GREETINGS, friends, from restaurant land.
It's wild and woolly country -- a fact you can ascertain for yourself when you examine the year just past. 'Mid dire talks of recession, several new places bravely opened their doors. Downtown Buffalo was especially favored.
Other pluses: Western New York finally acquired a Pacific Rim restaurant (Saki's). And one (Seneca) that offered only a single menu, a la Berkeley's famous Chez Panisse. Fewer servers felt compelled to introduce themselves by their first names.
And iceberg lettuce -- to mix a metaphor or two -- finally faded into the sunset.
Of course, there were some dyspeptic notes, too. A few places closed for good. (Shooters was the most spectacular shutdown, and this hardly came as shock. It was always less of a restaurant than a happening.)
What's ahead? If the recession deepens, who can guess?
Eating away from home is expected to increase, but expensive restaurants -- or those that are perceived as expensive -- may have problems. In Manhattan, the problems have shown up already -- the higher you fly, the harder you fall, perhaps.
On a recent trip to New York we noted some empty spots at the fringes of dining rooms the yuppies used to reserve weeks ahead. Le Bernardin and Cafe des Artistes were well able to take walk-ins.
Los Angeles, too, is feeling the pinch. Almost half the restaurants on super-trendy Melrose Avenue have reported drops in sales.
Look for the return of the blue plate special -- in restaurants on the Niagara Frontier as well as nationwide. That doesn't mean the food has to be bad. Bring on the meatloaf and mashed potatoes!
In the meantime, here is a brief survey of our restaurant scene for the past 12 months. An asterisk (*) indicates that the review was written when the restaurant had been open for a short time -- usually less than six months.
Some restaurateurs dislike being written up this early in the game, but we say: Too bad. As long as the customer is paying full fare, the places should be judged accordingly.
Remember too, that stars are awarded for the quality of the food only.
A brief description is included -- we suggest you call for hours and credit card information. The original reviews included these details, but they are changeable.
Unless indicated, all these restaurants serve both lunch and dinner.
THREE STARS OR BETTER
CALUMET ARTS CAFE
(Oct. 5) *
56 W. Chippewa St. (855-2220.) Knock-the-eyes-out refurbishment of a 1906 terra cotta building, meant to be an arts center that features performances and exhibitions as well as food. Consistency may be a problem in the kitchen here. We loved the bistro-style cuisine, but problems have been reported. What I'd order: Oven Chicken With Herbs.
CHANG'S GARDEN (July 13) *
938 Maple Road, Williamsville (689-3355). A sleek Chinese restaurant in a small shopping plaza. What I'd order: the Orange-Flavored Beef, Shrimp in Barbecue Tea Sauce. Warning: Complaints on the service here continue to proliferate.
CHON BURI (July 27) *
296 King St., Welland, Ont. (416-734-1752). Fine food in a relaxing setting. Here's your chance to get a taste of Thai cuisine. What I'd order: Tom Kha Gai soup, Pra Mhuk Yad Sai (stuffed squid) or any of the curries. The servers are genuinely helpful in interpreting the menu, so don't be afraid to ask. Reservations essential. No lunch.
DANIEL'S RESTAURANT (April 27) 1/2 *
174 Buffalo St., Hamburg (648-6554). A very small restaurant with sophisticated decor and superior food. The printed dinner menu offers a choice of eight entrees. What I'd order: Seafood Terrine Appetizer, Duck Breast, Lemon Custard Tart. Nice wine list.
FANNY'S (Sept. 7)
3500 Sheridan Drive, Amherst (834-0400). A well-established restaurant that just keeps on serving innovative, excellent food. What I'd order: Lamb en Croute or any fish dish. Desserts are fine.
GARVEY'S (Jan. 5)
414 Pearl St. (856-3222). A comfortable, no-nonsense, often noisy bar/restaurant that offers standard popular meat dishes as well as more contemporary choices. What I'd order: steak, steak, steak. (With no apologies.)
GRILLE 91 (Dec. 14) *
91 Niagara St. (856-8373). The former Valentine's, now under new ownership. What I'd order: the Angel Hair Pasta, listed under appetizers. Dressed with plenty of good olive oil and al dente vegetables, there's enough here for a main dish. Also, the ice cream, because it's made in the restaurant.
HERBERT'S (May 18) 1/2
3 Niagara Blvd., Fort Erie, Ont. (416-871-8444). A comfortable yet dignified chef-owned restaurant with a view of the Niagara River. It serves very carefully prepared Swiss/German food. What I'd order: the Rack of Lamb or the Duck. (Actually, I'd eat anything here.) No lunch.
HOURGLASS (Dec. 21)
981 Kenmore Ave., Kenmore (877-8788). A well-established restaurant, small, non-glitzy and intimate. Extremely well-managed. Let the proprietor select your wine from the outstanding list. What I'd order: any fish or seafood and one of the marvelous homemade desserts. No lunch.
JUSTINE'S (Nov. 16)
120 Church St. (in the Buffalo Hilton) (845-5100). A beautiful room with food beautifully presented. What I'd order: the Roast Capon glazed with apple jelly or the Rack of Pork -- two chops with bourbon glaze. Very romantic, with a piano playing in the background. Just be darn sure the waiter toes the line on the wine service. They seem to have this tendency to disappear. No lunch.
LORD CHUMLEY'S (Oct. 19) 1/2
481 Delaware Ave. (886-2220). Handsome restaurant in a beautifully redone brownstone, serving a very broad range of food. Popular favorites reign. What I'd order: the Caesar Salad and the salmon -- whatever way they're preparing it that day. Very popular; always reserve.
MOTHER'S (Aug. 24)
33 Virginia Place (881-4881). These small, quaint quarters house a busy barroom as well as a creative restaurant. What I'd order: Roast Veal Tenderloin or Crab Cakes. Sauces are good but sometimes overwhelming. Ask to have them served on the side.
OLD WORLD COOKERY (Feb. 23)
206 Allen St. (884-4455). A modest-looking restaurant well-situated near the Theater District and Kleinhans Music Hall. Imaginative and carefully prepared food. What I'd order: the salmon (marvelous). No lunch.
SAKI'S (Dec. 7) *
28 Church St. (852-0012). A restaurant featuring "fusion cuisine" -- that is, it combines Asian and American tastes. What I'd order: anything from the sushi bar, the California Roll (a cooked mixture of crabmeat, avocado and vinegared rice) and the Shanghai Wings -- a witty takeoff on you know what. Aw, come on -- take a chance!
SENECA (Sept. 14) *
3112 Main St. (835-1755). A small restaurant that serves a six-course dinner that changes nightly. No choice. When making reservations, ask what will be served. Emphasis on environmentally sound foods; beer and wine only. I'd eat anything here. Salmon With Black Mustard Seed Crust was one of the best dishes I've ever tried. No smoking. No lunch.
SHEPHERD'S RESTAURANT (April 20)
8222 Transit Road (689-7802). In the K mart Plaza. This busy, well-established suburban restaurant features a broad menu of popular entrees. Food is very well-prepared. Ambience is casual. The menu is fixated on Cajun food. What I'd order: I'd avoid the passe quasi-New Orleans fare and opt for the Grilled Veal Chop or the Fettucine With Porcini.
SPAGHETTI WESTERN (March 30)
15 New Road, East Amherst (689-0034). Featuring the foods of the Southwest and Italy. Jalapenos and spaghetti fighting to the death. Informal. What I'd order: Chicken Chimichanga or Black Bean Chili. For those with more cautious tastes, the Grilled Half Chicken is delicious.
And now for some restaurants which opened this year that are more than promising. For one reason or another they didn't quite achieve the rating (awarding stars is hell).
Keep your eyes on the following:
BRICK ALLEY BISTRO (Oct. 26) 1/2 *
1375 Delaware Ave. (881-1151). Under new ownership, this comfortable restaurant is spiffy clean and bright. It offers an interesting array of basic food with innovative touches. What I'd order: Chicken Breast With Garlic, Grilled Homemade Chicken Sausage with warm Potato Salad, Deep-Fried Goat Cheese Ravioli. No lunch.
BUFFALO ROME (July 20) 1/2 *
291 Bryant St. (881-6747). Under new ownership, this tiny restaurant features a way-out menu of carefully prepared fresh foods. What I'd order: the Thai specialties and the Polenta. Be warned: Service can be dicey.
CURLY'S BAR & GRILL (Sept. 21) 1/2 *
647 Ridge Road, Lackawanna (824-9716). Neighborhood bar with a 56-year-old history now taken over by two trained culinary school graduates who love their work. What I'd order: Black Bean Soup, Jamaican Jerk Chicken Dinner and the homemade bread.
MIA CARO (April 6) *
2082 Kensington Ave., Amherst (839-1978). Very stylish restaurant concentrating on Northern Italian cuisine. Food is good, but presentation should be better -- they go a little too heavy on the sauce. What I'd order: Arrostini appetizer (thick slices of bread topped with mushrooms and sausages), pastas.
OLD RED MILL (March 16) *
8326 Main St., Williamsville. (633-7878). Under new ownership, a large restaurant of standard American favorites. Conservative fare and clientele. What I'd order: conventional preparations of chicken or beef, but I wouldn't miss the Cinnamon Rolls.
SCOTT'S (Nov. 23) 1/2 *
675 Delaware Ave. (885-8888). Bright and attractive, this second installment of the popular Transit Road restaurant boasts a contemporary menu and specials list. What I'd order: Tomato Gin Soup accompanied by the fine whole-grain bread, Seafood Nicholas or Lemon Pepper Chicken. The duck is good, also.
SMILING FISH CO. LTD. (June 22) *
660 Garrison Road, Fort Erie, Ont. (416-871-9666). Part fish market, part take-out, part restaurant, this good humored little spot has a menu that changes according to market conditions. What I'd order: any fish.
And -- in the "never judge a book by its cover" department -- here are a couple of restaurants reviewed last year that fooled me.
THE GRAPEVINE (March 23)
2545 Niagara Falls Blvd., Tonawanda (691-7799). Looks like a very ordinary coffee shop, but it's much better than that. Big portions, a big menu and many daily specials. Comfortable, too. What I'd order: Chicken With Asparagus and a Turtle Bar Sundae.
THE PINES (Aug. 31) 1/2
3990 Erie Road, Crystal Beach, Ont. (416-894-3269). A simple cottage offers tasty food, much of it restaurant-made. Open from April through October. What I'd order: Chicken a la Pines (lightly breaded chicken breast in mild sauce). Or Barbecued Spareribs. No lunch.
Lest we forget: Despite all our excitement about what's new, we'd never forget the following restaurants. They were not reviewed this year, but have earned 1/2 ratings or better in the years past. They still deserve 'em.
ASA RANSOM HOUSE 1/2
10529 Main St., Clarence (759-2315). Beautiful old house with an extensive menu of quality wholesome food. What I'd order: Chicken and Leek Pie, well-prepared and interesting vegetables, good desserts. Lunch served only on Wednesdays.
JUST PASTA 1/2
307 Bryant St. (881-1888). Very upscale, very well-prepared victuals in this truly sophisticated dining spot. The very newest, the most trendy of foods show up. What I'd order: two different appetizers (any and all are wonderful), salad and dessert (any and all are wonderful, too).
126 Niagara Blvd., Fort Erie, Ont. (416-871-7971). A wondrous Chinese restaurant with an interesting and adventurous menu. What I'd order: Spring Rolls, Escargot With Pork and Black Bean Sauce, Stir Fry String Beans. Restaurant closed until March 12.
2095 Delaware Ave. (877-9662). Expensive and elegant with a big menu of innovative dishes, Oliver's has been improving steadily the past few years. What I'd order: Pheasant With Cranberries, Pasta With Black Olives, and Creme Brulee for dessert.
4243 Genesee St. (634-2300). A fine restaurant in the Ramada Renaissance Hotel, across from the airport. It is handsome to look at and features Northern Italian dishes with many creative contemporary touches. What I'd order: Salmon a la Griglia appetizer, any main course and all the perfectly cooked vegetables I could get my hands on. No lunch.
RUE FRANKLIN WEST 341 Franklin St. (852-4416). Buffalo's only truly French restaurant is beautiful to look at, with a menu that changes seasonally. What I'd order: Venison or Duck Breast, though any item on the menu is rewarding here. And -- hang the calories -- I'd be sure to leave room for dessert, because they are among the best in the city. No lunch.
561 Main St. Tonawanda (694-3700). Elaborate and carefully prepared dinners are served in this attractive restaurant. All the appurtenances of an elegant meal are here. Luxurious table settings, fresh flowers and an exceptional wine list. What I'd order: any of the evening specials, especially veal or poultry.