Restaurant Review: Angry Bear Kitchen

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

In Michael Ruhlman's book "The Soul of a Chef," legendary chef Thomas Keller describes his utopian vision of a kitchen run not by one head chef who makes all the decisions, but by multiple cooks who have shared accountability, equal creative license and no set-in-stone menu to constrain them.

At Angry Bear Kitchen, which opened in May in the Old North space previously occupied by Sage American Bistro, chef-owners Daniel Scalzo, Tyler Minnis and Jarod Norris are giving that business model a try.

Two years ago, Scalzo, Minnis and Norris were working the line together at Latitude 41. It's where they met, earned the nickname "angry bears" due to their then-surly temperaments (they've reportedly mellowed) and eventually began spit-balling an idea for their own place where they could experiment. Take risks. Have fun with it.

The guys seemed to have stacked hands on a few house rules. First, most ingredients would be seasonal and locally sourced, often from Minnis' family farm (thankfully, the menu doesn't list the provenance of every item; see instead the website). Second, they would do nose-to-tail cuisine. Though their open kitchen isn't large enough for on-site butchering, they are embracing the idea that no animal part-liver, tongue, sweetbreads-should go to waste. And third, no boring food.

Joining them in the culinary mad lab is bartender Phil Richardson, who came over from Basi Italia to develop Angry Bear's signature cocktails. Richardson experiments with ingredients like shrubs, which are similar to vinegars; fruits like blueberries and fig; and herbs like tarragon and basil. There are only so many drinks I can reasonably try during my visits, so I avoid ordering the same one twice. But the frothy Billionaire Smash made me break my rule-and at $12, my budget. Richardson adds a spoonful of Billionaire strawberry preserves, a jam made locally with Beaujolais and vanilla, to whiskey, dry orange Curacao and lemon. Shaken, poured over ice and garnished with fresh mint, it's worth the price.

There are also more than a dozen craft beers, which are helpfully described on the menu (order a Jackie O's Mystic Mama, and you can expect "assertive bitterness with grapefruit, tangerines and pine"), and a short wine list.

Beyond the small bar, the artsy, brick-walled dining room gets dim light from hanging bouquets of bulbs in Mason jars. The room is as long as a shoebox and about as wide as the length of a city bus. I know because every time the COTA bus makes its stop out front during the dinner hour, the entire space darkens like a solar eclipse.

Like the light, the food swings between brilliant and bereft. Every plate shows a willingness to go out on a limb. Sometimes the risk results in a winner, like the Grilled Pork Chop ($26), a tender bone-in chop surrounded by mustard creamed cabbage, a sunset-colored peach braised until heavy and soft and a silky potato fondue I could eat by the bowl. It's rustic and luxe at the same time.

If the pork chop channels Germany, the smoky Seared Salmon ($23) has an old-world Eastern European vibe. With bright slashes of green "dill paint" and fuchsia beet sauce, it's a stunning plate. But what makes it really special is the salmon's brittle crust-a slice of rye bread flattened as thin as a cracker and seared to the fish. The topper is as crackly and satisfying as the brittle layer on creme brulee. So clever.

In addition to a monthly menu of "plates" and "larger plates," there are nightly specials, including a Chef's Sampler ($5) during happy hour with small bites like rosemary-bacon popcorn, Ohio blue cheese and salmon tartare. Generally, these chalkboard specials are super-seasonal and worth trying.

One night, zucchini flowers ($8) from the Minnis farm were stuffed with mild goat cheese, lightly fried and served on romesco sauce. They were as delicate and homegrown as the Queen Anne's Lace flowers that garnished the plate. Another night, we were blown away by a Crispy Egg ($5). Lots of textures were at play: a soft-poached egg with a golden panko exterior and spicy-sour kimchi. They also do a nightly Breadboard ($4); the one I tried came with a charred baguette, ripples of sweet honey brown butter, mild shishito pepper jam and a chicken-liver mousse with the weightlessness of a cloud.

But sometimes when you go out on a limb, the bough breaks.

Dungeness Crab ($12) on an avocado mousse that was spread on the plate like pale-green cake frosting looked promising. But the flavors were surprisingly muted. The Tenderloin Tartare ($11) was another visual curiosity. Raw beef and a reduction of house-made bloody mary mix are combined to form a patty alongside brioche and egg yolk done toad-in-the-hole style. The raw, concentrated tomato flavor was too strong with iron-rich beef. I wanted crostini or arugula-something to counter the texture. In the end, we were more inclined to take a picture of it than eat it.

A bowl of beef tongue poutine ($10) was a generous portion for a small plate. But every bite was heavy on fries, and the meat was unappealing in its nearly pureed form.

In a valiant attempt to persuade skittish eaters to try the less common bits, Angry Bear coats its Fried Sweetbreads ($10) in Buffalo sauce. But this approach robbed the organ meat of its trademark tenderness and elegance-akin to deep-frying escargot and serving it with marinara.

Plates are always artfully composed, often with a sense of humor. Chorizo stands in for the pit in the braised peach, and a confit potato is the ultimate steak fry alongside the unfortunately too-chewy hanger steak ($24). The chefs also like to play with powders, foams and savory ice creams. You'll find flurries of white bacon powder on the Tenderloin Tartare, a horseradish panna cotta with the hanger and a scoop of mustard ice cream alongside the Pork Rillette Hand Pie ($12). Hate to be a party pooper, but many of these sight gags, while Instagram-worthy, didn't do much to advance the overall taste of the dishes.

The eponymous bears also do dessert duty. A mild-mannered Candied Carrot Pudding ($8) was like creme brulee without the critical torched sugar. Three very hot, fried beignets dusted with powdered sugar accompanied the pudding. Why? I'm not sure, but I'm glad they were there. Even underdone, they satisfied my craving for funnel cake.

If you're up for an adventure, Angry Bear Kitchen can be a lot of fun. The mix of diners-college students, empty nesters, suburban couples-reminded me of the same varied crowd I see at Till Dynamic Fare, which might be considered a more mature, more consistent version of Angry Bear. What unites these patrons is they want something out of the ordinary. On that count, they won't be disappointed.

Angry Bear Kitchen

2653 N. High St., Old North, 614-884-0639,

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tue-Thu, 5-11 p.m. Fri-Sat, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sun, closed Mon

Price Range: $8-$13 for small plates, $13-$26 for large plates

Reservations: Recommended on weekends

In Short: An Old North newcomer offering inventive small plates and entrees that are mostly seasonal, often local and always interesting. Three young chefs in the kitchen bring three times the creativity-but there are misfires. Good bets include the grilled pork chop and nightly chalkboard specials.

TWO STARS (out of four)