We were somewhere around the third course, cavatelli pasta with lamb neck ragu, when the epiphany began to take hold.
It happened last week, after I flew to Manhattan for dinner. Adam Goetz, of Craving on Hertel Avenue, was offering “Summer’s End Farm Feast,” six courses with wine, at the James Beard House. Getting an invitation to cook there has been compared to an Emmy nomination: It’s not a crown, but says your work deserves national notice.
The worn but adorable space at 167 W. 12th St. is run by a foundation dedicated to the famed chef’s message that American regional cuisine can hold its own against the world’s best. Nearly 200 nights a year, an American chef takes the stage. Goetz’s dinner sold out, packing 70 people into the second floor, lined with Beard’s collection of regional American cookbooks.
For lunch, a friend and I had six-course tasting menus, standard and vegetarian, at Gramercy Tavern, a restaurant that might serve the best farm-to-table cuisine in America. I walked to dinner.
My lunch was certainly finer than my dinner. But that silky, soulful lamb ragu would have fit right in at Gramercy Tavern. I could have gone down to Hertel and gotten it without having to take off my shoes and be scanned for plastic explosives.
I’ve been a fool, I thought. I had to leave town to realize what Buffalo has: its own indigenous cuisine, with dishes that should leave any city talkin’ proud.
What I’m going to call New-School Buffalo cuisine is here. More accurately, it’s been here, but I’ve been hesitant to describe it as such. I feared it was a fad, a bubble that would pop.
Instead, it’s growing.
New-School Buffalo cuisine is what happens when skilled chefs take the best Buffalo-born ingredients and devote themselves to crafting dishes from them. The results can only be found in Buffalo.
I’m not suggesting Buffalo’s restaurants are Manhattan level. The best dining rooms are more polished, the best chefs and servers more sophisticated. I’m not even saying these restaurants are the best in Buffalo, in terms of overall restaurant experience.
Most of these restaurants are not 2 years old, which means they are still finding their voices. They don’t have valet parking or decades of polish. Some brainstormed dishes flop. But when the New-School Buffalo crowd nails it, sparks fly. Together, their efforts are redefining Buffalo-style cuisine as something light-years beyond chicken wings.
New-School Buffalo chefs base menus on the best local ingredients they can find, a mantra that is expensive, time-consuming and risky to maintain. It’s expensive and time-consuming because the easiest way to run a restaurant is to order all your food from a website. Everything shows up on a truck, washed and trimmed and portioned out, guaranteed. The hard way is doing things like spending $1,400 on a pig and developing the skills, tenacity, menu imagination and storage to make that pig pay out.
It’s risky because if a dish of unfamiliar ingredients doesn’t satisfy diners, they might never return. It’s risky because farmers are not in the guaranteed ingredient delivery business. It’s risky because the fact that a Western New York farmer grew it doesn’t make it good. “Local isn’t better,” the New-School Buffalo mantra goes. “Better is better.”
To mitigate those risks, these chefs have developed relationships of trust and mutual support with farm families across Niagara County, Genesee County, Chautauqua County and beyond to obtain the fruits of their labors. That helps those farms remain economically viable. Thus New-School Buffalo dishes are especially satisfying to eaters mindful of the ways their food’s creation and enjoyment supports the community in which they live. For diners who care, it’s the secret sauce.
New-School Buffalo was written across Goetz’s Beard House menu, which was almost entirely dishes he’s already been selling in Buffalo.
Mortadella, lardo and saucisson sec, Asiago pressato, ricotta and fromage blanc cheese, all made at Craving. Pickled vegetables included garlic scapes, ramps and beans. Meat came from T-Meadow Farm, Erba Verde and Stillwater Farm, fruit and vegetables from Plato Dale Farm, Arden Farm and Schwab Farm.
After dinner, Goetz led his crew upstairs. “We just cook the best food that the farmers bring us, every day,” he said. “Instead of coming up with an idea, then trying to source (ingredients), they call me: ‘We have the best tomatoes,’ we have the best this, that or the other thing.
“Then it’s my job, then it’s these guys’ jobs, to turn that into something on a plate that our customers can enjoy. It’s the way the world used to be, then we all got away from it, and we’re trying to get back to it. Preserving, charcuterie, cheesemaking, it’s what our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers did. Now we buy things frozen, from god knows where.”
“My inspiration on a daily basis is great product and great people. If we can sustain them for the next generation of farmers, for the next generation of chefs, for the next generation of diners, we’re going to be better off, all told.”
Even the people from Manhattan applauded.
Today, Buffalo is experiencing a burst of restaurant openings. Given the remorseless hand of the marketplace, that guarantees a burst of closings, too.
Restaurants that are doing something daring and delicious in Buffalo are rare. If diners do not spend in them, they will go away in short order.
So I have a few questions for you.
Can you spend $100 on dinner for four?
Wouldn’t you like to find a place to impress even well-traveled visitors, after chicken wings?
Want to discover a plate of food that makes you happy to live in Buffalo?
Triple yes? Then consider places that could make even occupants of Greenwich Village rowhouses hungry.
There are seeds of uniquely Buffalo greatness in our restaurant community. If we care for them, water and fertilize them with our money, when they come into season we can harvest their best fruit. That is the New-School Buffalo dream. Buffalo born, Buffalo bread.
As a member of the Wide Right Generation, co-sufferer of our municipal inferiority complex, I want Buffalo to be great so bad it hurts. It’s not, yet.
Our sports teams have not brought us the glory we desire, yet.
But our restaurants can be champions every night. Kickoff is 5 p.m.
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Where can you find New-School Buffalo cuisine? Besides Craving, 1472 Hertel Ave., try Carmelo Raimondi’s Carmelo’s, 425 Center St., Lewiston; Steven and Ellen Gedra’s The Black Sheep, 367 Connecticut St.; James and Connie Roberts’ Toutant, 437 Ellicott St.; Edward Forster’s Buffalo Proper, 333 Franklin St.
Also, Ristorante Lombardo, 1198 Hertel Ave., with Chef Michael Obarka; Elm Street Bakery, 72 Elm St., East Aurora, with Chef Brad Rowell; and Marble + Rye, 112 Genesee St., from Michael Dimmer and Christian Wilmott. Hutch’s, Trattoria Aroma, Rue Franklin, Osteria 166, and Black Iron Bystro also make notably extensive use of local produce.
Chances are whatever Bruce Wieszala does next will qualify as well. Formerly at Bourbon & Butter, he’s a chef in between kitchens.