpful
Setting: Attractive East Village,
Must-Haves: Lamb neck, chicken
Cost: $25/head should fill you up
There would be a number of ways to articulate what's so incredible about The Beagle, a recently opened venue in the East Village. But the way they describe the place on their website sums it up well:
The Beagle is a superb classic cocktail bar with fantastic food, or a superb restaurant with a fantastic cocktail program, whichever you prefer.
And that's the crux of it. There are any number of spots with sophisticated food and drink programs, where skilled bartenders work alongside skilled chefs. And we can certainly name a few bars (Terroir, Ardesia) where the small plates are as carefully thought through as the wine list. But we couldn't have named you a place where not only are both cocktail bar and restaurant exemplary (even destination-worthy), but they also complement each other—where a clear degree of thought is put into their pairing, not just their separate programs.
That's what we found at The Beagle.
We had high hopes walking in, due to the credentials of the opening team, many of whom hail from the better restaurants of Portland, Oregon; owner and general manager Matt Piacentini, though he's been in New York for some time, is the co-owner of that city's Clyde Common, a relaxed but hip spot with wonderful cocktails; the chef, Garrett Eagleton, worked in that kitchen as well as at Le Pigeon, one of Portland's most exciting restaurants (the chef, Gabriel Rucker, won a James Beard Award this year as Rising Star Chef).
It's not that The Beagle was quite like either restaurant, exactly; however, the Portland spots' reputations for excellent food and drink did have us expecting quite a bit. And we weren't let down.
The cocktails (all $12) at The Beagle are so well balanced and integrated that you may have trouble picking out what's in them—and it's quite possible you've never tasted some of these ingredients before. But the drinks aren't overthought or needlessly complicated; they incorporate unusual spirits in the service of making something delicious. The Longines brings together an unlikely mix of gunpowder tea, cognac, fresh lemon, and a touch of Anis del Mono, a Spanish anisette, but no one element dominates. It's tart and almost yeasty, with just a hint of herbal character. The Queimada Swizzle features an earthy rhum agricole suspended in a mountain of crushed ice, plus lime, pineapple juice, and housemade orgeat syrup. On a hot day, you might have to tell yourself to slow down. The Commando, made with Elijah Craig 12-year Bourbon, orange liqueur, lemon and absinthe is spirit forward but drinkable, with the absinthe melting seamlessly into the citrusy bourbon.
The caramel notes of the Astor Painless Anesthetic, made with armagnac, gin, Bonal, Cocchi Americano, and orange bitters are amazing with an order of the excellent moist chicken. And the bartenders are up for experimenting—the day we visited, they had excellent strawberries to muddle into their sherry cobbler, and were willing to riff on another customer's request of an almond flip.
The Beagle has appetizer-sized plates and entree-sized ones, but a whole section of the menu features pairing boards: small dishes with a shot-sized cocktail or spirit served alongside. "We're still figuring out the program," said bar manager Dan Greenbaum; "At first we were really just doing spirits, but now we're moving to miniature cocktails. I think it works better." We did, too.
Lamb Neck and Rye ($17) gives you lamb neck that's slow cooked, spice-crusted, almost like a good pastrami, though the rye in this case is not bread, it's a Preakness cocktail (served here as a rye Manhattan with Benedictine). With a crisp outside crust over a tender, fatty interior, the lamb neck is a beautifully cooked wedge of meat, served with a tomato-anchovy relish that's as pungent as it is delicious. Frankly, you need something powerful to cut through flavors like this, and the spirit-forward Preakness did so nicely. On another plate, Pressed Pig Head and Rum ($17), we felt the rum pairing was a bit overpowering. We also preferred the lamb neck as a dish, though the pig's head is plenty enjoyable in its own right; braised, pressed into a square, and seared, it could have been a bit better seasoned but was otherwise tasty, with pickled onions and a white bean salad. (To say it's the less preferred dish is only to say that the lamb neck was remarkable, whereas this was merely very good.)
The prices seem fair enough if you consider the plates a dish and the better part of a cocktail; they seem less reasonable if you're not intending to enjoy the spirit with them. Opt for one of the appetizers if you'd rather set up your own booze-food pairing.
Dates ($6) are a good option, served with high-quality prosciutto that's nice and warm on the plate, letting the fat melt on your tongue with the Pimentón de la Vera-spiked honey. Mussels and Clams ($12) are even better; stewed in white wine with fennel and lardo, they're served with paper-thin shavings of cured foie gras which melt into them and into the broth. (Foie is a thing, here. We're not complaining.) It's a dish that's everywhere integrated; the fennel picks up the briny echo of seafood; the clams and mussels, the distinctive bite of fennel.
Fresh baby corn ($6) are like little versions of elotes, but made with fresh baby corn—not the canned stuff you get in bad Chinese food. The mayonnaise is the best part. Very olive-oily, rich, and spicy. Good enough that we snuck greens off the pairing plates, and bread from the clam dish, just to swipe them through the extra mayo.
Poached Egg ($14) is the ultimate spring appetizer, with big fat stalks of asparagus, fresh fava beans, and pea tendrils dressed and served warm with a runny poached egg; it's a fantastic dish because the ingredients are so good, but it wouldn't be half as good if everything weren't prepared perfectly.
And while the Half Chicken ($24) sounded tame on the menu, it was easily the best dish of our meal. A leg and a breast are pressed together with foie gras and Lincolnshire Poacher cheese in between. Its seared skin is seriously crisp and the meat is crazy-juicy, with a deeply seasoned, fennel scented flavor, almost like good Italian sausage. With braised leeks underneath and Maitake mushrooms, it's one of the most memorable chicken dishes we've had recently.
We found the desserts as compelling in flavor as many of the other dishes, but with a few textural issues. To put it tactfully, a soft chocolate dessert has to be presented quite precisely, lest it look like something terribly unappealing. This Chocolate Custard ($6) didn't exactly make itself look appetizing. But we enjoyed its silky smoothness and intense flavors, the surprising but pleasing acid contrast of the grapefruit, and the corn flake brittle—though we could've used a lot more of that last one (partially because we loved it; partially because a pile of softness needs some kind of contrast). We had the same quibble with the Cranachan ($6), essentially an oat-studded whipped cream. The early summer strawberries were amazing, and the cream has a way of teasing out the flavors of the Scotch that's in it, letting you appreciate those nuances without the accompanying alcoholic hit (though make no mistake, this is a boozy dessert). But the small oat nubbins embedded in the cream are too few and small to contribute texture or flavor.
That said, we'd eat either dessert again. Even the weakest dishes we tried at The Beagle were terribly enjoyable. The better dishes, we're still thinking about.
Superficially, The Beagle looks like a number of restaurants in New York these days, particularly the Brooklyn set; smart-looking bars, craft cocktails, a seasonal menu focus. But what sets The Beagle apart, frankly, is how good much of it is. It's not all that often we leave a restaurant smiling broadly, recounting every bite. But The Beagle inspired that sort of glee. That's not to say it's perfect, but it is to say that nearly everything we tried impressed us deeply.
Put simply, we can't wait to go back.