[We paid in full at The Hungry Bear. They didn’t know I was a blogger]
When people find out you’re a food enthusiast, or write a bit about it, or talk about it, often the question that comes next is, ‘oh, so what’s your favourite food then?’ I get it, maybe it’s something weird and wonderful they’ve never heard of, maybe it’s something they want to disagree with. Maybe it’s just a conversation starter.
But it always leaves me at a bit of a loss. It’s like saying, ‘what’s your favourite item of clothing?’ and expecting someone to pick something regardless of occasion, season, weather and all the other things that make us choose different things at different times.
Food is no different – a 15-course tasting menu might be your absolute favourite choice for a special occasion with a certain person. Other days, there is nothing better than beans on toast. Some days a KFC is an absolute winner. On others, it’s all about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone with some food that tests your taste buds and perceptions.
And so to a very old friend of mine and her husband who undoubtedly understand this. Because on a weekend visit to them up in Leeds, rather than suggesting a swanky city centre location or an old haunt from our student days (not that we ate out much when we were at uni) they took us to The Hungry Bear in Meanwood.
We’d have loved it anyway, especially as it’s one of their faves and they know their food. But what made it even more special was that on a cold November Saturday night after a day walking dogs in the rain, it was exactly the right thing. And at about 9pm on that Saturday night, if you’d asked me what my favourite food or place to eat was, I would have said: “Here, and this” without any hesitation at all.
The Hungry Bear is what I guess the cool kids call a ‘neighbourhood restaurant’ these days. When I was a student about 4,762 years ago Meanwood wasn’t somewhere that was on our radar and probably didn’t have much to put it there. Turn the clock forward now and it’s a friendly place boasting a few good restaurants (I have it on good authority) as well as a couple of nice bars (I’m looking at you Boot and Rally!).
The restaurant itself is small and cosy, and upstairs almost feels like walking into someone’s house for dinner. Its menu reflects its style. On the night we visited it provided a tempting read of hearty meals including burgers, grills and a lamb shank and a brisket stew on special as well as fish and vegan options.
Starters include baked brie, terrine, risotto and the slight curve ball of a spicy crab and avocado roll. It’s the kind of place where you can tuck yourself into a corner, order a bottle of wine and put the world to rights. They also do a respectable cocktail offering for pre and post-dinner drinks as well as bar snacks if you’re not looking for the hearty feed that we came in search of.
I opted for the black garlic and truffle risotto to start, complete with parmesan on top just in case it wasn’t the artery-lining indulgence that it promised. It was done right, in taste and in texture, although a weaker woman than I would have been rendered unable to squeeze in a main course after the generous portion. The rosemary & garlic baked brie was everything Jamie dreamed of, while I’m told the spicy crab and avocado roll was a welcome surprise too.
While the starters were enjoyable, it was the mains that make me smile with the memories of The Hungry Bear. The kind of food you want on a winter’s day with friends. The kind of food that is unapologetically simple yet unashamedly bold with seasoning and flavours and proof that some classic dishes are classic for the very reason that absolutely nothing needs changing with them, providing you stick to quality ingredients and execute them well.
My porchetta was a delight. A slab of meat encased in fat, rolled with basil and sea salt to bring out the flavour. Like the other grill dishes, it came perched on a hill of The Hungry Bear’s ‘speciality Irish cabbage’ – cabbage cooked with bacon, onions and cream. Oh, and let’s not forget the red wine jus poured on top just for good measure. This is a dish without artifice, without airs and graces, yet with the alluring charm of something that doesn’t need any dressing up to show off its appeal.
A 12-hour braised lamb shank laced with rosemary and garlic fell off the bone at the merest tickle with a fork and was perfectly seasoned and packed with flavour. Jamie, unsurprisingly, went for the French cut rump steak in a garlic and rosemary marinade, cooked blue as he’d requested with the confidence of a chef who I’m fairly sure has never ruined a cut of meat by erring on the side of caution and overcooking it.
The brisket stew was a rich, heady bowl of warmth, almost gamey in flavour and clearly the product of hours of cooking. We ordered unnecessary veg in some vague effort to balance our diets and I was pleased to see the tenderstem broccoli with toasted almonds still had a bit of crunch – but why would that surprise us when those in the kitchen have clearly got a fair bit of talent.
As a group we shared a creme brulee – just to check that things were as good as we hoped. It was. A thick sugar crust that yielded with a firm tap with a spoon, revealing vanilla-infused creamy custard underneath. I also had an espresso martini for good measure and safe to say, it didn’t touch the sides.
Is belly ache a sign of a good meal? Of course it isn’t. Not always, anyway. But when all you crave is a hearty, hot meal, well cooked, full of flavour and served up by people who actually take seasoning as seriously as every kitchen should, and that’s what you get, then the fact it’s so good that you can’t stop eating is a sign that they’ve achieved what they set out to.
Is that kind of food my ‘favourite food’? No, not always. But the next time I’m a bit cold, a bit blue, and in search of a tummy full of good food that can ward off winter with just a few mouthfuls and someone asks, ‘what’s your favourite food?’, I’ll be telling them it’s any of those four mains at The Hungry Bear.