I read menus for a living, and when I scanned Tabree’s, I gave a little sigh.
It’s a stiff card with a small list of dishes, only seven entrees. Practically everything on the menu you’ll see at lots of places in town. Calamari, gnocchi, seafood stew, pappardelle with bolognese.
There were chalkboard specials. Braised beef with mashed potatoes, arancini, yellowfin tuna, pork belly. Sounds familiar.
That was how Tabree sneaked up on me. Despite all the available evidence – a top rating from my predecessor, the hiring in May of an ambitious and skilled chef named Bruce Wieszala – I didn’t expect the meal I got. Especially considering how it ended.
But first, the review.
Tabree offers a sophisticated dining experience that draws from the best ingredients that Wieszala and owner Bryan Bryndle can find. While lots of chefs talk about using local ingredients when possible, Wieszala actually does it. He’s spent years in local producers’ barnyards, fields and slaughterhouses, figuring out how to showcase their work properly.
His customers reap the rewards. The bolognese sauce on the pappardelle with bolognese, a dense, rich ragu, got its heartiness from beef raised by Oles Farm in Alden. It delivers resonant cured pork flavor, courtesy of pancetta Wieszala makes from heritage-breed pigs raised at T-Meadow Farm in Lockport. The roast beet salad ($12) was delivered from cliché by admirably tender, earthy-sweet Oles Farm beets.
The pork belly appetizer ($15) cuts the richness of Berkshire pork with slices of green Niagara County apple whose fruitiness has been intensified by being marinated in a vacuum and perched on a nest of Oles Farm spaghetti squash and a halo of tender pea tendrils. It arrived crisped on the outside, yet tender in the middle, most of the fat rendered and the rest poised to melt on your tongue.
Our other appetizers included smoked shrimp toast ($10), grilled bread topped with hickory-smoked shrimp that are still moist when they’re tossed with shaved celery for crunch, and housemade aioli flavored with Wieszala’s own harissa, the complex Tunisian hot sauce.
We got the calamari frito ($12) and were delighted with ungreasy, crunchy squid rings, and a few thin slices of fried lemon, tossed with pickled cherry peppers, with garlicky aioli for dunking. The beet salad included arugula, feta and pistachios.
Grilled octopus ($12) was wreathed in more fresh, tender pea greens. The mollusk was firm but toothsome and carried a hint of char from the grill. Dragged through the schmear of classic romesco sauce (including Marcona almonds, piquillo peppers, sherry vinegar), those were satisfying tentacles.
For entrees, Cat ordered the small bolognese ($11/$20) and I asked for the braised beef clod with ginger carrots and potatoes. Guests asked for cioppino, a seafood stew ($29), and gnocchi ($18).
Cat’s pasta was al dente, the meat tender and the serving fine, for one person having other courses. The scallops, shrimp, calamari and lobster in Liz’s cioppino were cooked accurately, a rarity. The lobster broth, deepened with charred tomatoes, was bread-dunking good.
The gnocchi thrilled Kevin, an oft-disappointed gnocchi hunter. They were browned but pillowy, cloud-light, in a way that “belied the nature of potatoes,” he said. They were crowned with housemade ricotta and hid shreds of Oles Farms rainbow chard that added texture.
My beef clod was deceptively simple and perfectly tender, pot roast taken to finishing school. Anointed with bordelaise sauce built on red wine and veal stock, it arrived on buttery potato puree with slices of tender gingered carrots, courtesy Oles Farms.
There are three desserts, all choices that have become ordinary. Except these were excellent. The best crème brûlée I can remember round these parts ($7) was crunchy on top and velvety inside. The chocolate torte ($10) provoked a round of exclamations with its salty toasted hazelnut crust and silky ganache (it’s gluten-free, too). The tarte tatin ($9), an apple tart, was delicious even if I wanted a more developed caramel.
Tablecloths and settings were fine, although the electronic dance music seemed like an odd choice.
Service was top-notch. Our server was personable but unobtrusive, and technically adept, from fumble-free silverware replacement to apres-course crumb scraping to an appropriate wine recommendation.
My surprise at Tabree deepened as we finished dessert, when I discovered that the restaurant’s two key people were not in the building while our meal was prepared. Wieszala and Bryndle were out participating in a charity event. The specials list, which is where Wieszala shows his creative side, would have been longer if he was in the house, he said.
I am giving Tabree my highest score because of an extraordinary meal from start to finish and impeccable service.
I am not saying every dish was perfect. Despite ranking among the best I’ve tried locally, the calamari and octopus could have been more tender. A “10” on my scale doesn’t mean flawless, beyond any criticism. It means that if you want what they’re selling, you can’t do better.
With Wieszala at the helm, Tabree has confirmed its standing among the best restaurants in Western New York.
Tabree10 plates out of 10
Fine local ingredients, attention to details helps make restaurant one of WNY’s best.
WHERE: 4610 Main St., Williamsville (844-8477, www.tabreeonmain.com)
HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
PRICE RANGE: Hors d’oeuvres and salads, $7-$21; sandwiches, $13-$22; entrees, $18-$38.
PARKING: Lot behind building.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.