The French word “bête” sounds like the English word, “bet.” It may sound lucky to us, but “bête” translates to animal or beast—and it can also refer to a fool or an idiot. This makes a playful name for Smith Street’s Bar Bête, a bistro helmed by a seasoned French-Canadian chef and armed with a warm staff that is already making this brand new restaurant feel like an old favorite.
It’s the kind of place where you can grab a flinty and complex bottle of Laherte-Freres Blanc des Blancs Champagne for $108 or just drop 5 bucks on a Miller High Life. You could get a generous, paprika-doused serving of savory steak tartare, served on a crunchy baguette with boquerones (that is, Spanish anchovies) and a rich, golden-yolked, fried quail egg for $10, or you could get a bowl of thick-crusted duck-fat-fried potatoes, with creamy garlic aioli, and flash-fried parsley for $7 (which, incidentally is the same price you’d pay for an order of fries at Wing Bar, the dive bar down the block).
The thing you can’t always get at Bar Bête is a damn table.
Battersby’s Joe Ogrodnek has a hand in the project—which spurred much of the buzz around the restaurant’s opening—but it’s the cooking of Beglian-born, Canadian-raised Chef Marc St. Jacques that has the neighborhood vying for reservations. St. Jacques was formerly the executive chef at the Ace Hotel in Manhattan, Auberge du Pommier in Toronto, and Michael Mina in Las Vegas. He’s hitting all the marks of a fine-dining experience at his cozy nook of a restaurant here in Brooklyn.
His team has zhuzhed up the old Provence en Boîte space on the corner of Smith and Degraw with soft globe pendant lamps, curvy banquettes, and dark wood arching over the bar. They’ve mastered the kind of lighting that sets everyone’s complexion aglow. This place doesn’t feel anything like Battersby, which promised outer-borough charm in tightly packed tables. Instead, Bar Bête’s design brings to mind the elegance of Manhattan restaurants; it’s like Smith Street’s own little Frenchette.
Even the house cocktails feel both streamlined and classy with alluring little titles: DARK (bourbon, Cherry Heering, Fernet, $13), LIGHT (gin, vermouth, Chartreuse, and Gentian-Quina, $13), and CITRUS (blanco tequila, long pepper cordial, lime, and Absinthe mist, $13—the best of the three).
The food offerings fall into that magical culinary space between homey and luxurious. On a special occasion, you might dive into the rolled omelet—fluffy, buttery eggs wrapped around sweet peekytoe crab ($15) and then move along to the poussin, a little pitch-perfect chicken, glazed with sweet-and-sour onion sauce, nestled in a bed of rich polenta, and piled high with sautéed spigarello (broccoli’s leafy and slightly bitter Italian cousin, $26).
But for my ideal meal? I’d split a bottle of wine and share a handful of dishes with a friend: potatoes, salad, clams, and cake. We’d split the duck far potatoes alongside the truly incredible “Big Salad,” a pile of wide, bitter chicory leaves, lightly coated with a creamy-mustardy-addictive dressing, and topped with salty-crispy-sweet fried onions ($13) and go halfsies on the clams, soaking crusty bread in their garlicky, miso-rich broth ($15). The meal would be light enough to save room for the cake—oh lord, the cake! It doesn’t look like much—just a basic rectangle of yellow cake with a bunch of thick chocolate frosting and some flaky sea salt sprinkled on top. But in this age of Instagram-able sweets, it’s this not-so-photogenic dessert that I’ve been craving ever since. The cake is light, and just sweet enough, the frosting is deep and smooth, a chocolately dream, and sea salt crunches, like a wink from the chef, who has a real knack for elevating the dishes you love already and turning the homiest fare into something divine.
P.S. For now, Bar Bête is only open for dinner, but we heard a rumor that they’re considering opening for brunch, with an early-morning menu for the stroller set. St. Jacques is the father of a toddler, so he’s familiar with the odd hours of families with young children. My own kids are hoping they’ll bring back the sidewalk seating and the chocolate croissants that they’ve been missing since the last tenant in this space, Provence en Boîte, closed its doors last summer.
Bar Bête is located at 263 Smith Street, Carroll Gardens; Reservations recommended: resy.com; (347) 844-9950.