Feast Flourishes in Southtown

One of the food blogs I regularly read attached a video to a recent article emphasizing the difficulty of obtaining puff pastry for a tart the authors desired to make. It was part of a Sesame Street series called “One of These Things is Not Like the Others,” and it dealt with circles. (In case you’re ever asked to make the call, one of the four circles was smaller than the others.) For some reason, I immediately cued on the four new (and, in the case of Liberty Bar, new to the ‘hood) restaurants that are making Southtown the city’s now nexus of exciting contemporary cuisine. One of these is decidedly not like the others.

Yet as with the Sesame Street segment, there is also much similarity between Liberty Bar, The Monterey, Bliss and Feast; they’re all, let’s say, creative, culinary circles. But one of the quartet is different visually, not in the sense of size but in style. (There’s probably a Sesame Street song about that, too.) Where all the other restaurants have gone out of their way to be deferential visual neighbors (we’ll give Liberty’s coral color a pass in the hope that it will fade — soon), Andrew Goodman has gone out on a limb with Feast by inserting a dazzling white and sparkling bright package into a historic environment. It’s a risky move of the kind that can pay big dividends if well executed. For me, it doesn’t quite make it, but I realize that I’m nit-picking (and ignoring budgetary constraints) when I note that the clear plastic Ghost chairs are replicas of the Starck originals — though reasonably convincing, that the tables come nowhere near matching the elegance of the Saarinen prototype if that was the intent, and that the showroom selection of glassy/plastic light fixtures may be fun and flashy, but it doesn’t necessarily yield the best light for dining.

The place can also become almost punishingly noisy, a perception that’s reinforced by the shiny, white surroundings. Sitting outside when weather permits thus becomes a reasonable defensive option. But let me also tell you what I really think about the food: For the most part, it’s fantastic. The menu is divided into segments (hot, chilled, grilled, crispy… ) that may sometimes change (“melted” may become “comfort,” for example), but will consist mostly of small plates in the $5 to $12 range, leaving only a single column of four or so mains. From the “hot” column, the PEI mussels in white wine, cream and green harissa are reliably good, but the seven-spice barbacoa, should it be available, is sheer genius. I won’t attempt to enumerate the spices (more on that score later), but I will go out on a limb of my own: If you have resisted this traditional Tex-Mex dish on account of its provenance or its greasiness, resist no more.

As prepared by chef Stefan Bowers, the barbacoa is both earthy and intriguing, and the lettuce wraps provide a coolly crisp counterpoint that’s abetted by a drizzle of garlicky yogurt. Don’t remove the sliced jalapeno; it’s a good grace note, and not overpowering.

I also never thought I’d be singing the praises of fried calamari, the artichoke dip equivalent of the last decade. But Feast’s rendition of what are usually rings consists of larger, unrecognizably squid-like pieces that are also remarkably tender. (One either cooks squid very quickly or forever; in between lie rubber bands.) The advertised Ottoman spices we couldn’t resist asking about in this case: cinnamon, cumin, caraway, coriander seed … came back from the kitchen. The Aleppo (think an embattled Syrian city) chili aioli that was provided for dipping was just spicy enough to pull everything together. In short, spectacular. We liked the brochette of baby Brussels sprouts well enough, but could have used more roasted shallot and thought the vinaigrette a little too much like that other past-its-prime product, honey-mustard dressing. Lamb breast is decidedly not a cut that has been over-used hereabouts, and its appearance on Feast’s menu in various forms is welcomed. Grilled, cut into almost too-small pieces and served with red curry and coconut milk, this rendition nearly succeeded. Yes, the meat was just a tad fatty, and the dish might have been more assertively curry-flavored, but it was given life by fresh mint. Accompanying ribbons of fried parsnip also scored points for originality.

There’s not actually a list of possible bonus points that can be awarded during a meal, but if I had one, attention to questions of scale would surely be on it. This is not merely a visual thing, but also has to do with what you put into your mouth with any given fork or spoonful. Chef Bowers’ North African rubbed chicken, one of four mains that also included braised short rib with charred lemon polenta, came accompanied with large broad beans and small grape tomatoes — of equal size, in other words, and of equal importance. Let’s continue this theme. The “North African” rub wasn’t what I had anticipated, thinking along the lines of the Ottoman mix, or perhaps a bit of fiery harissa paste. What we got on the chicken was more like a Moroccan charmoula— green and perhaps made with parsley, cilantro, cumin, a hint of cayenne.

Whatever it was, here’s what worked: Though the saucy beans and tomatoes were great together without the chicken — and in fact almost trumped it — the ideal was to get a little bit of everything on the fork at the same time, maybe even making sure some of the green sauce made it into the broth. Play with your food, in other words. If you need it, you have my permission. There’s also some playfulness to be had at the head of the meal with Feast’s selection of cocktails. The King, with bourbon, vermouth, orange bitters and an amarena cherry (worlds away from the fluorescent maraschino of our collective upbringing), is serious without being ponderous, and The Prince is basically a gin and tonic with the addition of sweet peppers, cilantro and serrano chiles.

The wine list is right on the edge of being a little too sketchy, especially in whites, but the choices are thoughtful, and we enjoyed our Perrin Côtes du Rhône Blanc. For the short ribs or the ribeye burger, may we suggest the Ridge Geyserville? At $68 it’s actually fairly priced by restaurant standards.

As a parting shot, let me also suggest that when dining at Feast, it’s not a question of either/or but both/and: Join ‘em by wearing all white (and diamonds or pearls if you’re so inclined), or beat ‘em by getting yourself up in outrageous color. Either works in my estimation.

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