HERE’S an upside to the downturn.
A restaurant taking a raft of cheap, unfashionable and of t-forgotten cuts of meat, tarting them up with funky sauces and side dishes, serving them in the dimly-lit glow of modish interiors, and all for a bill that won’t break the bank.
Bear is a good idea. During the boom, the all-conquering fillet steak seemed like the foundation stone of Irish dining (Shanahan’s still charges €48.50 for a 12oz filet mignon). But now we are living in more creative and cost-conscious times, a menu that reads like a list your grandmother might have handed to her butcher — featuring rump, flank and skirt — is bang on the money.
Few of these cuts are known for tenderness — most come from parts of the cow that work for a living, as opposed to the fillet, which dosses like a trust fund brat in the tenderloin. But all are full of flavour — provided their provenance is sound (in Bear’s case, Leinster Charolais herds whose meat is sourced by Pat McLaughlin Butchers), and they are grilled with a little nous and TLC.
PF and I get stuck in straight away. He orders an 8oz rump steak (€14.95). I go for the 9oz feather steak (€12.95). Both have their idiosyncrasies of course — the rump demands a bit of chewing; the feather, cut from the cow’s forequarter, is embedded with a strip of rubbery gristle. But both are juicy, flavoursome, and arrive bearing the sumptuous scars of a good grill.
Other options from the grill include a 10oz rib-eye, a 16oz pork chop, chicken thigh fillets and several monster cuts to share, including a London broil at €59.95. This is essentially 1.2kg of grilled flank steak, cut into strips. We watch one float past — it’s Homer Simpson-esque.
Bear doesn’t do desserts. Many will scoff at that, but there’s clearly a method to restaurateur Joe Macken’s madness. The steakhouse is an evolutionary step forward from Jo’Burger and Crackbird, the building’s former occupant, but the tables turn over at the same rapid clip.
Instead of starters, there are “smalls” — taster dishes that arrive first, but won’t be cleared away before your mains. A smoked haddock skordalia combines potatoes, haddock, chives and lemon in an agreeably garlicky but ultimately forgettable mix. A finely chopped mushroom and thyme duxelle, however, uses its dairy cream to surprisingly tasty effect.
You can also order from several leaf salads — barley and white bean with beetroot and walnut, for example, or carrot, shallot, chilli and lemon. The sides range from regular fries to celeriac puree, buttered leaks, horseradish slaw and million dollar fries, at €6.95.
Million dollar fries? I’m reminded of that scene in Pulp Fiction when Vincent baulks at Mia’s five-dollar shake — before tasting it. Seven euro for a portion of fries? But then they arrive — gratin-like squares of potato, cut penny-thin, steeped in garlic and cream, layered into bunches on cocktail sticks, and cooked again to crisp up the exterior. Artery-clogging but delicious.
The design is a step forward too. To me, Crackbird always felt like a gimmick that could be disassembled at any minute — which, of course, it was.
Bear has similar shared tables, and cutlery in tin cans, but it looks like a permanent space. I like the decorative copper, the low-hanging lightbulbs (imported from China where they are used in chicken coops), the long bar, the decent beers, the big windows looking out onto South William Street.
Importantly, the loos do not feel like they fell off a truck on the way to Oxegen. Each Opinel No 9 steak knife costs €20, a note on the menu warns (“pilfering will be noticed”). And the staff work a good look — all skinny jeans, funky neckties and enviable, androgynous youth.
Naturally, this is all achingly hip, which you may find tiresome.
Jamie Heaslip, the Leinster and Irish flanker, is a partner too: a canny collaboration.
Bear may not be a great restaurant in the classic sense, but boy, does it have its finger on the pulse.