In recent years North Tonawanda has seen an influx of chefs who made their names in Buffalo. Bruce Bain, formerly of Rue Franklin, is at Webster’s Bistro. Mark Hutchinson and Paul Jenkins, of Hutch’s and Tempo, opened Remington Tavern in 2012. Last month, Dunbar Berdine took over the kitchen at the reopened Dockside Bar & Grill after winning praise at Black Rock Bar & Kitchen. It’s got a waterside view of boats docked next door and puttering by on the canal, and an ambitious menu of upgraded tavern food with a Southern accent that delivered mostly hits during a recent visit. ¶ We arrived for lunch on a sunny day and asked for outdoor seating in a covered tentlike space next to the building. There’s inside seating, too, in an airy space with high bar tables and regular ones, and a full bar. ¶ A century ago, the building was an eatery – a site for feeding mules that pulled barges along the Erie Canal.
The brief menu fits on a large card, with appetizers, salads and sandwiches. There also are specials, like red beans and rice with grilled andouille sausage ($11), chilled cucumber melon soup ($6), and a catfish po-boy sandwich, fried or blackened ($13).
We ordered middleneck clams with chorizo ($12), cucumber melon soup, burrata tomato salad ($12) and prawn cocktail ($18) for appetizers. Then fish tacos ($13), mac and cheese ($5), chicken tenders ($9), burger with mushrooms and peppers ($13), fried shrimp sandwich ($13), herb-brined chicken breast sandwich ($11), stinger sandwich with egg ($15) and the red beans and rice special.
Berdine, a Buffalo boy who spent some formative years cooking in New Orleans, made me one of my favorite fried chicken plates a few years ago. There’s no Southern fried chicken on his summer menu, so I came as close as I could with the chicken tenders, and shrimp sandwich, which would be called a po-boy in New Orleans.
The clams arrived first. We passed the bowl around and gobbled up tender shellfish and nubs of browned sausage with halved grape tomatoes and garlic. The sauce was made with an India Pale Ale whose hop bitterness I found off-putting, so I avoided the juice.
Burrata salad was a fresh breath of summer, with fruity tomato slices topped with fresh basil, balsamic syrup, blanched green beans, a sheet of crispy prosciutto, and the star, burrata. The cheese’s mascarpone oozed out of its fresh mozzarella shell. The salad was gone in seconds. The creamy dairy against tomato and aromatic basil would have satisfied by itself, but the salty cured ham crunch raised it from chow to cuisine.
The shrimp cocktail had four massive shrimp, butterflied, poached and cooled, surrounded by cucumbers, asparagus, tomato and a dollop of horseradish tomato sauce. It was fresh and delicious, but I expected more for $18.
A trio of fish tacos was lightly cornmeal dusted perch fillets, augmented with guacamole, pico de gallo and microgreens. The flavor of fish and corn came through, with the richness of avocado.
Chicken tenders were worth the calories. The crackly Southern-style crust hid tender poultry, and the house-made ranch dressing, with an accent of dill pickles, was dunking gold. The fresh-cut fries came out on the limp side, but their toasted potato flavor still made them preferable to most frozen fries.
The shrimp po-boy was outstanding. Big shrimp in a crackly crust were tucked inside a fresh loaf dressed with lettuce, tomato, onion and Creole mayonnaise. Well-fried shrimp were at the center of each bite, and there was just enough mayonnaise to add savor.
Grilled stuff didn’t fare as well. The breast filet in Cat’s chicken sandwich was overcooked and small, about half as big as the lovely egg roll it was served on. The server apologized and removed it from the bill. The burger was cooked past the requested medium, carbonized over much of the exterior, with black flakes of char stuck to the bun.
The stinger sandwich was much better, tender steak topped with some of those buttermilk fried chicken tenders, and a fried egg to boot, a $1 surcharge. It could have fed two mothers, or a teenage boy.
My red beans and rice was terrific. The kidney beans were toothsome, not mushy, and well spiced, stewed with green bell peppers. The split, grilled andouille link had a racy lick of heat, and the rice was firm-grained.
The melon soup was forgotten, so we asked the server for it, and we were glad we persisted. Honeydew sweetness with the mellowness of cucumber, accented with mint, made for a light, refreshing interlude.
For dessert we ordered blueberry sour cream pie, chocolate torte and ice cream cookie sandwich (all $5). Two other choices we made were out, the server returned to tell us. The pie was blueberries in a cream-cheese-like, sort of a refrigerator pie, with a pecan-strewn crumb topping. Served with strawberry sauce and more blueberries, it was creamy, not too sweet, striking a summery note.
Two massive chocolate cookies were separated by a scoop of vanilla ice cream, an ice cream sandwich too big to bite. I smashed the crumbly cookies and made my own mix-in. The peanut butter torte was the consensus favorite, with outstanding nutty filling on a dark chocolate cookie crust, under a layer of ganache.
A few dishes needed more attention, but most hit the spot or exceeded expectations. What was clear after my visit was that at the Dockside, Berdine is expanding the definition of the Western New York tavern menu, in delicious and artful ways.
Dockside Bar & Grill - 7
Upgraded tavern menu brings po-boys, andouille and more to Erie Canal site.
WHERE: 153 Sweeney St., North Tonawanda (693-3600, www.docksident.com)
HOURS: 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday; noon to 3 a.m. Saturday; and noon to 2 a.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $5-$18; salads, $7-$12; sandwiches, $9-$16.
PARKING: Lot. WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.