Astoria, Restaurants
Jun 02, 2016

BEAR Memories with Natasha Pogrebinsky

Memories, observations, and thoughts from chef Natasha Pogrebinsky on running BEAR, a Modern Russian restaurant that was open in Astoria/LIC for almost five years.

Share this Scoop

total shares!

pickles-bear-restaurant-astoria-queens

As you know, BEAR closed at the end of April after almost five years in business as a restaurant, much to the dismay of their fans. However, the good news is that they’re producing some of the most popular dishes in their “cafe-line”—prepackaged sandwiches, borscht, and pierogies—currently available now at Chateau le Woof. And there are even more plans in the works, the idea of which is pretty exciting. We got curious about what’s in store, and we also wanted to reminisce with Natasha about her notable memories from BEAR’s run as a restaurant, so we had a lively chat to learn more.

BEAR’s Early Days

The first question on my mind was about BEAR itself—I was curious to hear what the early days were like from Natasha’s perspective. It all started in 2011, when she and her brother Sasha moved into the built-out space on 31st Avenue (formerly occupied by ELO, a sort of upscale cafe/lounge—I actually ate there once) in November of that year. As you can imagine, there was a lot going on then, and the initial response to BEAR basically blew up their lives, in a good way. “In the first year we had such a great response from the neighborhood and the greater LIC area,” Natasha recalls. “We got noticed really fast—-TV came, there were all these interviews and articles, great reviews, and we thought it was just amazing. We wanted to do our own thing and we got all this crazy press.”

That great feedback was really encouraging to Natasha, who’d dreamt of opening her own place but expected to do so later in life. She told us, “I just didn’t think I would open my own place for another 10 or 20 years! I thought I’d just work in the industry and go from restaurant to restaurant and eventually open something up maybe when I like 50.”

zakuski-platter-bear-restaurant-astoria-queens

The joy in running the restaurant ranged from basic stuff, like choosing supplies and serving-ware, to the creative end, like putting together a menu—all in service of her vision. She explains, “For the first time people were coming to experience what we created here, completely independent of anybody else’s views or ideas. It was my menu, completely. It was our idea about what the cocktails and the drinks should be. We didn’t have a design team or PR team; we literally every aspect we did by ourselves. There were moments in the first few months where right before service we’d look out at servers and waiters getting ready, the menus were just printed and they were fresh and warm. We thought, ‘this is happening!’ It was exciting and new.”

She adds, “The best way to describe it was that it was ‘magical.’” She also compares opening a restaurant to having a baby or a brand new relationship—mostly, you remember the good stuff but you respect the challenges you encounter. “When you look back on it you just think of the happy, great times and the fun times—the brand new smell or the exciting anxiety—but you don’t think of the headaches or the heartbreaks or the pain. You just remember the good times.”

Finding a Home For BEAR

Another thing I was curious about was why she decided to open up here in LIC. She told me the story behind it:

“We were looking for a place for a very long time and had looked in Manhattan, Brooklyn and all over Queens; we saw a lot of places. To me, still to this day, when looking for other places you just have to have the right feeling about a space, it has to have the right vibe about it. Sure, people say that location was not great, and we understand that, and we know that it wasn’t the easiest to get to. But we also knew we wanted to do a destination restaurant with a chef’s tasting, whose concept is designed to be a destination. We believed that people would come here because of that.

“Honestly, we drove over the Pulaski Bridge one day from Brooklyn. My parents were here to help look for a spot—and literally, when we arrived the sky opened up and the sun was shining. We drove all the way up Vernon to see what was there—we looked at some places and then drove by this place; it felt so right, and that was pretty much it.

“You know, there are a lot of things that go into picking out a space—the rents and the layout, etc.—but the biggest thing is that it’s the right fit. We liked that the space was in an established but growing neighborhood, lots of people moving in, lots of development. In hindsight, it didn’t happen as fast as we’d like, but that’s the way it goes.”

bear-interior-astoria-queens

Photo credit: BEAR

One of the strengths of this space was that it was already built out, with a bar and furniture. “The smartest move we made as new restaurant owners was getting a built out space,” Natasha explains. “I had been consulting for over 5 years for restaurants, and one of the biggest mistakes I saw people make in opening up places was trying to build everything out on their own, to their exact details and specifications, and then they end up never opening, or sinking all their money into pre-opening. One of the things we decided to scratch off our business plan was going to a space that was already there because that would give us a platform to do the culinary aspect that we wanted—the bar, the drinks, the feeling, the vibe, the atmosphere. That’s what we were bringing.”

Evolution of the Menu and Favorite Dishes

I asked her about the menu—how it started and how it evolved; apparently it evolved quite a bit. At first, they took a fairly conventional approach—appetizers, entrée, and desserts, a “classic fine dining, sit down experience” according to Natasha. They created elaborate preparations that involved luxury ingredients like duck and caviar. The menu changed often, sometimes every week.

Later, the vibe became more casual and leisurely, though duck and caviar were still on the menu. The quality of the ingredients didn’t change, and could be considered to be in the “fine dining” universe. Natasha tells us, “We ended up with a louder place where you can come as a couple, as a single person, or with friends and end up making friends across the aisle. Then coming back with these new friends for brunch. Over the next few months we transformed to a more casual, beautiful environment, with an atmosphere and style of service where you can come in with your flip flops after hanging at Socrates Park and have scallops and caviar at the same time.”

stroganoff-bear-restaurant-astoria-queens

I was curious about some of her favorite dishes she made at BEAR, and the first thing she mentioned were the stewed forest mushrooms. “They took hours to cook down and then they were roasted with sour cream, dill, garlic, a little bit of wine, and they were served almost paté style with a raw egg yolk,” she said. “Sometimes I served them over pasta or potatoes, and it became our mushroom stroganoff eventually. I loved making it and made it for three years; it was my mom’s recipe that I developed.”

People also discovered their unknown love of beets at BEAR. Natasha loved making converts of her guests when it came to things like beets and mushrooms. Natasha remembers happily, “The best part for me was seeing the expression on their faces of ‘No way, no way, I love beets! Who am I?!?’ That was genuinely the best part.”

borscht-bear-restaurant-astoria-queens

One of the more interesting and fulfilling observations was how beloved the menu’s Russian dishes became. “The more we evolved the menu, it became even more Russian,” Natasha recalls. “We had the modern Russian food and some other things on the menu, but over time people would mostly order the Russian stuff. This made me happy because I love to cook that kind of food.”

Opportunities for Connection

Aside from cooking in the restaurant, Natasha encountered other opportunities as a result of running BEAR. “We did so many things—it was almost like a gift that this happened and that I got to experience so many things through the restaurant,” she said with great gratitude. “We did do amazing events—the Fancy Food Show for one, and we were contracted to be the official NYC chef and restaurant to represent Citibank for the Sochi Olympics. We did this big event at Lincoln Center and cooked for thousands of people. Alpine ski racer and Olympian Picabo Street hung out with me, and there were a bunch of other athletes. It was so surreal. And all they wanted to do was eat Russian food!”

The personal connections she made and nurtured at BEAR are also precious to her, and she reveled in being a connector of people. “One of the biggest things was that the restaurant brought a lot of people there I hadn’t seen for 15 years or more,” she recalls. “Every other weekend people would come by that I knew from middle school or Russian camp, or because they saw us on TV. I loved the personal connections I would make at the table with the people.”

What’s Next for BEAR

As for what’s next, both Natasha and Sasha have books planned. Their online and cafe sales are already in the works—as we mentioned, they are at Chateau le Woof, selling their dishes through Caviar, and will be starting with Amazon in July or August.

They are also at The Starlight, a bar in Williamsburg (596 Grand Street). They have BEAR pierogies and pickles (including pickled eggs) on the menu, and if you’re craving her borscht or dumplings, you can ask for them (“they’re not on the menu but I always have them”). They are also on the lookout for a new physical location for BEAR v. 2, but there are no details to share until it’s in place.

dumplings-the-starlight-brooklyn

Natasha reminds us that they are not going anywhere, that “it’s definitely not over.” She adds, “I know because the physical location is gone it might be sending that message to people, but the brand is still alive and thriving. You can see me and my brother at The Starlight and we will be doing lots of events there that are BEAR-centric. We personally welcome our BEAR followers, customers, and friends. We’d love to see you—we are still cooking all the food.”

And some final words from Natasha, full of optimism: “I’m lucky. A lot of people want to do this and don’t get to do this for whatever reasons. Whatever sacrifices came by having this restaurant, I still feel like it was the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Big thanks to Natasha for spending time with us to talk about BEAR! Regarding future events, Natasha is planning one at The Starlight called “Borscht and BBQ.” We’ll let you know more when we have the details.

About Meg Cotner

Meg Cotner was trained as a harpsichordist and now works as a freelance writer and editor. She is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to Queens," and is a skilled and avid home cook, baker, and preserver.

2 Comments

Bear’s Second Act, Cafe Altro Paradiso Launches Weekend Lunch, and More Intel | NYDiningGuide.com

[…] — Natasha Pogrebinsky closed her Long Island City Eastern European restaurant Bear in April, but now some of the dishes are available for delivery via Caviar and as take-away items at Chateau le Woof in Astoria. Pogrebinsky and her team are also serving some dishes from Bear at Starlight Bar in Williamsburg, and they hope to eventually find another space for a full revival of the restaurant. […]

Reply
Bear’s Second Act, Cafe Altro Paradiso Launches Weekend Lunch, and More Intel | BANTAM

[…] — Natasha Pogrebinsky closed her Long Island City Eastern European restaurant Bear in April, but now some of the dishes are available for delivery via Caviar and as take-away items at Chateau le Woof in Astoria. Pogrebinsky and her team are also serving some dishes from Bear at Starlight Bar in Williamsburg, and they hope to eventually find another space for a full revival of the restaurant. […]

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *