This is the story of how I fell in love with Black Bear Bistro. (www.blackbearbistro.com)
Black Bear is located in Old Town Warrenton, right on Main Street, across from Iron Bridge and next door to Molly’s Pub, down near the courthouse. The first time I went there was after I had met my beloved and he took me. We had Lobster Mac’n’Cheese, French toast made from Great Harvest bread (Great Harvest is just down the road from Black Bear), and other things I can’t remember now, only that they were awesome.
Living in Manassas meant that we didn’t go out there very often. One time when we went, Paul asked Todd (Eisenhauer, the chef) what bribe it would take to get his curry recipe. Todd just grinned and said, “Let me get a pencil and some paper” and proceeded to give it to us. He actually SHARES his recipes! Most chefs do not, and in fact would be horrified if you asked for it. And just so you know, it’s amazing curry. He actually does several different kinds–and this was his yellow curry, served on a bed of rice with a choice of meat. And what meat! Paul got it with beef–pieces of beautifully grilled flesh, laid on top. I took a bite of this meat that hadn’t gotten any sauce on it yet and couldn’t believe the taste. When Paul tasted it, he said, “It’s fruity” and that’s when Todd (who was walking past) told us that it was grass-fed beef.
I blame him for the fact that the only kind of beef we buy now is grass fed. It’s sweet, it’s tasty–and even though it costs more, it is worth every penny. For one thing, you don’t have to eat as much. And for another, it’s healthier for you, since there’s no corn in it. It’s always better to eat something that has fed on its natural foods instead of being given something that will kill it. (And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch the documentary, “King Corn”. It will make you sick and make you switch to organic, grass-fed, pasture-fed…in other words, back to what your meat was eating before he corn industry came along.
Paul and I had no problem agreeing on going out to Black Bear after our wedding, for the celebratory feast. When we wanted to order champagne–and explained to Chef Todd why, he told us that the splits he had weren’t that good, so he’d open a bottle of the good stuff and sell it to us by the glass. He brought the bottle to the table and sabered it open–cut the top off the bottle with a knife (well, okay, so it wasn’t actually a sabre) which was impressive. And by the time dinner was done, he told us that he was paying for the bottle. Not only a good chef, but a very nice man.
I called my daughter during our wedding dinner to tell her that we had gotten married (the ceremony was Paul, the minister and me. VERY small wedding). While I was talking to her, I happened to look up and see Todd walking by. I said to my daughter, “The chef has just gone by in a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey….with the number 75 on it. Do you know whose that was?” Well, she’s a little young to know about Mean Joe Green, so I told her. And then I told her, “And the jersey is SIGNED. And the chef is wearing it like a regular shirt!” She asked me to knock him down (gently) and take it–since she’s a Steeler’s fan.
When we moved out to Bealeton, Black Bear was on our way home from work in Manassas. Oh, the torture…having to stop in Warrenton for dinner. We started going regularly enough that most of the staff knew us by name—and we knew theirs as well. The menu changes each quarter, for as Chef Todd so eloquently says, “It’s local. If it’s not local, it’s from Virginia. If it’s not from Virginia, it’s from the East Coast. If it’s not from the East Coast, it’s from the US. If it’s not from the US, it’s not in my kitchen.” He also has a very, very vegan/vegetarian friendly menu, so even though I gush about the organic grass fed beef, he does have more than one choice for those who eschew their meat instead of chew it.
We enjoy taking our friends and family to Black Bear. Each time, we are rewarded with yet another meal that proves our enthusiasm and verifies our opinion. The ribs…oh dear gods, the ribs….either on a sandwich or as a (half) rack for dinner. Let’s put it this way, they run out of ribs on a regular basis. Get there early if you want ribs. Chef Todd apparently has one of the fire gods on his side, because the ribs defy human explanation. Smoky, sweet, still juicy, like the ribs you’ve dreamt about…but in real life. Not too heavily sauced, perfectly fall off the bone done…something to be experienced because the words do not manage to describe them adequately.
Of course that’s true about pretty much all of the menu at Black Bear. Smoked crab and cheese dip…lobster mac’n’cheese (which the chef took off the menu for a while because he was “so tired of making it all the time”—popular just a little?). Probably the only thing on the menu that neither Paul nor I like is the Andrew’s Bacon Habenera Sauce. But neither of us likes habeneras, so you’re on your own for that one. Chef has a sausage supplier that is fabulous…and because they are handmade, there can be a little difference between them from one visit to the next. And he’ll give you that supplier’s business card so that you can go buy a boxful of your own. Even the honey he serves is local (from an apiary just outside of Culpeper, about 35 miles away) and it’s name is Wicked Bottom–and it’s RAW honey. Almost time to buy some and begin eating a tablespoon of it every day to help with the allergies. Oh and they also sell the Wicked Bottom lotion bar–it’s a solid lotion, beeswax, shea butter and I don’t know what all else, but Chef swears by it and I am finding out that he’s right. Anyone who is washing their hands as often as a chef…and still has nice hands, no cracked skin…must be using something good.
Chef does the cooking, but doesn’t do the baking (he can bake, says he…he just doesn’t want to). So the desserts are made locally, also organic and farm fresh. Amazing desserts…flourless chocolate cake; white chocolate cinnamon mousse; pies of all sorts. One time, Paul got the sweet potato pie for his dessert. Now Paul is a Super Taster. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supertaster) So when he describes food, he uses some of the same terms you might when tasting wines. And this sweet potato pie, while earthy and sweet and the crust was nice…was hitting all of his taste buds except for one part of his palate. We had a lively discussion with our waitress about what could be added to the pie to hit that spot.
Oddly enough, his parents were taking us out to lunch the following day…at Black Bear. So I got up that next morning and went shopping. Buying local or organic, I got the ingredients for the results of the discussion we had had the night before. I made a ginger-lemon caramel sauce, adding finely chopped organic Granny Smith Apples and pecans just after the caramel formed so that the apples would not be soft. Paul tasted it and agreed that it was just right but for one thing: black pepper. Yep, it needed just a dash of pepper. I added it and he declared it “just right”!
When we got to Black Bear, I asked our waiter if the the Chef was in–and when I found out that he was, asked to have him come see me with a piece of the sweet potato pie in hand. Chef Todd found us at our just desserts…and so he tasted the pie naked, and agreed that it needed “something”. I put some of my apple chutney (can’t think of a better descriptive name) on it…and the chef ate it. Then went back for seconds. Success! I held out the container with the rest of the chutney and he (accurate word here) GRABBED it from me…and ran off to the kitchen, clutching it and saying as he left that anyone who ordered the pie that night would get this on it. (And a few weeks later, we were in and mentioned it to our server who told us that the staff in the kitchen were wondering where that came from and that it did, indeed, go out on the pie! I am very proud that I made something that he considered good enough to serve to his customers).
And one last story: we finally got to take Liz, my daughter to Black Bear just last week. We stuffed her full of good, good food (and a grapefruit mimosa! Better than orange mimosas, from fresh squeezed and organic grapefruit…omgnommy!)…and when Chef Todd came by, we introduced her to him–and told him that she had said I should take his Steelers jersey. He laughed and said that yeah, he wore it. What was he supposed to do, hang it on the wall?