Face it: At this point in winter, many of us start wondering when a romantic evening will involve something more than huddling under a blanket watching the Food Network. If spring seems like more of a distant memory than a balanced Erie County budget and your garage now doubles as an auxiliary refrigerator, you know you're living la vida cocoa in the chill-thrill capital of the Northeast.
So heed that often-heard advice and get out there. Leave the numbing security of your living room behind and take advantage of Western New York's time-honored tool for fighting frigid temperatures: food, particularly restaurant food prepared especially for the cold weather and served in cozy locations. We're talking hearty, soul-soothing, satisfying fare that runs the gamut from soup to s'mores.
Let's head south - relatively speaking - first:
Ski magazines call Ellicottville the "Aspen of the East," so in addition to double-diamond slopes and spectacular views, the quaint resort town boasts a variety of eateries to thaw you out after a long day of mountain carving. The appropriately named Tips Up in the heart of town serves up a wide menu of "scratch made" food, with heavy emphasis on comfort cuisine: braised lamb shanks, fresh-cut fillets, homemade pastas and pizza. Owner Ken Roush says nothing fills the bill like his homemade manicotti, which he maintains is "the perfect way to warm up after a day on the slopes."
If a front-row view of skiers and boarders is more to your liking, park yourself at the Hearth at the Holiday Valley Resort, which is also open to the public. While featuring a surprising number of fine dining choices on the menu, veteran chef Bruce Miller says the Mediterranean grilled chicken pita is what his patrons rave about most. Grilled chicken is topped with artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, provolone cheese and an olive tapenade before it is tucked into a warm pita pocket. "The sandwich is so filling," says Miller, "most of our customers say they can barely get back on the slopes after they finish it."
A short ride north to East Aurora will take you to Taste, where owner Yvonne Evilsizor's warmth and charm will thaw the cockles of your heart. The bistro's first incarnation, Exquisite Taste, was a coffee shop where the brew crew created the still popular ET mocha, a creamy chocolate-infused house specialty. It is the perfect beverage to wash down another of Taste's comfort foods: tiramisu French toast, served all day, every day. The dish is made with thick Italian rounds smothered in mascarpone espresso cream cheese and drizzled with tiramisu syrup.
"It's like getting wrapped in a cloud of cream," declares Evilsizor, who suggests finishing your meal with an order of s'mores made tableside over a miniature hibachi.
Closer to Buffalo, way stations for the cold and hungry can be found in two distinctly different neighborhoods. Brodo, located in the heart of the Elmwood Avenue district as well as suburban Snyder, is the brainchild of veteran restaurateur Don Warfe. Each Brodo features five homemade soups each day. Dominick's Brodo, made in a chicken stock with spicy Italian sausage, Swiss chard, tomatoes, onions and pasta, is the one constant at both locations. Some soup-loving customers come in once a day, according to co-owner Elaine Greco. "A lot of neighborhood people will pop in for a bowl of soup and a glass of wine," she says. "They know they'll warm up and be in and out in no time."
If cocooning hasn't evolved into cabin fever yet, check out the homemade meatballs at Gianna's Market in Cheektowaga, where owner Marty Pecoraro's mother, Rita, is churning out 900 a week - by hand. JoAnn Carroll, Gianna's marketing manager, says the 50-year-old recipe is so popular they can't make them fast enough. "Whether you put them in a fresh-baked bomber roll or eat them as is," she says, "the meatballs fill you and keep you going."
If you do venture out into the wee hours, a destination spot to find a chill thrill or two is Mother's Restaurant in Allentown. Noted for both its eclectic menu and diverse crowds, Mother's serves dinner until 3 a.m. seven days a week. Owner Mark Supples keeps his cozy dining room dimly lit with a lot of candlelight. "In February, people in Buffalo look pretty pale," says Supples, "but everyone looks good in candlelight." Among the hearty fare he recommends for that stick-to-the-ribs feeling: osso bucco, braised in olive oil and onions, served with a mushroom risotto. "We like to wow people with our portions."
For diners at Steel Drums on Main Street in Buffalo, the wow factor comes in the form of the Caribbean flavor that greets you the moment you walk in the restaurant. Between the aromatic Caribbean scents wafting through the spacious dining room and the flags from the West Indies adorning the walls, this is a mental vacation complete with soul-soothing sustenance.
Owner Floyd Myers, in his lilting Jamaican accent, explains his restaurant's philosophy: "We capture the 'food fill' need with our tapas menu, which gives you a choice of main dishes, starches, and vegetables." On a cold day, Floyd recommends the fried lobster with a side of pan-roasted potatoes and sun-baked cabbage. And what final course would Floyd serve on a frigid February night? Tropical ice cream, of course.
"We have people who come here in the dead of winter for the ice cream," he says. "It has a very pronounced tropical flavor whether it's mango, pina colada, rum raisin or guava. Some diners will actually cancel their food order if they discover we are out of our tropical ice cream."
Brenda Alesii writes frequently for the First Sunday food pages.
Fried lobster, pan-roasted potatoes and sun-baked cabbage (Steel Drums)
Sun-baked cabbage (prepare in advance)
2 medium carrots, peeled and shredded
1/4 cabbage, shredded
2 Scotch bonnet peppers, cut in pieces with seeds
1 cup white vinegar
Soak all ingredients in white vinegar, enough to cover them in a glass bowl. Sun-bake them, or keep them in sunlight through a window for at least a day. Over time, the vinegar will tone the spice of the peppers down. Be sure to remove peppers before serving. Set aside.
Serve the cabbage with lobster, one teaspoon with each bite of lobster.
Pan-roasted potatoes (serves three)
1 pound medium red potatoes, washed and cut in quarters
1 medium onion, chopped
1 small green bell pepper, chopped
1 small red bell pepper, chopped
2 tablespoons garlic, granulated
2 tablespoons margarine
2 cups water
Place all ingredients in a skillet and simmer until potatoes are tender.
8 ounces of lobster per serving, no bigger than 3-ounce tails
1 cup vegetable oil, or enough to cover lobster inside the pan
1/2 cup flour
1 cup cornmeal
Pinch of salt and pepper
Cut lobster shell in center. Pull meat from the bottom of shell. Wet lobster tail with water. Mix flour, cornmeal, salt and pepper. Dust lobster with mixture. Pan fry in 325 degree oil for 2 minutes. Serve lobster, potatoes and cabbage together. To enhance the flavor, a small portion of the cabbage should be eaten with each bite of lobster.
Mediterranean grilled chicken pita (the Hearth)
1 Father Sam's pita bread, split into 2 circles
4 ounces chicken breast
3 thin slices provolone cheese
3 whole artichoke hearts, quartered
2 tablespoons red pepper relish (see below)
2 tablespoons olive tapenade (see below)
(recipe yields one serving)
Grill chicken breast in a saute pan until done.
To assemble sandwich: Butter both inside halves of the pita bread loaves. Arrange bread with buttered sides on the outside. On the non-buttered side, place provolone cheese, grilled chicken breasts, artichoke hearts, red pepper relish and olive tapenade (see recipes below).
Place the sandwich buttered-side up in a warm saute pan. When buttered side is golden brown, turn over and brown the other buttered side of the bread. When done, remove from pan, cut in half and enjoy.
Red pepper relish
1/4 cup chopped red union
1/4 cup fresh chopped parsley
1 cup roasted red peppers, drained
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
Pinch kosher salt
Pinch black pepper
Place above ingredients in food processor and pulse for 30 seconds.
1 cup black olives
1 cup green olives
1 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
Place above ingredients in food processor and pulse for 2 minutes.