My Journalist’s Handbook of Cliches tells me, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Well, crank up the flames in “Lower Clintonville,” because Angry Bear Kitchen is handling the high temperatures just fine, thank you very much.
Operational only a few weeks — maybe they should’ve begun as the Angry Cubs? — and replacing long-beloved Sage’s old space by immediately implementing a doesn’t-play-it-safe menu peppered with fare like beef tongue, pork rillettes and “sunchoke carpaccio,” ABK has opened itself up to searing-hot glares. No, everything isn’t perfect (service can be understaffed and sloooow), but this nice-priced, sometimes daring and always engaging newcomer run by three talented former sous chefs from Latitude 41 is proving that (dipping into my handbook again) if you don’t aim high, you’ll never fly high.
Narrow and brick-walled, Sage’s ex-digs are still hung with brash local art, and — except for a more open kitchen — haven’t radically changed. But now the mood is looser, shorts and T-shirts are cool, and the new, almost-loud music leans toward blues, jazz and golden soulsters like Curtis Mayfield.
Booze-wise, there’s a nifty little wine list, good bottles of beer and ticklish cocktails. From the latter group, ABK’s everything-old-is-new-again Scofflaw ($9; with classic French and orange bitters, rock-candy-sweetened rye, citrus and “house cherry grenadine”) was like a refreshingly bitter whiskey sour. I was also entertained by the giggly named/silly-strip-club-commemorating Columbus Gold, which tasted like curry-scented orange hooch ($9). Though not bad, my oddball Pisco Sour ($8) recalled a creamy tequila-and-white-chocolate concoction.
ABK’s not-so-small “plates” are great deals. For instance, its poutine ($10) is entree-sized and first-rate. A large bowl of terrific, super-crispy handcut fries was carefully layered with unctuous, pot roast-y meat (don’t let the menu’s “beef tongue” designation scare you) and rich gravy punctuated by salty curds.
Other take-notice bargains were a wobbly presented but boldly smoky and acidic (if absent something crunchy) Charred Broccoli Raab with cured lemon, poached egg, chili flake and more ($7), and the technique-heavy Dungeness Crab ($12).
At first, that crab dish’s amorphous plating threw me off. But like a successful Jackson Pollock painting, inherent order later became apparent — after I tasted how the sweet and generously scattered (and elsewhere expensive) crab meat was synergistically flattered by an avocado mousse, grapefruit marmalade and charred and pickled shishito peppers. Several textures could’ve been refined, but I applaud the ambition, flavors and value.
Ditto for the Pork Rillettes Hand Pie ($12). Though its pie pastry could’ve been flakier; its biting mustard ice cream was granita-icy; its “caramelized apple jus” was peculiar (think warm, thick gravy with a cinnamon-apple-sauce flavor); its pickled apple was beautiful as a rose; and the impressive rillettes (not overly fatty or funky) were abundant and deliciously enhanced by every whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts garnish.
While these appetizer-y “plates” were playful and edgy, two sharply arranged entrees I tried were seriously delicious and easily accessible. Chicken Everything ($18) was an elegant rendering of a small half-bird with big flavors. I loved the concentrated broth that supported alternately tender meat, crispy-as-pork-rinds skin, pillowy gnocchi and pretty spring vegetables like far-too-rare fiddlehead ferns, shiitakes and asparagus.
Another home run, Braised Pork Shank ($21), was like pork-n-beans given a stylish makeover with Asian detailing. Its succulent-inside-crusted-outside meat was gently five-spiced, threatened by spicy kimchi and soothed by garlic-kissed white beans popping with flavor.
The HUGE Strawberry Fool ($5) is great for fans of fruit, whipped cream and simplicity. Similarly, risky-but-smart ABK seems like a great fit for risky-but-smart/up-and-coming Lower Clintonville. And that’s no cliche.
Photos by Meghan Ralston