Paul’s PBR Review: The Blind Bear

Welcome to another installment of Paul’s PBR Review, where I talk about the best places in Memphis to get a Pabst Blue Ribbon, the Cadillac of beers. Today’s post is about the Blind Bear, a speakeasy opened by three veteran Downtown bartenders in December 2011. The name was a play on common 1920s speakeasy names like “The Blind Pig,” substituting “Bear” since the grizzly bear is the mascot of Memphis’ NBA team.

The Bear is decorated in dark tones typical of a speakeasy. There is a long bar in the back that seats about 16. Two flat-screen TVs are there for patrons to enjoy. On Sundays in the fall the bar is a popular spot among those who play fantasy football, because the Bear subscribes to the NFL’s RedZone channel. Although not a sports bar per se, the Blind Bear has been nationally recognized as one of the best places in Memphis to watch Grizzlies games, perhaps because all three operating partners are big Grizzlies fans.

There is plenty of comfortable lounge seating throughout the speakeasy. There are also blackjack and poker tables, which during the week are covered and used for dining. On Sunday and Tuesday nights the covers come off the poker tables, for free-to-play Texas Hold’em tournaments with a $50 gift card as the prize (6:30 PM Sundays, 8 PM Tuesdays). Up front there is a coin-operated pool table with plenty of rail seating and another flat-screen TV. There is also patio seating outside.

“But Paul,” you’re probably protesting by now, “enough of the description of the place. Get to the important stuff. Do they serve PBR?”

Indeed they do. When the Bear first opened, PBR was on draft and served in Mason jars with handles. Recently, they switched to PBR in 16-ounce cans, to make room for local drafts on tap. The speakeasy has a Foursquare special: The “mayor” on Foursquare (the person who has checked in there the most in the past 60 days) gets one free PBR a day. Well, actually, you get your choice of domestic beer, but why would anyone ever choose anything but PBR for their freebie?

The Bear has entertainment throughout the week. I’ve already mentioned the Sunday and Tuesday poker games. On Wednesday there is trivia with Charles at 8, with a gift card for the winning team. On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday there is live music. On the weekends, if you know the password to get in, you can beat the $5 cover charge. They post the password on the Blind Bear Facebook page, usually in the afternoon the day-of. However, your first chance to get the weekend passwords comes on Wednesday, when Charles announced them between trivia rounds. On Saturday and Sunday, the Bear has brunch (“Hung Over Like a Bear Brunch”) until 6 PM, one of the latest brunch times in town for those who make Sunday afternoon their Sunday morning.

A new chef, Fortunato Oliva, recently started at the Blind Bear, and he re-worked the menu, keeping some of the old favorites but adding new items as well. Having recently won poker a couple of times, I decided to use my gift card winnings to step through the new menu. “I’m sure the new dishes are tasty,” I thought to myself, “but what I really want to know is, does the food pair well with PBR?”

Crab cakes (click any image to view larger size)
Crab cakes (click any image to view larger size)

On Monday I went in and tried the crab cakes. In an earlier discussion with Chef Fortunato, I had learned that one of his issues with the old menu was that there was no seafood option. He wanted to get seafood on the menu, and he hoped to create a seafood signature dish. He may well have done it with the crab cakes. You get two enormous cakes with risotto in the center of the plate. If your idea of crab cakes is what they serve at Captain D’s, with lots and lots of breading and one or two tiny pieces of crab, the Bear’s cakes will change your thinking. These crab cakes are all meat – big, lumpy pieces of crab. The risotto provides a nice balance to the cakes, but what really sets off the taste of the crab cakes is the PBR. Seafood and PBR are a match made in heaven, kind of like bees and honey, toast and jam, breasts and tube tops.

One note I’ll make here is that two of the Bear’s servers, Kaylea and Christy, are anti-tube top. BOOOOOOOOOO Kaylea and Christy. What’s really surprising is that they are both good friends with Suzy, who has had photos in this blog many times and who is one of the most pro-tube top people I know.

Chicken paillard
Chicken paillard

On Tuesday I had the chicken paillard. This is chicken that is pounded until it is thin, and then cooked over high heat to get it up to temperature. I have to admit, I ordered this dish early on not so much because of the chicken, but because of one of the sides, crispy Brussels sprouts. I have been a big fan of Brussels sprouts since I was a kid, and I know that they go very well with PBR. However, once my plate came out, I was all about the chicken. The sauce on top was to die for. Not only was it amazing on the chicken, but it went well with the other side that came with the dish, garlic smashed Yukon potatoes. I would like to sit here and tell you that the PBR I was drinking completed this dish, but I can’t – the chicken paillard was so outstanding that I would have enjoyed it even if I had been drinking a Miller Lite or worse (ugh) a Coors Light.

By the way, I acknowledge that some people do like Miller Light and Coors Light, and if so maybe you should watch the Grizzlies at the Bear. During Grizzlies games and one hour before, they have those two beers and Miller High Life in bottles for $2.50.

Creme brulee

After finishing my chicken, I still had 40 minutes to spare before Tuesday night poker. With plenty of gift card space to spare, I decided it was time for dessert. I ordered the creme brûlée. As I was waiting for it, I noticed how much the PBR opened up my palate to prepare me for the next course. It’s kind of like when they give you ginger at a sushi restaurant to clean your palate. PBR kind of naturally does that. Chef Fortunato’s take on creme brûlée is a vanilla creme brûlée with almond brittle and cayenne reduction. It was rich and creamy and complemented the PBR I was drinking beautifully. There were almond pieces atop the dish’s hard shell. I’ve only had creme brûlée a handful of times, but that was the first time I have seen it topped with pieces of nuts.

Angus short rib
Angus short rib

Thursday night I was back at the Bear to try another of Chef Fortunato’s additions to the menu, the Angus short rib. This dish consists of beef short ribs, braised in cola to produce a rich brown gravy on top, along with sides of sweet potato mash and green beans. Beef short ribs are said to be the part of the cow most similar in texture and consistency to pork ribs, and I would agree, although they are a bit fattier. Braising them made them nice and juicy to the point where I hardly needed the PBR at all. However, I would like to mention that the PBR really brought out the taste of the sweet potato mash, and vice versa.

One thing to note about the Blind Bear’s menu – they do have sides available as single servings. They just didn’t have room to print them on the menu. Any side that is available with any entree can be ordered by itself as well. These would include sweet potato mash, haricot vert (green beans), garlic smashed Yukon potatoes, crispy Brussels sprouts, and asparagus tips. There is also one additional, special side which I will get to in a moment.

Pork belly confit

Having tried seafood, poultry, and beef on the Bear’s new menu, Friday night I decided it was time to try pork. I ordered the pork belly confit, described on the menu as “Crisp pork belly, green apples, washed onions, cilantro, ponzu with sweet soy.” Pork belly is a dish that has soared in popularity the last few years. I have to admit the first time I heard of it I thought, “They cook and eat the pig’s stomach? That doesn’t sound very appealing.” But, no, pork belly is a fatty cut of meat from the belly of the pig, the same area from which bacon is cut. Since bacon goes well with PBR, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that the pork belly went well with PBR too. I gave a bite to one of my BBQ teammates and he said, “Well, that’s about the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.” The pork is crispy and full of flavor and the sauce it was drizzled in brought out the flavor even more, as did the PBR.

Since I mentioned BBQ, I should probably disclose that the Blind Bear is the bar sponsor of the Memphis in May BBQ Fest team I am on, the Moody Ques.  They joined up with us in the team’s first year, 2012, providing cups and napkins. When the bar situation in the 2012 booth proved to be a complete shitshow, the Bear stepped up and took over the bar for 2013. That year the bar ran smooth as silk, no problems at all, which was great because it was one less thing we had to worry about. We were able to focus more on throwing a good party because there were no problems with liquor. The Bear will be back with us for 2014 and we are delighted to have them.

Pepper jack mac & cheese
Pepper jack mac & cheese

Back to the pork belly… it appeared on the “Hotsy-Totsy” (appetizer) menu, as opposed to my choices earlier in the week which were on “The Great Gatsby” (entree) menu. Therefore, I expected the pork belly to be a smaller size, and decided that I should get a side to go with it. My choice was a classic item dating back to the very first days the Blind Bear was open: Pepper jack mac & cheese. This award-winning dish uses pepper jack cheese instead of cheddar for a one-of-a-kind taste. It’s creamy, as mac & cheese should be, and has just a little spice to make it interesting. They took it off the menu for a while, but it is back and Jeannette promised it will never be taken off the menu again. I really enjoy letting the spiciness build in my mouth through several bites of mac & cheese, and then I wash it out with a sip of ice cold PBR.

By the way, if there’s a person in your dining party who doesn’t like PBR (horrors!) there are other beverages to pair with your food. The Bear has a selection of wines; ask your bartender or server for a recommendation for a good wine to pair with the food you want to order. There is also a “giggle water” menu of mixed drinks.

In my years Downtown I have learned that it is a very good sign for a bar when people who work at other restaurants/bars come there after they get off. They’re in the business themselves, so they know what’s good. It’s not uncommon to walk in the Bear and see people who work at the Majestic, Local, Bluefin, Flying Saucer, and Aldo’s Pizza Pies having food and drink.

I hope this post has convinced you that the Blind Bear is not only a great place to get a PBR, but a great place to have dinner as well. Give the new menu a try; I am sure you will find something you like. The Blind Bear is on the Main Street Mall, just south of Gayoso Avenue. It is open 5 PM to 3 AM Monday-Friday, 3 PM (noon during football season) to 3 AM Saturday and Sunday.