Black Bear Bistro & Sweeney's Cellar

$$$$ ($14 and under)
Black Bear Bistro & Sweeney's Cellar photo
Dayna Smith/For The Post

Editorial Review

A twist on typical pub fare

By Julia Beizer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2009

At a glance: Peek through the windows of the Black Bear Bistro in historic Warrenton, and chances are, it'll look familiar. Most pubs in our region share an affinity for lodge-like green walls, homey wood finishing, beers on tap and burgers on the menu.

But take a longer look at the chow offerings, and it's easy to see what makes this four-month-old restaurant different. The hot wings are smoked before being slathered in sauce and served with a house-made blue cheese. A tuna sandwich eschews the canned fish in favor of a slab of seared ahi that's smeared with wasabi mayonnaise. A pasta dish is tossed with goat cheese and produce from local farms.

The bistro is the brainchild of husband-and-wife team Todd and Liz Eisenhauer. In addition to the casual space on the street level, they've also created Sweeney's Cellar, a downstairs dining room with stone walls and wood rafters that are warmed by the glow of two fireplaces. Sweeney's offers all the items off the Black Bear menu in addition to the kitchen's daily specials.

Like many of his peers these days, chef Todd aims to purchase as many ingredients as possible from area farmers. He says the arrangement allows him to support the regional economy and negotiate better costs. It also affords him the opportunity to try new ingredients and get creative in the kitchen.

On the menu: Start with the lobster mac and cheese. The lusciously creamy appetizer is dotted with only a few hunks of meat but manages to taste like lobster in every bite. Eisenhauer achieves this by making an oil out of lobster shells and drizzling it over the pasta and the accompanying grilled bread. The result is sinfully good.

Other appetizers are tempting as well, particularly the fried oysters in spicy buffalo sauce and a creamy vat of subtly sweet clam dip topped with Parmesan. Todd's stewlike chili adeptly blends smoke and heat.

The bulk of the menu is made up of burgers, sandwiches and heavier entrees. The salmon burger pairs a patty of fish with a zesty lime-caper-and-chili mayonnaise. I was drawn to the prime rib one cold night. The cut we ordered was fattier than I would have liked, but it was also considerably larger than the promised eight ounces, cooked perfectly to temperature and served with buttery whipped potatoes and lightly seasoned green and yellow beans.

The restaurant brings in pies from Sue's Pies, a vendor at the local farmers market. The fluffy, chocolatey banana cream pie is a must-try, augmented by slices of bananas and a buttery crust.

What to avoid: Some of the kitchen's experiments do not work quite as well as others. Jalapeno fries (breaded and fried slivers of the hot pepper) had a pleasing smoky taste that was all but completely masked by a gummy batter. Sweet tea chicken, a dish that marries chicken breast with Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka, was just barely flavored with the scent of sweet tea. It was relatively mild and unobtrusive but felt more gimmicky than good. Fries are listless; the zingy house-made coleslaw is a far better accompaniment to a sandwich.

At your service: Servers are gracious here and enthusiastic about their favorite items on the long menu. It's worth noting that Sweeney's Cellar is a slightly more spiffed-up space. You can wear whatever you want to dine here, but downstairs, a sweater seems more appropriate than a sweat shirt.

Wet your whistle: As part of the buy-Virginia mantra, Black Bear Bistro offers beers only from the state on tap. Eisenhauer expects to rotate new kegs into the lineup frequently. The restaurant also offers wine (from Virginia by the bottle, and a California house wine by the glass) and the usual assortment of coffee, juice and soda.

Bottom line: "We just have fun," Eisenhauer says of his cooking staff. "I have guys in the kitchen that really want to learn, so that keeps me excited. We're constantly striving to outdo each other." His enthusiasm translates to the plate.