Little Bear is a difficult restaurant to describe.
Chef Jarrett Stieber, the force behind the Summerhill establishment, said Little Bear is a bit like Atlanta: “It’s weird and artistic and creative and impossible to define, even for people who have lived here a long time.”
Little Bear also is deeply Southern, sourcing its ingredients locally, Stieber said. If an ingredient for a certain dish is not available, the dish changes.
That doesn’t mean Little Bear is a muted temple to culinary perfection; almost every other aspect of the restaurant is approached with a trademark smirk. After years of running his beloved pop-up Eat Me, Speak Me, Stieber’s first brick-and-mortar restaurant embraces an atmosphere of cheerful impermanence.
The menu is adjusted daily, and special items are presented with tongue firmly in cheek — the Dealer’s Choice (”just [expletive] me up, fam!”) and the X.L. Meat du Jour (”Big hunk-o-flesh with whatever the hell we want”). The restaurant’s “proprietor” is listed everywhere as Stieber’s dog, Fernando L. Bear. Jokey lettering on the front door extolls a “2½ Michelin Tire” rating.
However, serious culinary talent is on display in the menu’s detail-oriented offerings. A gorgeous lettuce salad served in early May came with preserved strawberries and Meyer lemon dressing. With its sharp dressing and candy-sweet strawberries, which gained depth from the addition of whole-leaf basil and spearmint, it was that rare salad that quiets a table. Minuscule croutons, like tiny oyster crackers, added crunch and whimsy.
Since late 2020, Little Bear’s menu has drawn from Americanized Chinese takeout classics, inspired by Stieber’s Jewish upbringing, including eating takeout on Christmas. He isn’t sure how long the Asian-inflected menu will last, he said, but “for the foreseeable future, it’ll probably remain kind of a weird dog-branded, Jewish-Chinese, locally sourced bizarro world situation.”
The May menu was headlined by beef and broccoli, as well as sweet and sour chicken. The chicken, with its piquant tomato-based sauce and creamy house-made pecan tahini, left you wanting more.
Little Bear’s servings tend to be small, but the creative, technique-heavy dishes still felt like a solid value. The beef and chicken were the most expensive a la carte dishes, at $18 apiece, and even the top-notch cocktails sit at the lower end of the price spectrum.
Whiskey lovers should rush to Little Bear for the rye-forward Golden Hour cocktail, with its soft, subtly sweet finish, courtesy of a yuzu liqueur. The drink was a nuanced celebration of rye in a town drowning in Old-Fashioneds. Many cocktails on bar manager Charles Howk’s drinks list incorporate unusual vegetal flavors with finesse. Fennel malört provides ballast in the Corpse Retriever, while feijoa bitters brought the subtle character of black beans to a tropical drink, Just the Piñata. The cocktails run $11-$13.
Little Bear isn’t perfect; it’s purposefully tiny, so the tables are very close together. The friendly service can get a little too casual sometimes, allowing empty cocktail glasses to linger when you want another. The hipster vibe, internet lingo and small portions are probably a turn-off for some.
Still, those quibbles did not dampen my enjoyment of the restaurant, which was one of the most pleasant, interesting and fun dining experiences I’ve had. Maybe it’s time for Little Bear to be awarded that third Michelin tire.
By Henri Hollis, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution