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We were thinking about going to the Bear, in Long Island City, for Valentine’s Day, but other obligations got in the way. Our instincts were validated, though, because this is a very romantic place.
The lighting is low, very low. Paintings of roses on the walls echo the fresh white roses on the tables. There is even something romantic about the food. It is self-described as “Nouvelle European,” but we detected a retro French sensibility. Kind of the way we imagine the characters in a Chekov play might have eaten. And drinking—especially vodka or fancy cocktails—is definitely encouraged. There’s also a nice selection of craft brews, although the wine list is rather meager.
The Russian nobility chilled vodka with Zakuski platter and the seven-course Chef Tasting dinner are two of the Bear’s specialties. Both must be ordered in advance, requiring a little more pre-meditation than we could muster. Nevertheless, it is easy to mix and match from their Small Bites and Hot and Cold appetizer selections to put together your own tasting, which is just what we did.
Be forewarned that the “small bites” are just that. Delicious little tastes of this and that that won’t fill you up. We nibbled three deliciously smokey but eensy sprats arranged seductively on lemon slices, garnished with dill and Chinese chives. Pickled herring on rye was similarly diminutive, but with such a big flavor it didn’t matter. The small cylinder of aspic with suspended meats served with marinated mushrooms had an eye opening after burn of horseradish.
Dishes listed as appetizers were a little more substantial. Ukrainian borscht is a hearty tomato-based soup where beets sing backup, not lead. The house recommends that you order it with a shot of vodka, bread and Ukrainian salo (smoked lard). Mini meatballs are served with Italian Roma tomatoes and grated white cheddar. They taste like little round Italian sausages, redolent of fennel.
The Golden Egg is as adorable as it is tasty. Filled with deviled egg, enhanced with smoked fish and caviar, two hard boiled eggs sport jagged lengthwise cuts with their filling bursting out, giving the impression of hatching.
The entrees, too, emphasized quality over quantity. The Bear’s take on kulebayaka is more like an egg roll than the traditional pie usually associated with this dish. The crispy salmon filled puff pastry tastes almost as if it was fried. Caper aioli adds extra zest to this dish.
Chicken Kiev, for some strange reason, is made from ground organic turkey. Doesn’t that make it Turkey Kiev? Anyway, it’s a gratifying breaded and fried hemisphere of garlicky ground turkey resting on a pilaf of buckwheat (kasha where I come from), potatoes and onions.
Any vegetarian would be delighted by the forest mushroom Stroganoff over handrolled pasta. Not a vegetarian, and still in the mood for pasta? The Ukrainian veal dumplings, bearing more than a passing resemblance to tortellini, are luscuous, with caramelized onions and crème dill gravy.
The least memorable dish of the evening, though not without merit, was the braised pork loin. It is braised with mustard seed in a mild curry, and served over maple glazed brussel sprouts. Our portion was on the dry side, and flavors subdued.
Like the rest of the menu, the two desserts offered were unusual, housemade and petite. Choose between very rich chocolate raspberry truffles, or very rich deep-fried cheesecake.
The Bear has elegance, class, charm and excellent food — just what you’d want at a romantic date restaurant. The portions are restrained enough to leave room for other appetites.
Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
12-14 31st Ave. (12th Street)
Long Island City, NY 11106
Price Range: Apps: $4--$15, Entrees: $15--$25
Cuisine: Nouvelle European
Setting: Darkly pretty
Hours: Open for Dinner @ 6 daily, Brunch from noon Saturday & Sunday
Reservations: Recommended on weekends
Alcohol: Full bar
Dress: Stylish casual
Children: Leave them home
Credit cards: Yes
Noise level: Acceptable
Handicap accessible: Yes
©2013 Community Newspaper Group
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