By Lauren Newkirk Maynard
On Thursday, Chef Edward Forster gave Buffalo a glimpse of his dream restaurant of the future, surrounded by icons of the city’s past.
At Mike A’s, Forster’s inventive dishes earned News restaurant critic Andrew Galarneau’s only 10-plate rating. In Forster's first public outing since his August departure, he boldly went where no chef has gone before: Silo City. His new venture, The Workshop Buffalo, held its public debut on Sept. 19 at a pop-up culinary event called “An Exploration of Grain.” The stage he chose was the looming South Buffalo grain elevators along the Buffalo River that have become a destination in their own right.
The three-hour “cocktail style” affair drew around 50 guests down to the concrete shores of the Buffalo River, as pleasure boaters puttered by.
At one end of a wide yard between the massive silos, a blazing charcoal fire pit was jury-rigged inside what looked like a halved oil drum. Elsewhere several fryers bubbled away, plugged into a chugging generator that also ran strips of bare-bulb lights. To use the facilities, you walked around the huge Koch silo at 100 Childs St. to a port-o-loo.
There weren’t any seats, just a few high tables near the water where we ate off plastic plates. We knew this, however, from secret emails sent in the preceding days. “Don’t wear heels, and dress warmly.”
No one gave a hoot, though. This is the allure of a pop-up. You don’t know where you are going until the day before, or what you are about to eat until it’s served and described. You watch the chefs plate food right in front of you, with tweezers and plastic tubs of garnish. You drink what’s poured and don’t ask for a lime wedge. You enjoy the surprises.
There were several notable ones that showed off Forster’s skills. After such a successful run at Mike A’s, Forster felt it was time to pursue his dream of owning his own place. He plans to hold several more pop-up events this year as he scouts for locations.
“Mike and I began talking because I was interested in opening a restaurant here,” Forster said. “Working the ‘chef hours’ didn't really permit me to spend three weeks planning pop-ups and seeing spaces, so I took the jump and am all in for the Workshop now.”
Two signature cocktails (above) were served by Forster’s friends Tony Rials and Jeff Yannuzzi: a vodka cocktail with Rials’ fig-apple cider and freshly grated nutmeg. A more robust whiskey drink was topped by corn “foam,” made by boiling down and filtering freshly creamed corn, then adding lecithin to create a frothy head.
Forster and fellow chefs Scott Crombie and James Roberts plated three hors d’oeuvres, followed by a trio of entrées featuring a who’s who of familiar grains and cereals, from corn and rice to barley and bulgur wheat.
Appetizers included poached shrimp with a dusting of burnt nori (seaweed), a kaffir lime and matcha tea powder “gel” and cilantro over rice cakes; each bite was plated on a flat stone (see above) that we skipped across the river (or tried to). There was tender, braised beef tongue with malted barley yogurt, candied Munich malts and pickled shallots.
My favorite appetizer was a fried croquette filled with local rabbit, puy lentils and a grainy lavender mustard jus, garnished with Dijon mustard and a chiffonade of mustard greens (above). Forster has perfected these crunchy surprise packages, similar to the French onion soup he encapsulated at Mike A’s.
It’s always a treat to see Roberts, executive chef at Park Country Club, cooking with friends outside the club gates. While Forster manned the fryers, Roberts tended the fire, rotating pans of chicory roasted chicken with angus striploins rubbed with black barley.
The meats appeared later inside the Koch elevator, where DJ Mike Cutler spun records and videos projected on the graffiti-filled walls. The grain rub on the tenderloin gave it a nice charred, toasty flavor picked up by the charcoal smoke.
There were roasted chicken tostadas with charred corn, mint, chicory lettuce and avocado (above).
Forster used a rustic slab of tree trunk to display slices of smoked tenderloin and soft poached egg on a bed of mixed grains flavored with sultana raisins and red onion (above). A rich farro jus was drizzled on top.
The most flavorful, balanced dish of the three was the corn bisque, a silky puree of Winter Farm corn poured over small blocks of lime “tapioca,” Chihuahua cheese panna cotta and whole corn kernels. As you swirled the hot soup with your spoon, the gelatin and cheese melted to combine with a spicy harissa aoli. Not only delicious, it highlighted Forster’s creativity and the main ingredient.
As the event wound down, The Workshop unveiled the printed menu and a bonfire roared to life. The harvest moon rose behind darkened silos, and two sweet, puffed rice desserts — chocolates and a cranberry spice “crispie” — capped off one of the more interesting food events Buffalo has seen. Here’s hoping there are more to come from Forster’s kitchen.
Donnie Burtless and Alli Suriani of Buffalo Eats were there too, naturally, and also shared lots of photos here.
UPDATE II ELECTRIC BOOGALOO: Donnie Burtless has an interesting talk with Forster about his plans. Devour the latest installment of Buffalo Eats' interview podcast here.
To sign up to attend a future Workshop pop-up, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lauren Newkirk Maynard is an editor at the University at Buffalo, food writer, and board member of Slow Food Buffalo Niagara.