Buffalo restaurants are fed almost exclusively by the modern factory farm complex. Ingredients roll along the conveyor belts and highways of North America, emerging from the kitchen on your plate. The system has groomed diners to expect tomatoes in January and menus with the predictability of atomic clocks. At The Black Sheep, their handsome new Connecticut Street restaurant, Steven and Ellen Gedra are doing it the hard way, pursuing a vision of soulfully satisfying cuisine with local roots.
After cultivating a dedicated following in their shoebox-sized Bistro Europa on Elmwood Avenue, the Gedras rebuilt the former Golden Key tavern into a 60-seat bistro and bar. They buy local in search of the best tasting stuff, they’ll tell you, not because local is automatically better. Local pork, beef, chicken, fruit and vegetables make appearances when possible, as well as flown-in seafood. At The Black Sheep, there are many paths to nirvana.
There also are opportunities for personal growth, like learning to let go of attachments. Which brings me to the pork chop. Brined, smoked and seared, Gedra’s chop, raised in Lockport, was the best piece of meat I ate last year. When I visited last week, he was out.
That’s the downside to local sourcing: There’s no case of chops coming on the next truck.
In sports, you can tell a lot about a team when it takes the field without one of its stars. We still had an excellent meal, a carnivore’s dream of primal satisfactions capped with swoonful desserts.
The rear dining room was dim, and I needed a flashlight to read the menu’s fine print. Our rough-hewn table had a bench against the wall and chairs on the other side. Including specials, there were about 14 small plates, at $4 to $18, and four big ones, topping out at a $45 steak frites. We ordered most of them, were promptly recognized, and settled in to await cocktails.
Two of three custom cocktails ($10) were abandoned as “too weird” by their owners – “They’re in love with bitter here,” Cat said – but I enjoyed my Income Tax, with gin, two kinds of vermouth and fresh orange juice.
But we all thrilled to Leonard Oakes Steampunk cider ($13, 750 ml), crisp and tangy as an October apple, straight from Niagara County's fruit belt.
The bread basket arrived, bearing slices of olive durum, black Russian and sourdough loaves, with olive oil and good butter. (Usually whipped seasoned lard is included, but the kitchen was out.) All three loaves were outstanding, but the sourdough’s cracking crust and tangy insides made it my favorite. That bread basket is a major threat to dessert plans, but be strong.
The first plate to arrive was BBQ pork nuggets ($10), a blue-collar delight heightened with fine technique. Crunchy-crusted bites of smoky pulled pork infused with barbecue sauce provoked an “oh my God” and more happy murmurs. Next was beets five ways ($10), an essay in pickled, roasted and raw beets, with beet gel, pistachios, pistachio vinaigrette and a goat cheese truffle. It was fun, though not particularly substantial.
A charcuterie board (large, $18) was. It included slices of guanciale, pancetta and coppa, plus pork liver pâté and nduja, spicy Calabrian pork spread, accompanied by a tower of toasts, coarse-grained beer mustard, pickled turnips and carrots. If you don’t enjoy the sensation of cured fat melting on your tongue – and I do – you should try another plate.
Try the pierogi ($7), for example. A pair of dumplings served with sour cream offered tender dough, browned in a pan, with a rich pork confit filling. Spaghetti squash ($8) was served as a pan-fried disc topped with guanciale and Parmesan, tasty but hardly the lighter vegetable oasis I’d hoped for.
Salade maison ($10) served that role admirably. Baby romaine lettuce, hydroponically grown near the Finger Lakes, was topped with roasted potatoes and carrots, pickled radish and a poached egg. The egg had been cooked too long for the yolk to ooze, but otherwise it was admirable – light and refreshing, not overdressed. We wondered why the salad was so good. The answer was that Gedra’s lettuce was fresher than we normally see in January.
Rillon ($14) was a slice of tender pork belly confit that had been aggressively browned, then topped with a sprinkle of Japanese spices, pickled daikon and carrots, and a scoop of crimson flying fish roe. The earth-and-sea combination, plus acid from the pickles, made it a memorable pork belly. Gnudi, three pillowy pan-fried dumplings of herbed ricotta, were served on dabs of piquillo pepper and a fragrant citrus sweet-and-sour sauce, a pleasant off-speed pitch.
A thick “ham-burger” of coarsely ground pork ($16) arrived on an English muffin, which was house-made, but dry. It arrived with fries and outstanding, funky Napa cabbage kimchi. The meat was pink inside, which is my preference for good pork, but it was bland.
My favorite dish of the night was a merguez sausage made of Stillwater Farms lamb. Its intriguing spice blend amplified the musky lamb flavor. Its toasted house-made Parker House roll and curry sauce made for an intoxicating handheld tubular meat experience. Orange grease dripped down my chin, but I did not care. A helping of crispy fries and deeply dilly pickled grape tomatoes added more enjoyable elements to the plate.
Steak frites was outstanding as well, with a sprawling well-seared beef ribeye cooked accurately, dressed arugula, a mountain of crispy fries and truffle aioli for dipping. It could have served as a main dish for two people getting a few other plates.
The chicken with kohlrabi puree and vegetables ($23) and turbot with flageolet beans and peppercorn sauce ($25) were both solid dishes that didn’t thrill me like my favorite small plates. The chicken breast turned out slightly dry, although the pan sauce helped, and hearty vegetables, including chewy purple kale and purple carrots, felt virtuous. The well-browned fish was moist and well-seasoned over creamy beans, but it was tepid by the time it reached our table.
Even after all that, desserts ($7) still made an impression. A cardamom pot de crème topped with grape gel and poached apple was an intriguingly delicious combination of flavors, with crunchy biscochito cookies for contrast. A single serving tarte tatin offered admirable caramel and tender apple, but the pasty was scorched.
Pain perdu spice cake French toast with white chocolate mousse, candied citrus and ginger lemon sorbet on a slab of chocolate bark had spoons flying as we pondered its interplay of flavors. Then there was the sticky toffee pudding, a Bistro Europa gem. It’s like butter making love to caramel under a whipped cream canopy. Expressed as cake.
Our server was polite and well-informed, but lagged between courses, leaving us with empty dishes long enough for remorse to set in. Noise was not an issue.
Overall, the menu was slanted to the heavy side, and despite Gedra’s clear respect for vegetables, I still wished for more vegetable choices. “This is the place you bring your vegan boyfriend to break up with him,” said my guest Dave, who meant it as a compliment.
Despite its celebration of fleshy things, vegans and vegetarians are welcome at The Black Sheep, Steven Gedra said. Gluten-free diners, too. Mention your particular need when making reservations for best results. But if you just show up and tell your server, the kitchen will still figure out how to feed you, he said.
Even now – in the dead of winter, between pork chops – The Black Sheep delivered satisfactions I can find nowhere else. I didn’t love every dish, but I love what the Gedras are doing.
The Black Sheep - 8 plates (out of 10)
Primal satisfactions, swoonful desserts expand Bistro Europa fan club into new space.
WHERE: 367 Connecticut St. (884-1100)
HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Small plates, $4-$18; large plates, $23-$45.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.