“We didn’t know what to expect. I mean, we came into a community that we felt like we understood, but we were also apprehensive enough that we tried to make it super simple and really approachable when we started, and then just slowly evolved as we thought we could,” says Sean Lowenthal, the owner of Little Beast.
Lowenthal and his wife Deborah Schwartz opened the charming Eagle Rock restaurant back in 2013, taking over the converted bungalow that had previously housed soul food specialist Larkin’s. Lowenthal, who’d been the sous chef at Chateau Marmont, admits he played it safe in the beginning so as not scare away a potential customer base. “Chef-driven cuisine is a little more adventurous,” he explains. “I didn’t know if steak tartare, sweet breads, foie gras, octopus, or crudo—I didn’t know how well that was going to be perceived.”
Wanting to push the cuisine further, Lowenthal relied on specials to test the neighborhood’s tastes. If a special did well, it would be considered for the regular menu. The better the response, the more daring he got, and it turns out northeast L.A. was receptive. “If I look at my first menu, it’s funny. It was really simple,” says Lowenthal. “And it wasn’t because I wanted it that way. I just thought it was the best thing to do at the time.”
Even so, the dishes on the early menu were a departure for Eagle Rock’s food scene at the time. The wild salmon tartare starter, a tower of fried, tostada-like gyoza and guacamole, and pan-roasted diver scallops served on a cauliflower puree and drizzled with salsa verde, were both early standouts. The usually perfect scallops are still on the menu, though they now come with shrimp, wild rice, and peppadew purée. Also transformed is the duck mousse, which used to be served under a blanket of carmelized onions—these days it’s presented in a jar layered with port gelée, blueberries, and sherry gastrique. It’s vastly improved and more luscious than ever.
There are also entirely new, relatively experimental dishes that Lowenthal wouldn’t have tried in the early days. The cauliflower coconut soup with curried whipped cream is one of them. Same goes for the slow-roasted octopus with red cabbage, kimchi, and crispy tortilla strips. But, there is still room for standards, too, and the Little Beast burger, dressed with red onion bacon jam and Maytag blue cheese aioli, remains a customer favorite.
Instrumental in Little Beast’s continued momentum has been Chilean-born chef Jose Perez, who worked as the kitchen’s chef de cuisine for a while and was recently promoted to executive chef to allow Lowenthal to focus on other projects and aspects of the business. Perez (formerly of Pali House and Waterloo & City), says he was attracted to the concept from the beginning. “I liked the vibe of the restaurant,” he says. “It’s really homey and a mom-and-pop restaurant kind of, but more upscale.”
Perez says the “culinary freedom” that Lowenthal has given him has been invaluable, enabling Perez to keep pushing limits. Creating elevated dishes that are still approachable has been a welcomed challenge for him. “Nothing really too fancy or complex. You don’t have to always discover new things. We try to give [guests] an experience that is really friendly even when they’re eating something that took forever to produce,” says Perez with a laugh, adding that the ingredients for the aforementioned octopus take days to come together.
It was Perez’s creativity that convinced Lowenthal to hand over the reigns. “At first he was kind of just doing what we do and doing it well,” he says. “Then, I just started realizing some of the specials he was doing and then started, him and I, coming up with menu items. I really felt like he had so much talent that he hasn’t been recognized for.” Eventually, Lowenthal decided to get out of Perez’s way. “I was just, like, I don’t even need to control creatively what we’re doing, I just need to guide it.”
With Perez at the helm, Lowenthal is optimistic about the future of Little Beast. The pair plan to move forward with the same ethos that helped shape the restaurant up to this point, part of which is as Lowenthal puts it, being “many different things to many different people.” Ultimately, Little Beast is a neighborhood restaurant, and they want to serve the community that they’re in (offering a kid’s menu is part of that) while also moving forward with their cuisine.
“I want it to be successful enough on its own that it was comfortably fulfilling the needs of the community and doing it in a way that seems to be something that we’ve been from day one,” says Lowenthal. “I want it to be as busy as it possibly can at all times, but I don’t want to sacrifice anything to be that.”