Chef Michael Arlt and owner Dustin Lee opened the Beast & Company in Fort Worth’s Near Southside District with a mission to create a menu of Southern dishes that showcase the roots of those meals.
Blending cultures on a plate is no easy task, but Arlt’s easy curiosity and history of working in kitchens from Houston, Chicago, and Portland, Maine, to ones in North Carolina and Florida, prepared him to be up to the task.
The dishes they’ve created pay homage to the African, Asian, and Latin American roots of things often thought of as staunchly Southern. Arlt carefully highlights ingredients that make classic meals not quite what is expected, utilizing local specialities and some unusual twists with the aim of normalizing once-familiar favorites such as rabbit and pate — both of which have fallen out of common use but were once staples of Southern fare.
Arlt’s fascination with highlighting the New South ingredients from the Old South, and often much further out and much further back than that, sets the dishes at the Beast apart from other restaurants. It’s not an unintentional lifting of inspiration from other cultures so much as an homage and a history lesson.
Chicken Liver Pate
Chicken liver, cream, and butter
“This dish has its own history in the South. That’s not a real big mystery; people just didn’t want to waste anything. What makes this recipe so special to me is my mentor, Lawrence King, who passed in 2018. Everyone who worked in his kitchen at Watercolor Inn and Resort’s Fish Out of Water in Florida has his chicken liver pate recipe on their menu. It’s very close to my heart. And it is obviously unequivocally Southern. I’m trying to make sure that it is demystified and easy to enjoy.”
Thai Lobster Bisque
Spiny lobster, coconut milk
“Lobster bisque is an embellished dish that I learned when I was working in Maine, from my mentor and Singapore chef Alfie Jerome Mossadeg. When we were constructing the restaurant and [owner] Dustin Lee and I were talking about concepts, I was thinking about my love affair with Southeast Asian cuisine and how that fit into Southern cooking. Houston has one of the largest populations of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam, as well as large populations of Korean, Thai, Cambodian, and Filipino people. These are huge communities in the Gulf Coast region.
“What I started learning was that after the Vietnam War, a lot of people were displaced. For people coming over [as refugees] to the States, that region resembled where they came from — it’s humid, lush, and seafood-driven. I started looking into Viet Cajun food. Vietnamese crawfish is one of the greatest things that’s ever been [laughs]. In the new version of what we look at as Southern cooking, there is an Asian influence. Since we live in a warm part of the country and this dish can traditionally be quite heavy, we decided to make it absolutely dairy-free, using coconut milk to give the bisque that body and richness. We’re using Spiny lobsters out of the Gulf — we’re using the skulls, the meat, all of it. It’s a big bowl of stick-to-your-ribs soup that’s satisfying to eat when it’s 105 outside.”
Redfish Court Bouillon
Redfish, white beans, mussels, saffron, and whatever’s in the kitchen
“This dish started from breading a piece of fish, staring at it in the pan, and building the stew to serve over rice. I grew up in Pensacola, Florida, which is three hours away from New Orleans. We take a lot of influence from their food. Several years ago, I had dinner with [prolific New Orleans chef and restaurateur] Donald Link and he gave us one of his cookbooks, which I started thumbing through. I saw a lot of things for the first time in it, so when I next went to New Orleans I ate at Cochon and had the catfish court bouillon with Hoppin’ John. The rice, broth, and beautiful fish were delicious and light. While developing this menu, I was looking into Cajun cooking and realized court bouillon was often made of the stuff you have lying around. There are only a few staples you need to have to make it what it is, which is essentially a seafood stew that’s smoky with some tomatoes and the trinity [traditionally in Cajun and Creole cooking, onions, bell pepper, and celery] in there. I brought in that Texas redfish, which is so popular in East Texas. It was initially supposed to be stingray, but buying wild catch has its ups and downs and it’s hard to get this year because the storms have been bad on the coast.
“We also thought about the dietary restrictions and preferences of this new age and made the dish pescatarian and gluten-free. Traditionally, you would add smoked ham or something in it but we decided to rely on smoking the vegetables and peppers and we removed the roux, which uses flour and butter, and reduced the broth using a lot of fish bones. We add all of our leftover fish pieces to the broth. Rather than creating waste, we’re using all of the fresh fish we break down in the restaurant to create this broth. We roast them with fennel and the trinity, adding a pinch of saffron and some Creole spice. To me, that’s an ode to how the dish was developed from the beginning, asking what do we have that’s going out soon? What’s lying around the kitchen?
“To elevate the dish, I took inspiration from something I cooked in Detroit, using crushed white beans and scallops, and from a dish I had in France that had pickled smoked mussels in it. We incorporated those ingredients, but the dish still has roots in the idea of a working guy out in the swamp, making something good. There is obviously a lot of African influence, from North African fish stews. The smoked, dried peppers in this dish, that are not real spicy and are muddled in spices like cumin, are from that tradition.”
Rabbit, Benton country ham, carrots
“Our rabbit dish has been a surprise hit. Historically speaking, at any restaurant I’ve worked at unless you’re tagging yourself as a wild game location, people need some motivation to try anything outside of the norm. But as soon as we opened, we found we were selling out of it by 7 p.m. every night.
“The rabbit is much more of a basic Southern dish in its roots. I wanted the rabbit to be prominent and not hidden. I wanted the leg there, the lion there. I wanted to make it a quintessential dish, and that started with getting the best ham in the country from Benton’s in Madisonville, Tennessee. We wrap it in their country ham and don’t even season the rabbit loin because it has such a great salt content. We make a sauce from the rabbit body, because I love full utilization of ingredients and hate wasting. We confit the legs and serve those on the dish with it. We used the sous vide method to slow-cook these beautiful, lean, delicate rabbit loins wrapped in thin ham in a perfect little roulade. It’s one of the few times I’m a fan of that method of cooking. The ham protects the moisture content of the loin and seasons it perfectly. Then we take it out and roast it in the pan nicely. It’s an elevated way to do a play on rabbit fricassee or a common dish with beans and a shredded meat ragu.
“This is also one of my favorite presentations: We also do a fun play on the dish of what rabbits eat, which everyone says is carrots, so there are quite a few carrots on the plate as a spiced carrot puree. There’s a potato pave, it’s like a nice brick of layered potatoes. And there are shaved fresh baby rainbow carrots gently seasoned with sherry vinegar and olive oil, and some frisee so it looks like a little garden.”
Milk, butter, sugar, eggs, fresh seasonal fruit
“When we were growing up, my family would bring these over. It was something that came out of a can, a canned fruit like peaches, and they would make some kind of pie. We had a knockoff version of it. When we’d hang out with our friends who had the more Southern belle mothers, they’d make sweet potato pie, pumpkin pie, or pecan pie. This tart was inspired by falling in love with that and seeing where that comes from. It’s a simple thing born from people just not having things, which is something that occurs in the South. My grandmother, who lives in North Carolina, was easily one of the biggest old Southern influences on me. Something about that pie just kind of makes me feel like I’m sort of back at that table or eating these simple and delicious items.”
The Beast & Company is at 1010 W Magnolia Ave. in Fort Worth. They are accepting reservations Tuesday and Wednesday from 5 to 9 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday from 3 to 10 p.m.