The Grizzly is a dangerously serious new contender
Bear Bar & Restaurant (12-14 31st Ave., Long Island City)
Chef Natasha Pogrebinsky is playing hard core. The angel-faced young chef is refreshingly genuine and sweet face-to-face, but in the kitchen she is playing some serious hard ball. Don't be fooled by the dazzle of the Swarovski crystal lamps. This may be the home of Long Island City's first "New European" menu but not all dishes are duck confit and caviar fork-and-knife refined. There's a burger, for one, that absolutely blew me away.
Starting with the bun, the buttery challah is sandwich perfection. But the patty on this grizzly is absolutely mystifying. Organic prime beef, your teeth are met with a beautiful chargrilled crunch, and then they immediately sink right into the middle of one of the most delicately ground, juiciest meatballs you have ever tasted. And the seasoning... almost like a Balkan sausage or cevapi. Add to that a blanket of melted fontina with paprika aioli, and the kicker--a crowning of carrots that have been shaved to paper thin ribbons, beer battered, and deep-fried. All with a side of Persian pickles and steak fry wedges. This bad boy truly is a very special burger, and at $9 for the entire platter, it's easier on the pocketbook than many of its neighbors.
The duck shepherd's pie, available in two portion sizes, is one of the most sophisticated, heartiest, most savory winter meals to hit Western Queens. The ridiculously tender slow-roasted duck has been gently pulled, tossed with a blend of seasonal winter vegetables, and capped with toasted mashed Yukon potatoes, served in an individual ceramic pot ($9/$16).
An edible sculpture, the winter ceviche is scallops tossed in lemon and lime juices with delicately sliced Granny Smith apples, cilantro, and scallions, all jeweled with Alaskan salmon caviar, wasabi tobiko, and pea shoots.
Now I'm a sucker for a croquette, but I also love arancini--the Italian stuffed rice balls. But the Three Little Bears is like a divine marriage of the two, almost little shepherd's pie fritters. The perfect snack, these three substantial croquettes are stuffed with meat and cheese, served on a smeared dollop of creme fraiche. Crispy golden delicious perfection.
Earthy woodland mushrooms have been stewed with roasted onions, garlic, thyme, and rosemary, then tucked into a ramekin with baby potatoes, topped with a soft-centered farm egg that has been brûlée torched with a ribbon of cheese.
Crispy-coated pork belly stuffed with garlic and parsley has been rendered exceptionally buttery and tender, one of the most delicious platings of it I have ever enjoyed. One of the chef's personal favorites, this is a quintessential hearty winter dish.
Two pasta dishes are showcased on the winter menu, including a slow-roasted rabbit with house fettuccine and a white wine cream sauce, or one of my personal favorites, a stroganoff of mixed forest mushrooms seared with onions in a garlic-rosemary gravy with cheese shavings.
Crispy-skinned pan-seared sole with just a hint of lemon zest is an exercise in how delicious simplicity can be, served on a pedestal of potatoes poached in butter and dill with carrots, celery, and scallions.
Plump diver sea scallops make a highly-requested return, stewed in cherry tomatoes and a tarragon-barley risotto.
Short ribs braised in red wine falls off the bone, accompanied by carrots and fried-baked potatoes.
Formerly a whole-roasted duck, the confit is now available as a leg and thigh, served in natural juices, with a whole roasted apple and pan-seared young potatoes.
On Tuesdays, mussels & fries and select wine & cocktails are just $5 at the bar from 6PM to midnight. And don't forget to check out the Saturday and Sunday brunch prix fixe for $14 with unlimited coffee and a brunch cocktail.