The Royal Pheasant is a Buffalo classic. It has been standing on the corner of Forest Avenue and Tremont for more than 50 years, and when it finally changed hands last year, many neighborhood denizens went into depression.
What was going to happen to their beloved place with its big bar in the center, they worried. What would happen to the tiered booths and, most important of all, those great big murals of the Fort Erie Race Track? (The original owner liked the ponies and owned a few.)
Well, here's the answer: It looks the same.
It looks the same, but the menu is somewhat different. Yes, there's still a lot of emphasis on steak and seafood. A 16-ounce Strip Steak is $22; a 1 1/2 -pound live lobster is now $27. But contemporary accents have been added, too. You'll find Veal Tournedos with Candy Lemon Zest ($28) and an Herb-Marinated Half Chicken with Orange BBQ Sauce ($15).
The light dinner on the reverse side of the menu gives you Grilled Lamb Chops ($14) and Spaghetti ($7.95) and Chicken ala King ($15). There is also Caesar Salad with Anchovies and Sizzling Mixed Grilled Sausages on hot buttered kluski noodles, but it also features Goat Cheese Fondue ($9) and Caramelized Pecan Salad with Roasted Red Peppers ($7).
For the most part, we stuck to the more formal, larger menu. The steamed lobster was wonderful and much more moist, to tell the truth, than it had been in the last days of the old regime. (Admittedly, the lobster cost a lot less money in the old days, but it was also smaller and excessively dry.)
Another choice, a 14-ounce bone-in Pork Chop ($18) was given the contemporary touch of caramelized onions and came out tender and juicy. But the standout -- and a real standout it was -- turned out to be the Magrette Duck Breast ($20).
It was ordered and served rare, as it should be, and served with a dark brown tangy sauce based on balsamic vinegar, one of the better sauces I've eaten in a very long time.
Side dishes to accompany this largess? Just like the races, you win some and you lose some. Garlic Spinach, pureed to soft silky mixture and heightened with garlic, was everything creamed spinach should be. Roasted Cauliflower was a little too hard and a little too browned.
Others in the party went to the other side of the menu, ordering Orincini ($20), which is sesame-marinated tuna rolled in sticky rice and deep-fried, served with a ginger-carrot sauce. It was that very sauce that I objected to. It seemed to pick up some sweet overtones. It tasted like Kool-Aid to me.
Years ago, in the bad old days, the Royal Pheasant always had beets on the menu. That was pretty remarkable then. Before beets experienced a culinary renaissance (before they became trendy, that is), the restaurant was one of the few places in town you could get them.
A sort of Beet Underground developed. People were going to the Royal Pheasant just to eat the beets, which were served simply cooked and unadorned. And I'm here to give you the good news that they are on the menu at the new edition of the Royal Pheasant. Only now they're called Roasted Beets Imperial, and they come with Stilton and pecans, and they cost $6.95. That's a fierce price for a root vegetable, but duty called and I ordered them. The beets came out chopped coarsely with the cheese and the nuts, there were a lot of them and by gosh, they were delicious. If you want to analyze, you could say that the salty richness of the cheese contrasted with the earthy taste of the vegetable while the pecans, of course, added crunch.
Which all goes to prove that there's always room for improvement. You really can pep up an old war horse with contemporary techniques and ingredients.
I would bet on the new Royal Pheasant across the board.
ROYAL PHEASANT *** *
WHERE: 443 Forest Ave. (886-2600). New owners for this historic restaurant/bar that has always been a neighborhood hangout. It looks the same, but the menu has some different twists. Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
FAVORITE DISH: Duck Breast (Magrette) in Balsamic Sauce
NEEDS WORK: Orincini
PRICE RANGE: Dinner entrees with salad and two sides from $15. Lighter menu from $9.
SERVICE: Very good
NOISE LEVEL: High
HOURS: Lunch, Monday through Saturday. Dinner, daily. Sunday brunch.
HEALTHY CHOICES: Herb-Marinated Half Chicken; Spaghetti
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Tight
PARKING: In the lot or on the street.
KID APPEAL: Children's menu available.