For a while, it seemed like we nearly lost him in the wilderness. For the last year or so, Haligonians wondered what happened to the former Gio chef, Ray Bear, when he struck out on his own. Answer: After a Valley hibernation, he opened every chef's dream restaurant, Bear.
Bear is a destination spot. A lounge in front, private room in back and as you pass through a birch pallisade into the dining room, the grand design becomes clear: The decor is comfortable, the colours sunny, the lighting soft, but that shiny kitchen is the main stage.
Eating at Bear is designed to be easy and accessible. The menu maps out the complexity of each dish. If you choked on the prices, swallow. Portions are trucker-sized. Even haters of fancy haute-cuisine will love the meat in these mains: duck ($36), striploin ($38), halibut ($34) and lamb ($38). Bear seasons every principal meat simply and cooks it perfectly.
It's the bells and whistles, the detailed presentations shining brilliantly on big white plates, where Bear flexes his paws. Allow me to introduce the meat echo. Beside the rack of lamb sit three tender portions of lamb leg sous-vide (meaning slow cooked in vacuum sealed plastic). Short-rib bison in tempura accompanies the grilled steak, salt cod-potato brandades weave among the halibut and the mace-laced duck is presented three ways with a slab of foie gras: in a spring roll, a confit leg and a sliced breast.
The appetizers are mixed. The summery scallop ceviche ($13) with halved blueberries, a fine dice of cucumber, mango and avocado in a pink citrus broth will unshell you. Order it. Four towering rabbit cannelloni ($12) falter amid the roast balsamic shallots, earthy wild mushrooms and rabbit jus surrounding them; the meat and pasta does not gel as well as his superior rabbit potstickers (currently not on the menu) do.
Sushi is a nod to the chef's time at South Beach Nobu in Miami, and his spicy dragon roll ($12) is quality. I see great business in sushi, raw oysters and ceviche in the lounge, or for lunch (starting April 15) or in catering, but the raw and the cooked clash on the menu. It feels excessive.
If Bear wants to run an A-team kitchen (and he does: listen online to an interview I had with him in February), he must consistently bring his A-game to the table. Two taste failures are the hot smoked salmon sushi ($16)---melted monterey jack over smoked salmon and a jalapeno salsa---is as off-base as a Japanese nacho; and the crispy pork belly ($15)---dry, not fatty enough, atop a roasted hunk of pineapple as big as the Ritz.
Watching Bear's team cook with iron precision in his stainless steel kitchen is addictive, but the highest gastronomic levels remain objectives rather than an accomplishments.
Let me be clear: This is an excellent restaurant, easily in the city's top five. Bear is a chef with enough skill to get where he aspires to be---a notch above what exists in Halifax now---but he has work to do.
"It's constantly evolving and we're trying to get to new levels all the time," he said two months ago. "By June, we'll be hitting our stride, getting where we want to be."
He's on his way. The wait staff are excellent. He has the commitment of the city---the place was packed all winter, and few restauranteurs can boast that. If you have any faith in chef Ray Bear---and I do---this restaurant will only get better and better.
Taken by an iphone during our meal at Bear. This is test: Is this useful? Please let us know in the comments section.