Angie Mar’s Menu: Red Meat and Respect

Posted January 9, 2018 9:00 p.m. EST
Updated January 9, 2018 9:08 p.m. EST

Angie Mar, the chef at the Beatrice Inn, walks through the dry-aging room at Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors, choosing the cuts she likes best for her restaurant, in North Bergen, N.J., Dec. 14, 2017. Mar has made her mark with luxurious old-school cooking and a management style that defies toxic restaurant culture. .(Sasha Arutyunova/The New York Times)

NEW YORK — Angie Mar stood at her kitchen’s narrow steel pass on a recent Saturday, gliding through a dinner rush that would not let up until close to midnight.

“My loves,” she announced, “coming my way I’ve got one branzino, two côtes de bœuf — one rare, one medium — one poutine, and in six minutes, a duck for two with a lamb chop and a tartiflette going with a porterhouse, and in 11 minutes I’d like a full clean down of the kitchen.”

“Yes, chef,” five cooks replied in unison.

Mar, 35, is the chef and owner of the Beatrice Inn. For nearly a century, the space in a West Village brownstone was many things — a Prohibition-era speakeasy, a family-owned Italian restaurant, a club with a celebrity clientele — but it was never known for the prowess of its kitchen, which at less than 200 square feet is minuscule even by New York standards.

Mar changed that. The Beatrice Inn has become a magnet for awards, including her 2017 nod from Food & Wine magazine as one of the country’s best new chefs. A July review in The New Yorker proclaimed, “Angie Mar is a badass” — not just for buying the restaurant from Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter in 2016, but also for quickly turning it into “a buzzy foodie destination.”

Mar, who had been cooking for less than a decade, did this by following her culinary North Star — meat, in all its glory — and her own sumptuous, grand cooking sensibility, defying the movement in fine dining toward delicate vegetable-focused compositions; spills of light, colorful juices; and handmade ceramics.

Her aesthetic is full of old-fashioned references; of whole animals or big, fatty cuts on the bone; and of sauces — rich, sticky, reinforced sauces that Escoffier might recognize. Her dishes are served with grace and gusto, often in immense portions, on vintage silver and crystal that she picks out at flea markets in London.

“What we do at the Beatrice is not for everyone, and I’m 100 percent OK with that,” she said. She occasionally posts photographs on Instagram in which she’s gnawing the meat off bones (which she encourages her diners to do, too) or relaxing with a leftover venison pie from the restaurant, on the unmade bed of her Upper West Side apartment. The images are an extension of Mar’s brand — joyful celebrations of style and appetite.

Mar, like many chefs, found early artistic inspiration in Marco Pierre White’s 1990 cookbook, “White Heat” but doesn’t seek to emulate his famously harsh school of management. As reports of abuse and sexual harassment in the restaurant business continue to break, Mar provides an obvious reminder: It is possible — it has always been possible — for a chef to pursue excellence without creating a toxic environment. “The thing that really struck me the first time I ate there was how, the whole time, the staff was talking about how much they loved her,” said Kat Kinsman, a senior editor at the website Extra Crispy and the founder of Chefs with Issues, an online mental health resource for restaurant workers. Kinsman described the dinner as “a savagely beautiful way of eating.”

To achieve an effect of effortlessness, Mar puts in constant, meticulous work behind the scenes. She has set a standard for acceptable parsley leaves (dainty, feathery soft). And once a month, she puts on a heavy coat to treasure-hunt in the freezing meat lockers at Pat LaFrieda’s New Jersey warehouse, picking out her favorite cuts of beef (hulking, marbled with fat).

During the dinner rush, as the printers spat more tickets full of orders, Mar directed the frenetic kitchen with a composed intensity. She pressed a long needle into a lobe of foie gras, then to her lip, to check its temperature. She inspected every open oyster on its way to the dining room.

Was the adductor muscle completely unattached? Was the mantle neatly in place? Was there a rogue piece of shell hiding somewhere, anywhere, inside? On one occasion, yes — a fragment, no longer than an eyelash, which she immediately fished out.

“Mr. de la Rosa,” she said to a server, holding up the shard on her fingertip, “Would you like to take this downstairs and show it to them?”

Mar’s earliest cooking jobs were at Diner and Marlow & Sons in Brooklyn. She helped open Reynard, where she learned to butcher, then became a sous-chef at the Spotted Pig (where the owner, Ken Friedman, has been accused of sexual harassment by several current and former employees).

Her aim, she says, is to provide her team with the training, support and guidance she couldn’t always find for herself as a young cook. For restaurant culture to shift in a meaningful way, Mar believes it is just as vital for her to mentor men as women.

“We need to focus on bringing the next generation up,” said Mar, who refers to her staff, half-jokingly, as her kids. “Because what really matters is where my cooks are in 10 years, and who they’re mentoring in 10 years.” Mar sometimes uses honorifics — Mr. and Ms., ladies and gentlemen — to address her team, with the archaic formality of a professor. She and her managers also carve out time each day to discuss an informal curriculum of books, films and restaurant reviews, as well as techniques and inspirational quotations, with the entire staff.

On a recent evening, they talked about “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” the 2011 documentary about the Japanese chef Jiro Ono, marveling at his craftsmanship.

Afterward, Mar met with her wine consultant, Nathan Wooden, to test dishes under development. The staff seated her, as if she were a guest, and Mar took notes on the back of her menu, writing down questions and ways to improve not only on flavors and presentations, but also on the introductory monologue a server gives to each table (which she determined to be a smidgen too long).

Just a few weeks earlier, she had tapped a 19-year-old server, Emma Arango, to train as a chef de salon, adding tableside service to her responsibilities. Tonight Arango was in a black suit, shaving truffles over hamburgers, flambéing whole ducks, carving lamb.

“Look at her go,” Mar said with pride. “She’s going to run one of my restaurants one day.”

Mar had asked the kitchen to plate two versions of a langoustine cocktail she was fine-tuning — one with the sharp shell still on, the other ready to eat.

“The problem is, do most people want to go through all this?” Mar asked, cracking open a shell-on one with her hands, with ease, dipping the meat in butter, and then tipping it back for a taste of the brains. No, she decided, and went with the version that would require more work in the kitchen, but less in the dining room.

The langoustine had been developed, like all new dishes, through a series of weekly workshops that Mar runs with her sous-chef, Nicole Averkiou, and head chef, Ed Szymanski.

In the earliest stages of a new dish, Mar draws out a word web in Sharpie, on printer paper, throwing words out, circling them, squashing them together in different sequences, discussing all the possible variations out loud. At the center of a blank page, she wrote: Hare. This dish, she said, was inspired by Madame de Pompadour, one of Louis XV’s mistresses, whom she had been reading about recently.

“What else do we want? Truffles. Smoke. Chocolate.”

“Red things,” Szymanski said. “All things red.”

“Cherries?” she asked.

Mar was born in Seattle, where her family bought cherries grown in eastern Washington from the stands on Beacon Avenue. As a girl, she would sit in the back seat of the car, spitting pits out the window.

“I still look for that meaty texture,” she said. “And the ones from Yakima, when you bite into them, they’re almost steaklike. The skins are snappy, like sausage casing.”

Her paternal grandparents had come from China, and their experience was shaped by the racist immigration laws of the early 20th century, including the Chinese Exclusion Act. When they died, Mar’s father was one of 10 children left orphaned. Raised by his siblings, he grew up in poverty.

“My aunt used to send my dad to the back doors of restaurants in Chinatown to ask for scraps to eat,” Mar recalled.

By the time Mar was a child, growing up in south Seattle, her father, a dentist, was cooking at home with generosity and devotion: T-bone steaks during the week, smoked ducks at Christmastime, and on the weekends, braised pork shoulders in milk — a recipe she has adapted for the restaurant.

Her aunt Ruby Chow opened her namesake restaurant in Seattle in 1948, and became a well-known restaurateur. But Mar, who dropped out of college, worked in commercial real estate in Los Angeles for nearly a decade before considering a career in restaurants. Her business partner at the Beatrice Inn, Melissa Merrill Keary, is also her cousin, and they employ several other family members.

In a quiet moment downstairs, Mar set a 28-pound rack of beef on the counter with a thud, and cut it loose from a net of twine. For five months now, she had been soaking the meat in whiskey, drawing out the aging as thrill-seeking butchers did in the 19th century.

The beef was beautiful, but unconventionally so, speckled all over with a splendid, powdery mold. Another variety bloomed in the curves of its bones, flossy and sheer and caramel-colored.

Mar cut it open and shaved a few pieces of the meat inside. Raw, unseasoned, the slivers were mouthwatering and faintly alcoholic, like a ripe, washed-rind cheese.

“This one’s ready,” she said, signaling to Averkiou.

This meat, the most expensive served at the restaurant, would sell at $14 an ounce (with some steaks weighing in around 35 ounces, and others more). Though critics have questioned some of the high prices at the Beatrice Inn, Mar serves dishes in a wide range of prices, and believes that her food is worth it.

“This is my favorite muscle on the entire cow,” she said, pointing to a spinalis dorsi, or rib-eye cap, crowned with fat. “Look at all of that insane marbling, look at the short plate! This, this, is going to be a very nice steak.” After dinner service, at 1:30 in the morning, Mar and her cooks were done for the night, but they didn’t leave. Instead, they gathered in the back dining room and took turns discussing what they wanted to improve on, and what they got right — with immediate feedback from Mar.

“I need to not shut down when I make a mistake,” said Duncan Burgin, who had to return a lobe of foie gras to the heat when Mar noted that it was slightly underdone.

“I’m working on getting faster,” said Kevin Huffman, the newest cook in the kitchen, fresh out of culinary school.

“You’re definitely picking up speed,” Mar agreed. “At the beginning on a new station, you always work on getting it perfect, and then you work on getting faster. Awesome. Who’s next?”

Mar asked her cooks to share notes on their favorite chefs of the moment, and the conversation was easy and earnest. Mar went last.

“So she wasn’t exactly a chef, but I chose Julia Child,” she said.

“I knew it!” Diana Lee, another cook, shouted. “I knew it!”

“Her bœuf bourgignon was the first braise I ever mastered,” said Mar, who had watched Child on television and cooked from her books as a teenager, with her father, long before she was on the lookout for Michelin inspectors in her own dining room. “It’s a reminder this year, as we chase stars and awards, and we keep on pushing, we don’t lose sight of who we are.”

Venison and Trotter Pie

Yield: 1 9-inch deep dish pie, 4 servings

Time: 1 hour, plus 8 hours' braising and baking

For the filling:

5 cups (1.2 liters) chicken stock

1 pig trotter, split lengthwise

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 pounds (700 grams) venison shoulder or leg meat, cut into about 2-inch pieces

Kosher salt

4 tablespoons (40 grams) all-purpose flour

3/4 cup (188 milliliters) white wine

1/2 onion

6 cloves garlic, peeled and halved

6 sprigs thyme

1 bay leaf

1 cup fingerling potatoes or new potatoes, boiled until tender

1 5- to 6-inch marrow bone, outside scraped clean

For the crust:

2 1/2 cups (300 grams) all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons (30 grams) sugar

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon kosher salt

5 1/2 tablespoons (75 grams) cold unsalted butter, coarsely grated

5 1/2 tablespoons (75 grams) cold beef suet, coarsely grated (or use additional butter)

3/4 cup (200 milliliters) ice water

To assemble:

1 egg, beaten

1. Make the filling: In a heavy-bottomed pot that fits the trotter pieces in a single layer, bring the stock and trotter to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, cover and simmer gently for about 3 hours or until the trotter skin and meat is very tender. Remove trotter pieces and strain the liquid, reserving both the trotters and liquid, separately.

2. Heat oven to 325 degrees. In a large Dutch oven, heat the oil over high heat. Generously season the venison all over with kosher salt and, working in batches, sear the meat on all sides until deep golden brown. Return all meat to the pot, reduce heat to medium and sprinkle the flour over the meat, stirring gently. When flour is slightly brown, add the wine, scraping all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Cook until the liquid thickens, about 1 minute, then add about 4 cups of the braising liquid from the trotters, so the meat is covered, along with the onion, garlic and herbs. Bring up to a boil, then cover tightly and place in the oven to cook until tender, about 3 hours. Fish out and discard the onion, garlic, thyme and bay leaf.

3. Once the trotter pieces are cool enough, pick off all of the meat, silken tendons and skin from the bones, and discard the bones and any tough bits. Chop trotter meat, tendon and skin roughly and add to the braised venison, along with the potatoes. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary with more salt.

4. Make the crust: Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a food processor and pulse to mix. Add the butter and suet and pulse until mixture has a cornmeallike texture. Slowly stream in a little cold water and continue pulsing, adding water a little at a time until dough comes together; you may not need all the water. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth, dusting with flour as needed to avoid sticking. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes or up to 1 day.

5. When ready to bake the pie, heat oven to 375 degrees. Put a 9- or 10-inch deep-dish pie plate on a foil-lined baking tray and stand the marrow bone up in the center of the pan. Spoon all the meat, potato filling and gravy around it. On a lightly floured surface, roll dough into a 12-inch round and cut a small cross at the center. Drape dough over the pie plate, pushing the marrow bone right through the center, so it’s sticking out. Use scissors to cut excess dough away, leaving at least an inch hanging off the edge all around. Use a fork to press down and crimp the dough where it’s touching the edge of the pan, leaving the overhang attached. (It will make a kind of curtain around the dish.) Generously brush the dough all over with the beaten egg, and bake until the crust is deep golden brown, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes, then season the open top of the marrow bone with a little salt and serve.