OPEN ONLY since January, the A Train offers an extended menu of soul food and live jazz on late weekend evenings. Old-time Buffalonians will be interested to learn that the restaurant occupies the premises that once belonged to Shields Electrical Repair.
It's a big, high-ceilinged and handsome space with a busy barroom and tables set wide apart in the dining room that opens off it.
On a recent Friday, the place was full of energy. Big parties of dressed-up people were table-hopping and appearing to have a terrific time.
They were eating pretty well, too, and who could blame them? The menu is tempting. To me, the real glory of this place lies in the vegetables. They are so fresh and so well-prepared.
The fried green tomatoes ($4.95) had a sweet little edge that made them addictive; the collards in the dish called "Swamp Thing" -- more on that later -- were zesty as could be. And the fried corn side dish -- recently harvested kernels swimming in butter, with just a little sweet red pepper thrown in for good measure -- made up one of the best-tasting restaurant vegetables I've had in years.
As good as the other dishes were, they couldn't top these vegetables. Not that the last remark should be interpreted as a complaint. We had begun our meal with fluffy Maryland Crabcakes ($7.95) and an $8.95 sampler platter of the fried tomatoes, crisp catfish fingers and what the A Train calls "Not Buffalo Chicken Wings." We were happy as could be.
And certainly everyone enjoyed the St. Louis Ribs ($12.95) -- an enormous serving of meaty ribs, well-doused with the house barbecue sauce, full-flavored and sweet rather than piquant. The Southern Fried Chicken ($10.95) was crisp and gently spicy, but I'd have liked it a little darker in color. Accompanying mashed potatoes tasted better when our server brought us gravy.
It was obviously the gravy served with another entree, the Center Cut Pork Chops ($10.95). That gravy gave those spuds some oniony zing.
Then there was the aforementioned Swamp Thing ($12.95), and with a name like that, who could resist ordering it? The Thing consisted of: a huge pile of collards, cooked for a long time so they were good and soupy, topped with shrimp, scallops and even a couple of crawfish.
Plus, there was this humongous hunk of cornbread. Enough to mop up all the juice from the greens -- did I mention the greens? I'd order the Swamp Thing again.
We enjoyed our meal so much that I hate to mention two disappointments. One was the Peach Cobbler ($3.50), which seemed to be made from canned peaches. At least that's the way they tasted. In midsummer (and in the midst of one of the best peach seasons ever), that's a sad thing. And the other letdown? Well, maybe not quite so serious. Despite the name of the restaurant, we never heard any Duke Ellington. (They were still playing background music during dinner.) No Billie Holiday, either. Actually, the background sounded a little too close to elevator music.
But what the heck, let's end on a high note. That Bourbon Pecan Pie? It was pretty terrific.
Kristin's ** 1/2 (Aug. 27)
Kristin's, 30 Wellington St., St. Catharines, Ont. (905-682-5022). A bistro with Provencal leanings -- in both food and decor. Outdoor patio available.
Root Five* 1/2 (Aug. 20)
Root Five, 4914 Lakeshore Road, Hamburg (627-5551). Absolutely fabulous location on the very edge of Lake Erie. Eat in or out. There's an extensive menu, a busy bar and occasional entertainment.
Fritz Bistro **** (Aug. 13)
Fritz Bistro, 6010 Goodrich Road, Clarence Center. (741-5085). Fritz has been open for over a year and the menu is now totally Asian-fusion. Sleek and stunning, surroundings are every bit as sophisticated as the food.
Escabeche**** * (Aug. 6)
Escabeche, 6 Picton St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. (888-669-5566). In the newly renovated Prince of Wales Hotel, a visual and culinary production. The Edwardian decor is complete to the last tassel. Over the top? You betcha. Also great fun (and expensive).
Linguine's ***(July 30)
Linguine's, 5380 Genesee St., Lancaster (683-6542). Just a little Italian restaurant behind a gas station. This cute and busy place features hearty home-style food.
Murphy Orchards Tea Room ***(July 23)
Murphy Orchards Tea Room, 2402 McClew Road, Burt (778-7926). Handsome old house in the middle of farm country. Beautiful views. Tea and lunch only.
Wilson House ** (July 23)
Wilson House, 300 Lake St., Wilson (751-9888). A Niagara County landmark, located in a historic house near Lake Ontario right in the center of the fruit belt.
Pettibones Grille ** 1/2 (July 16)
Pettibones Grille, Swan and Washington streets (846-2100). In Dunn Tire Park with a view of the baseball diamond, this restaurant is now basically a bar and lunch place. The Hall of Fame Bistro menu section features stick-to-the-ribs sandwiches, named for local baseball greats.
THE A TRAIN ** 1/2
1412 Main St. (883-5926). It calls itself an "eatery and beverage establishment," and this new restaurant offers an extensive menu of upscale soul food. The handsome surroundings are more than comfortable; the place really bustles. Credit cards: American Express, Visa, MasterCard.
BEST DISH: The vegetables.
NEEDS WORK: Peach Cobbler.
PRICE RANGE: Dinners from $10.95 include two sides.
SERVICE: Very good.
HOURS: Lunch, Mon. through Fri. Dinner, Mon. through Sat. until 11. Late-night menu.
HEALTH-CONSCIOUS CHOICES: Grilled Catfish; "Swamp Thing."
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.
PARKING: In the lot.
KID APPEAL: Older children will like.
Addresses and telephone numbers of restaurants reviewed during the past two months may be obtained by calling 849-4070.
KEY: FAIR, GOOD, VERY GOOD, EXCELLENT, EXTRAORDINARY. Stars are awarded for the quality of the food only.