The black bear watched silently as we ate. While a bear sighting is not an uncommon occurrence in these parts, it doesn't often happen in a restaurant. Thankfully, he was stuffed and didn't give us much trouble as we dined. That may be the only risk of eating at the Bald Headed Bistro in Cleveland.
We started with an appetizer of Sashimi Tuna with Wasabi Glaze over Spicy Western Slaw ($12), which we enjoyed and which benefited from a squirt of lime that accompanied this dish as a garnish.
But with beef that has been wet-aged for 28 days, roasted and then seared over a wood-fired stove, I anticipated a great filet mignon, my steak of choice. The 6-ounce BHB Filet Mignon ($29) seemed to be the right choice, and I added the herb-roasted potatoes ($4) and the sautéed spinach ($6). My date ordered the special of the night, a Gremolata Crusted Pacific Seabass and Breaded Cold Water Lobster Bites served with Butternut Squash Risotto and a Carrot Ginger Sauce ($30).
My steak was well-seasoned and properly cooked. The seasoning, combined with the wood choice for the oven, left the crust of the steak with a spicy, smoky taste that blended well with the flavor of the meat. It improved with each bite.
The Seabass/Risotto dish was a knockout. The fish, properly cooked and full of complex flavors, and the lobster complemented each other. But the star of the dish was the Risotto and Carrot/Ginger Glaze. The creamy rice went hand-in-hand with the glaze, making for a wonderful sweet and savory mix. Did I mention it was tasty?
The only disappointing part of the meal was the herb roasted potatoes, which missed on both counts. A lack of inspiration in seasoning fell flat on the obviously frozen potatoes, and they went uneaten after a few test bites. It seemed like a glaring oversight, considering the care and detail that went into the preparation of our other choices.
Dessert choices abound; we opted for the Peanut Butter Pie With Apricot Glaze ($8) to finish our meal. Not overly sweet, it had a hint of saltiness that supported the peanut-butter flavor. The chocolate-fudge glaze drizzled on the plate didn't hurt matters.
The menu spans a wide range from Chicken Provence ($18) to North American Elk Tenderloin ($39) and includes items such as a wood-fired oven pepperoni pizza ($7) and a chicken salad melt ($8). Side items such as herb-roasted potatoes ($4), sweet potato hash ($5) and four-cheese baked macaroni and cheese ($6) are a la carte.
Also worth noting: The BHB has small plate dishes, ranging from Snake River Pasta ($9) to Steak Oscar ($21), which reduces the impact on wallets and waistlines.
The staff at Bald Headed Bistro carefully maintains the line between being helpful and annoying, erring on the side of helpful. A mere glance in the direction of our server and Ryan appeared, ready to assist. Entrees arrived and were served simultaneously, with the assistance of other servers. This is a signature of the restaurant and is quite interesting to watch at larger tables. While it could be construed as flamboyant by some, it also means the table's meals arrive at the same time without orphaning a member of the party.
Since we made an early reservation, we got to experience the staff getting trained on new wines and specials for the night. Although it was done discreetly, it was interesting to overhear the serving staff's reactions to tasting the wines and dishes.
Billed as "Jackson Hole Comes to the South," the Bald Headed Bistro lives up to the Western promise of rugged elegance. Logs from owner Allan Jones' Crescent H Ranch in Wyoming adorn the walls, as do mounted moose, bear and other animals. The smell of the wood fire and the grilled meat waft through the air. But if you're a PETA member, you may be in the wrong restaurant.
Other design elements, such as handmade wrought-iron lighting and nature-made fossils, complete the decor. Once you're inside, it is hard to remember you're inside a shopping mall in Cleveland, Tenn.
As we dined, the restaurant slowly filled with large families and couples. The BHB is obviously well-regarded by locals and well-patronized.
It also features four meeting/banquet rooms, which can be joined to create a nicely sized room for a private function of 70 people.
Several large-screen televisions dot the walls, keeping sports fans happy. With their sound muted, they afforded both a pleasant dining experience and an ability to keep track of the games.
Bald Headed Bistro is 30 miles or so from downtown Chattanooga. Make reservations - always a good idea - and plan for a ruggedly elegant meal. BHB is not an inexpensive restaurant, but perhaps it is better suited for a special night or event. Unless you're Jones, who's at home there every night. Trivia note: His bare pate gave the restaurant its name.
Where: Bald Headed Bistro, 201 Keith St. SW (Village Green Town Center), Cleveland, Tenn.
Hours: Bar opens at 4:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, dining room opens at 5 p.m. (special events and group functions can be arranged for different times).
Price range: $6 (pizza)-$39 (elk tenderloin).
Directions: From Chattanooga, take I-75 north to Cleveland (Exit 20), then east to Lee Highway (U.S. Hwy. 64), then north to Keith Street to Village Green Town Center.