Every plague has its silver lining. For the first two weeks of March, I unsuccessfully tried to get a table at Jarrett Stieber’s greatly anticipated new restaurant, Little Bear, in Summerhill. Then the plague arrived and turned the restaurant — six years in the making — into a takeout joint. So, the silver lining is that you and I get to more easily score five or six courses of Stieber’s prix fixe menu.
Stieber is a James Beard semifinalist and, on the surface, his food resembles contemporary fine dining: smallish plates of strictly local produce and proteins, unexpected flavor combinations, artful presentation. Consider the Spanish-inspired menu featured during the week I fetched a meal there. One dish was a rectangular portion of a Spanish-style tortilla made with baked eggs and mild turnips, covered with a “ropa vieja sauce” and “an egregious amount of olive oil.” WTF is ropa vieja sauce? I’ve eaten a ton of ropa vieja, a favorite Cuban dish, but I don’t think of it as a Spanish dish or as a sauce. Stieber clarified in an email: “We thought it would be fun to include some flavors from places Spain forced their will on… Ropa vieja as more of a red-wine, braised meat gravy sauce to serve on another dish sounded fun to us.” So, there you have it: a classic tor-tilla that deliciously dishonors Spanish colonialism.
There were also the inevitable patatas bravas, but Stieber makes them with sweet potatoes, cooking them to addictive crispy-creamy perfection in a concoction of pork fat, coffee, and chili oil, then drizzled with aioli. The protein of the week was Catalan-style pork meatballs combined with a fetish of Catalonia — roasted green onions under salbitxada, a usually red sauce turned weirdly green by Stieber. The opening soup, caldo de Gallego, was absolutely the best version I’ve ever had. I opened the container and the odor of fennel blasted the room like the sins in Pandora’s box. It was made with red peas instead of white beans and was hellishly fiery. Stieber swears it wasn’t intentional, but the meal ended with a pastry, a pestiño — fried, honey-glazed dough flavored with benne and anise, which echoed the licorice flavor of the fennel that began the meal. It was apparently also coincidental that pestiños are only available during Christmas and Holy Week in Spain and were indeed served by Little Bear during Holy Week. The meal also included a stunning salad of gem lettuce, dill, radishes, and shavings of sharp idiazabal cheese, made from sheep’s milk. There was, finally, a second dessert of traditional almond cake, dusted with powdered sugar, allegedly flavored with strawberries.
So, what, besides the satirical approach, makes this food actually different from fine dining? For one significant thing, there’s the cost. The menu I’ve described was $55 for two. On the brink of recession, that may not sound inexpensive — and you better tip $15 minimum — but it’s as many as seven dishes of entirely local ingredients for two! Still, to me the truly notable thing is the artistry. Stieber, chef de cuisine Jacob Armando, and executive sous chef Trevor Vick work just the opposite of most kitchens. Instead of going shopping with a recipe, they go shopping and then dream up a recipe. Stieber describes the process:
“The thought process for making a dish is pretty simple, actually. Unlike most restaurants, we order from the farms we buy from first, then use what we get to put together our menu instead of thinking of a dish then ordering whatever product we need to make it happen. So from there, we kind of use the ingredients like pieces in a puzzle so we can make dishes that have a balance of color, texture, and eye appeal. Usually the formula is basically to balance those elements, then make sure there’s something a little unusual or unique so that we can remain creative and stand out. That twist could be an unusual flavor combination, a different technique, or preparation for something which might be done a different way more often, etc. Another thing we like to do is layer condiments/sauces in our dishes so that every bite has the intended starting flavor of the dish, and you don’t have to struggle to get a solid bite, but, as you eat the dish and drag things around, elements mix together and create new flavors by the end.”
By Cliff Bostock, Creative Loafing