The tyranny of the tasting menu—that feeling of being held hostage by a chef’s creativity as course after course after course comes to the table—is a phenomenon with which I have scant experience. The only tasting menu of note I’ve had is Momofuko Ko’s and while not quite tyrannical, it was vast, running to more than a dozen courses, each quite good in its own way. Even so sensory overload sets in by course eight or nine. It’s not that I was full, but rather that I was punch drunk on the experience, much the way I feel after wandering around an art museum for too long. So when Chef Natasha Pogrebinsky of Bear invited me to try to her $85 seasonal tasting menu, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
The meal started with an elegant aspic of char and hard-boiled egg with dill. Suspended in gelatin it’s the type of thing more commonly eaten on a 19th century European railway journey. It’s clearly in the Russian appetizing tradition of zakuski, and can be had with vodka for a supplemental fee. It was followed by a duo of charcuterie: paper thin head cheese topped with marinated nameko mushrooms, and liverwurst crowned with a dollop of beet horseradish. It’s a dish that’s as inspired by Pogrebinsky’s time in New York City as it is by her Ukrainian heritage. Served with fried bagel chips it echoes her go-to breakfast of liverwurst on a toasted everything bagel with pickles and mustard.
The next course of smoked salmon tail required a tableside assist. The tail meat had been formed into a circular puck around which the actual tail was wrapped. Pogrebinsky carefully unwrapped it with tweezers, and pointed out that there was plenty of salmon marrow in it. I’d never eaten salmon marrow before; I can’t wait to do so again.
The first of the hot courses entailed a bit of showmanship. Pogrebinksy crisps the skin on a sauerkraut and mushroom blini with a torch. There is sour cream for dipping, and the blini itself had an almost meaty texture thanks to the mushrooms.
The next course was a pumpkin pasta with pumpkin seed oil and parmigiano reggiano. Unlike many similarly flavored dishes that arrive at Halloween and linger like a bad guest until well after Thanksgiving, the nutty tasting hand-cut ribbon pasta was a study in subtlety. Plus, it came with a story, traditionally in Ukraine pumpkins are a symbol of romantic rejection. If you propose to a gal and she doesn’t want to marry you, you’ll be presented with a pumpkin. “Pumpkin is a very Ukrainian ingredient I grew up eating pumpkin kashas and desserts,” the chef said.
A lightly smoked baked trout with tomatoes and stewed onions was inspired by Pogrebinsky’s mother. Some might see its presentation in a steamer as a bit precious, but I thought it showed an understated whimsy.
The final course in Pogrebinsky’s well-edited tasting menu was of crock of stewed lamb shoulder and and goat leg. Remove the lid and find some mustard conveniently smeared on the inside. The tender chunks of meat hardly need it, though they are lovely with the sauerkraut.
At the end of the meal I was satisfied, full but not ridiculously so. Best of all I could still think straight. In an era where more is often seen as well, more, it’s nice to see a chef who achieves a balance between wizardry and rustic simplicity while still maintaining a distinctive personal style.
Photos: William C. Wallis
Bear, 12-14 31 Ave. Long Island City, 917-396-4939