Casual elegance could be considered a paradox, but then, so could the Black Bear Restaurant. Part down-home, local eatery, part fine-dining establishment, the Black Bear treads lightly between the two worlds and pulls it off fairly well.
Located in the mountain town of Green Mountain Falls (population 773) and inhabiting a log cabin structure that was built in the 1940s, the Black Bear is about as quaint as they come. The front half of the building is an old-time pub (including vets nursing beers at the bar), while the back half, separated by a solid wall with one door, features a cozy dining room. A large brick fireplace, dark knotty pine walls, and wagon wheels doubling as wall decorations and hanging chandeliers complete the rustic picture.
There are a dozen or so tables, draped in dark green linen and adorned with matching napkins, shiny silver settings and crystal clear water and wine glasses.
The menu, with entrees ranging in price from $8 to $33, reflects the restaurant's dual personalities of local hangout and prime dining establishment. Half of the menu, I suspect, caters to the locals and frequent diners, offering items like beer-battered fried mushrooms, ribs, chicken-fried steak, and burgers. The other half of the menu represents Chef Victor Matthews Jr.'s culinary training and knowledge of finer foods, particularly wild game: goose pate, grilled honey and herb quail, lacquered duck, Imperial lobster and, of course, a variety of steaks.
Some friends and I visited on a quiet Sunday night. We started with an appetizer of the beer-battered fried mushrooms ($7.95) -- perhaps not my first choice in an appetizer, but the other choices, aside from soup or salad, were either chicken wings, goose pate or caviar. The fried mushrooms were standard (though the portion was quite generous), but an accompanying ranch dip brought the ensemble to life -- creamy and flavorful, buttermilk-based with bits of dill.
Choices for main courses, all served a la carte, range from the benign to the bewildering. The "Mountain Favorites" section includes steaks, "almost a pound burgers," spicy barbecue shrimp, ribs, and grilled honey and herbed quail. Walking more on the wild side is an entree called Three Dragons, which is a combo plate of rattlesnake, snapping turtle and fried alligator tail. And on the ultra gourmet end is the Imperial Lobster: half of a live Maine lobster stuffed with more lobster meat in saffron cream and crowned with puff pastry. There was one lobster swimming around in a not-so-appealing saltwater tank, just across from our table. As far as I know, it did not meet its demise that evening.
The most unique feature on the Black Bear's menu, though, is the Kobe Beef, and, according to the menu, Black Bear's the only restaurant in Colorado to serve this legendary meat. This I believe; the meat is extravagantly expensive -- about $300 a pound. But it is also extraordinarily good.
Here's why: The beef comes from Kobe, Japan, where, for generations, a special variety of cattle known as Wagyu has been bred for its quality marbling. These pampered cows are massaged with sake (helps the marbling) and fed a special diet that includes honey and plentiful amounts of beer. This specialized treatment results in beef that is incredibly tender. Word has it that this breed is also raised in California and Australia where land is plentiful, their carcasses then shipped back to Japan (in order to make them officially from Kobe) where they're made into steaks, and then shipped back here. That's a lot of airfare.
Selection of Kobe beef cuts vary weekly at the Black Bear. On the night I was in, the cut was rib eye, either 8-ounce ($33) or 12-ounce ($46). I ordered it out of sheer curiosity, going with the 8-ounce, medium rare. It was the most generous 8-ounce cut of meat I've ever seen, and indeed, I think one of the best steaks I've ever had --tender, juicy, smooth and velvety, a subtle sweetness remaining on the palate after every bite. It was nestled between a generous amount of savory, garlic-mashed potatoes, and fresh steamed carrots on the al dente side. A great looking and tasty plate all around, though in checkbook hindsight, best ordered if someone else is paying.
The honey and herb quail also ended up at our table, as did the ribs and the Three Dragons. All three were very good. Though quail is a little too gamey for me, it was tender and had a pleasant, consistent honey flavor. The accompanying rice pilaf, however, was merely average.
The ribs were mouthwatering -- so tender, they were literally falling off the bone. The sauce was tangy, sweet and plentiful. And a half order, at $10.95, was enormous. The Vidalia onion rings alongside were quite tasty.
My friend Dave, wanting to revisit his years in Texas, ordered the Three Dragons ($24.95), consisting of spicy garlic rattlesnake on peppernata, stewed Louisiana snapping turtle over wild rice, and fried alligator tail (raised in Colorado).
The rattlesnake was the standout of the three, small deep-fried pieces served with caramelized garlic cloves, peppers and tomatoes. The alligator tail was also flavorful. Deep-fried in a similar batter as the snake, it also came with a thick, ranchlike dipping sauce. While I have eaten alligator and rattlesnake before, I've never had snapping turtle; for my tastes, it was a little on the tough side.
Overall, we had a fantastic meal, made even more memorable by excellent service. My only complaint was the menu's lack of any vegetarian dishes. Even one vegetable-oriented plate, or even a pasta dish, would be nice.
Regardless, the Black Bear Restaurant is a great place to dine. It stays true to its cozy, mountain-town roots, and at the same time, offers high quality food without the glitz, glamour or pretension that often accompany elite meals.