Hot chef opens up in historic location
Beast moves into Susur Lee’s old stomping grounds
There’s no mistaking Beast for one of those gastro-sensitive vegan restaurants that have become so popular among hip urban herbivores.
Flames lick up from the sign over the entrance, and the dining area is all dark woods and white walls with hardly a stitch of linen in sight. Two paintings provide a punch of colour to the austere, masculine surroundings and are bound to provoke conversation.
Each is of a naked chimera — a half-man/half-pheasant creature lies on its back and eats blueberries on one wall; a half-woman/half-deer lies languorously in a field of clover on the opposing wall.
They were painted by Rachelle Vivian, wife of chef Scott Vivian, and reflect the new restaurant’s carnivorous leanings.
“Meat is a very important part of cooking,” says Scott. “It doesn’t have to be at the forefront of a meal. It can be Portuguese style, with meat and fish together with many other things. Or it can be about incorporating a charcuterie feel into the dishes.”
Scott is seated at one of the tables in his dining room. He’s an imposing figure, tall, with a shaved head and goatee. Tattoos, including apple blossoms with skulls at their centre and a chef with a knife in its mouth, peek from beneath his sleeves.
Rachelle, who is more soft-spoken, is in the kitchen baking pastries and breads — mini baguettes and Parker House rolls with oregano from the couple’s own garden. Sous-chef Luca Gatti is preparing his specialty, agnolotti, for the meat-heavy pig’s head pasta with spot prawns, one of Beast’s signature dishes. “He makes the best pasta in the world,” Rachelle says of Gatti.
“Well, this end of Toronto, anyway.”
Set amid townhomes and sports bars near King and Bathurst, Beast is located at 96 Tecumseth Street, in what was Amuse-Bouche until its lease expired in May. Part owners of Wine Bar (formerly Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar) at the time, Scott and Rachelle couldn’t resist the opportunity to start their own restaurant.
When they came to Beast, they brought Gatti, Wine Bar’s sous-chef, along with them.
“Wine Bar always felt a bit like it was still Jamie Kennedy’s place even after he left,” says Scott. “Beast was a chance to have our own place without any partners.”
Scott also recognizes the location’s rich culinary history.
“It’s so important to continue that strong tradition,” says the Montreal-born Scott. “Susur Lee’s original Toronto restaurant, Lotus, was at this location, and we’re also a husband and wife team, which hearkens back to that, and the first restaurant I worked at when I moved to Toronto was Amuse-Bouche — it made perfect sense.”
Less easy to imagine was the restaurant’s menu. “Some chefs do well cooking food that is comfort food.
A very few others are more avant-garde, creating new dishes, new flavour combinations and techniques,” says Scott. “I’m in the middle, I guess. I tend to gravitate toward homey comfort food. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel.” Scott learned to cook while on a snowboarding trip to Colorado. He was washing dishes in a small diner to pay for his days on the slopes, and the chef took him under his wing. Since then he’s criss-crossed the continent, refining his craft.
And in his hands, comfort food takes on a very distinct meaning. Sure, the Beast burger is as you’d expect, but you’ll find it on the menu alongside such mains as beef with a sensuous marrow butter, elk with a piquant pipian sauce, duck with pappardelle and the pig’s head pasta. “Our very first dish was the pig’s head pasta, using the head cheese terrine as the meat and glaze for the dish,” Scott says. “It’s about taking something very traditional — the head cheese terrine — and using it in something simple, like ravioli pasta.
It’s playful at the table; you can share.” Work and play have taken on a new meaning for Scott and Rachelle since they opened Beast in June. The couple now lives in the apartment upstairs.
“A lot of restaurant owners want you to feel like you’re coming into their home, but here you really are in our home,” Rachelle says. “We’re an intimate family restaurant. We want the neighbours to get to know us and us to know them. We’re not pretentious, and our menu is all over the place — Italian, burgers, you can get whatever you want. If you’re vegetarian, we adapt. We’ll serve homemade pasta and mushrooms not just a plate of veggies.”
“We didn’t want to be a white-tablecloth destination spot,” says Scott. “We want to be a neighbourhood dinner place first and foremost.”
It’s also a neighbourhood that new residents Scott and Rachelle are enjoying exploring — when the restaurant allows. Beyond Beast’s tree-shaded patio, they’ve discovered shops and parks, including the Tuesday farmer’s market in Trinity Bellwoods where Rachelle finds many of her fresh ingredients. But even with a bustling new neighbourhood, Scott is the first to admit that opening a restaurant is still an immensely challenging and risky venture.
“People are cautious about how they spend their money,” he says. “Having consistently busy nights is tough. Places nearby, like Black Hoof, Pizzeria Libretto and Buca, have figured out their niches in the marketplace. We’re looking for ours, trying to find the balance between being a destination spot and being a neighbourhood restaurant.”