by Jacqueline Rupp
Bears are known for their ravenous appetite. And given the name of this Fort Washington eatery that opened one year ago, Hungry Bear Cafe may attract a few wild visitors. But it’s the human diners we think that will truly appreciate the finely crafted cuisine this little bistro is churning out. Make no mistake by its homey appearance, this unassuming BYOB can challenge and tempt taste buds as well as any metropolitan fine dining spot.
With a cuisine loosely categorized as “New American” or “Southern,” the menu more often denotes local flavors rather than trying to recreate any specific culinary tradition. In fact, if there was a tradition at play here, it would be the “old fashioned” concept of scratch cooking which Hungry Bear takes to ambitious degrees.
Tucked back off of Bethlehem Pike in what used to be the Fort Washington train station ticket office, this old dingy railroad space has been transformed with a crisp bistrostyle decor of clean wood and bright blue accents, a blackboard detailing the house specials and jazz in the background. It is a bit of a challenge to find, so make a note if you visit that a turn into the “Village of Fort Washington” will bring you down to the cafe.
Just picture your standard SEPTA ticket station, and you can imagine it is quite the squeeze for a burgeoning restaurant, spacewise. The kitchen is packed nearly to the ceiling with equipment, and it looks like chef and sous chef alike have learned the dance moves for navigating between kitchen equipment and each other in a space smaller than most of our home kitchens.
With the warm weather, seating has doubled at the restaurant, with al fresco dining as an option now; good news for diners since the cafe recommends reservations, especially for its weekend brunch. Probably one of the reasons this spot does such a bustling takeout and delivery business as well.
Hungry Bear is owned by executive chef Derek Cantwell and his sister, Cortney. The restaurant is all in the family, with Derek in the kitchen and Cortney working front of house. One of the main parts of the restaurant is their focus on sourcing locally and making ingredients inhouse. The meats are butchered on site, and the restaurant makes all of its own sausages and pork dishes.
Self taught in the kitchen, with a background in law, Derek honed his cooking skills first in Center City restaurants before a stint in Chicago. You can see how Derek enjoys adventurously pairing elements together in dishes like the wild mushroom spring rolls with truffle gruyere fondue ($9), duck sausage with Thai chili glaze ($9), and pate with pickled bell pepper and truffle mango mustard ($13).
We had the pleasure of sampling both dinner and brunch on two occasions, mostly because all the buzz about their brunch made it simply a must. The cookie doughstuffed French toast really had nothing to do with that; we swear! But back to dinner. A quick scan of the menu shows it’s full of experimental elements combined with sprinklings of Southern charm, like the Cajunstyle tasso ham hush puppies ($6), shrimp gumbo ($16) and Creole rice-stuffed quail ($29).
We dined on the housemade sweet potato gnocchi with Bosch pears, gorgonzola cream and fresh herbs ($14) and the pulled pork and tasso ham flatbread topped with onion confit, smoked apples and cheddar ($13), one of four housemade flatbreads on the menu. The gnocchi is a generous portion, and the delicate fresh pear slices complement the bite of the gorgonzola cream perfectly. The flatbread is a complex creation, with a multitude of flavors mingling through each bite.
Brunch, served on weekends from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., is one of the highlights of the cafe. Tasty reinterpretions on the old brunch classics are what the spot has become known for. Eggs Benedict, for instance, goes to new heights with the brioche Benedict ($11), served with homemade pork sausage, a wild mushroom Hollandaise atop poached eggs and toasted brioche. The breakfast sliders ($6) are a fine sampling of breakfast meat with pork, turkey and chorizo sausages in each serving accompanied by fried quail egg and a cheddar-bacon spread.
But our heart belongs to one brunch entree in particular, the epically concocted cookie dough French toast ($6.75). Yes it is as scrumptious and sinful as its name implies. Be on the lookout for brunch specials when you go, like the uberyummy foie gras with pickled quail egg, almost too beautiful with its vibrant colors of purple, pink and yellow.
Hungry Bear Cafe is located at 429 S. Bethlehem Pike, Fort Washington. More information at 267-419-8188 or www.hungrybearcafes.com.