Astoria’s nouveau-European Russian hotspot Bear (12-14 31st Avenue, Astoria, 917-396-4939) is typically a refined operation, but this summer, the place has morphed into a pop-up dumpling shop. “There is a beach right down the street, and we want people to feel they can come in flip-flops if they want to,” explains chef-owner Natasha Pogrebinsky. “We are just trying to create a relaxed vibe, with a menu intended for sharing — and maybe get back to our roots a little. The blend of pork and veal, the pasta, and the vinegar are like the holy trinity of dumplings. But beyond the basics, there is a lot of room for creativity.”
The present menu features seven variations on the stuffed Russian pasta pockets. Begin with a classic dumpling that arrives in a pool of chilled white vinegar and homemade tomato vinegar, lending a mild acidity that’s a perfect complement to the warm pouches.
Consider, next, the pasta pillows swimming in a rich goat broth, rendered from cooking the legs and marrow in jalapeño, garlic, and parsley for three hours. The dish is finished with thin bundles of spicy radish, a sprinkling of scallions, a soft-centered egg, and sprigs of fresh dill. “It is the closest we come to a ramen broth,” Pogrebinsky says, “but it’s a dirtier broth that swirls around and you can see pieces of meat and herbs in it.”
The list also includes tiny pasta crescents stuffed with potatoes and blanketed with caramelized onions in a puddle of truffle butter. These pierogies are called vareniki in the Ukraine, and the chef makes them fresh every other day.
Whatever you do, don’t miss the dumplings doused in a soy ginger glaze and topped with salty orbs of glistening salmon roe. “Who can resist?” says the chef. “It is dumplings with caviar.” We could eat them every day.
You can also order your dumplings with various housemade sauces and side dishes, which range in price from $1.50 to $5. We like the garnet beets topped with shaved cloves of roasted garlic, and a boat of lazy braised cabbage, which is buttery and tender.
Those craving Bear’s usual fare can still order from a carefully edited menu, with items like a velvety chilled beet borscht, a hearty country fried chicken, an 18 ounce prime ribeye salad, or beer battered fish and chips. And if you’re struggling to choose between dumplings and a dish, pay $50 and order any five items off the menu, thereby creating your own sampler platter. The chef’s tasting is also still available for $110, with 24 hours advance notice required.
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 8, 2014