Probably every restaurateur at some time in his professional life has longed to change the idea, the decor, the menu -- even the name -- of his place of business. But Kevin O'Connell Jr. actually did it.
In August, the restaurant he'd operated for several years -- a place that had a long-respected history and had always been known as the Hourglass -- reopened with a whole new concept. It happened within the blink of an eye, it seemed. Good for him.
O'Connell's American Bistro is totally different, stem to stern. So different, in fact -- even the facade and outdoor sign have been changed -- that former customers have been known to drive right by it and then have to turn around and come back the other way.
Indoors, it's way different, too. The busy bar is now separated from the dining room with a series of see-through panels that keep the noise level down nicely but still allow the place to seem warm and cozy. And both the small front dining room and the main dining room have been lightened and brightened, complete to a handsome mural on the back wall.
Then there's the menu; it's totally varied and contemporary. "Cold" first courses include Salmon Lox with capers, cream cheese and egg ($8.50) and Tuna Tartare with Sesame Dressing ($12). "Hot" appetizers include Onion Soup and Crab Cakes and Baked Oysters with Spinach and Pernod (aka Oyster Rockefeller). There's also Mac 'n' Cheese with black truffles and gnocchi ($14.50). But I went for the seared Foie Gras on Puff Pastry with Mushroom Cream Sauce, and it was outstanding.
A guest chose Duck Confit with Mustard and Creme Fraiche ($11.50); let's give this one an "A" as well. Her main dish, a hearty helping of grilled Swordfish, was fine, too.
Diners can choose "Grilled" main courses (examples: Steak Frites with flank steak, truffle fries and Dijon herb butter for $22.50 or King Salmon with roasted shallots for $19). Or they may opt for one listed under "Sauteed" -- which is stretching the point some. My own Veal Cheeks came from this section, and they were served with potato gnocchi and herbs for $19.50 -- pure velvet. When have you last seen veal cheeks on a Western New York menu, by the way?
There are Roasted Chicken Thighs with capers ($16) -- chicken thighs, more flavorful and moist than any chicken breast, aren't exactly thick on the ground around here, either.
Another section of the menu sports brand names -- or brand locations, at least. From the Strauss Ranch in Montana: Filet Mignon with a Truffle Sauce for $34 or an 18-ounce center Ribeye with Choron Sauce (Bearnaise with a little tomato) for $42.
From the Macmurray Ranch in Ireland, Rack of Lamb ($44); from Snake River Farms in Idaho, there's the Kobe New York Strip ($54) and a 10-ounce heritage black gold pork chop ($26). There's even a veal porterhouse for $32.
I was only disappointed in the desserts, but that disappointment is relative. The Apple Bread Pudding, while a noble concept, should have been more moist and more luscious. The Brandy Alexander Creme Brulee, also a pretty good idea, was bland -- we could have used a nip or two of the brandy here.
I don't want to end this, though, without bringing up the subject of lunch, because it's well priced and fun. And well priced, fun lunches are hard to find these days -- especially if they are Prix Fixe. You can have snails for a first course, maybe followed by that truffle Mac 'n' Cheese or a Crustless Quiche Lorraine and, if you choose, some fresh pastry.
Let's hear it for taking risks.
O'CONNELL'S AMERICAN BISTRO
3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
WHERE: 981 Kenmore Ave., Kenmore (877-8788). New name, new decor, new menu, new concept -- all on the site of the late Hourglass. The owner, Kevin O'Connell Jr., is also the same. www.oconnellsamericanbistro.com. Credit Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
FAVORITE DISH: Foie Gras Vol A Vent
NEEDS WORK: Food is of high quality.
PRICE RANGE: Dinner entrees from $16, although mostly in the $20 range. Two-course lunch, $12; three-course lunch $15.
SERVICE: Very good.
HOURS: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner, starting at 5:30 Monday through Saturday.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
PARKING: Parking lot in the rear.
RATINGS: Stars reflect the overall dining experience at the time of The News' visit -- including service, ambience, innovation and cost -- with greatest weight given to quality of the food.