When Merge opened in 2009, upscale American vegan dining was rare to nonexistent in Buffalo. Indian and Asian restaurants, cafes, upscale restaurants with a vegan dish, sure. But no place with an extensive selection of entrées designed to be delicious without animal products. There’s a big difference between being able to eat something to ward off starvation, and being able to choose among dishes designed to your tastes. Most Buffalo vegans I know have eaten enough french fries, garden salad with vinaigrette and pasta marinara. Today, almost any upscale restaurant will cater to vegans if you discuss the matter while making reservations. But at Merge, with four vegan-centered entrees on the menu, plus one chicken and one fish, vegans matter. ¶ The Delaware Avenue restaurant has a skinny main room with curtains screening the doorway, a room off to the side, and a bar at the other end.
There are strings of Christmas lights and illuminated star fixtures, earth tones and drapes, and a stage in the middle, where a four-piece outfit played during most of our dinner. The band wasn’t loud enough to make conversation impossible, but I did cast a covetous glance on a table in the side room.
Owners Sarah Schneider Newton and Eliza Schneider and Chef Karl Derry have designed a menu with vegan as the default setting, with one meat appetizer (bison sliders, $11) and chicken ($21) and trout ($22) entrees. (Gluten-free diners get plenty of choices here, too.)
Any dairy ingredients, such as in the mac and cheese side ($5), can be replaced with vegan alternatives. Diners also can go the other way, and add organic chicken ($3), local grass-fed ground bison ($4), shrimp ($4) or turkey bacon ($2) to anything.
Seitan wings ($7) are chunks of wheat gluten browned in a deep-fryer and tossed with hot or barbecue sauce. These crispy-chewy nuggets were addictive snacks, with matchsticked pickled carrot and celery. If I could get good old blue cheese instead of creamy vegan “ranch” dressing, I’d consider them a satisfying wing substitute.
Another fried delight was panko-coated rings of delicata squash ($7). We dunked the savory, crunchy bites into maple remoulade until that was the first empty plate. A bowl of lemon chicken soup ($5) was homey and satisfying, with rice and plenty of shredded meat.
Flatbread ($9) was a joy, crispy-edged, with just enough sweet caramelized onions and lots of First Light Farm goat cheese, its funky tang balanced by thin-sliced pears. Poached pears and crunchy glazed pecans were the highlights of a kale salad ($9) enlivened with shaved fennel bulb and apple vinaigrette. A roasted beet salad ($9) with pickled onions, topknot of alfalfa sprouts and a field greens base was average.
Entrees were more of a mixed affair. A slice of organic polenta ($18) topped with leeks, zucchini, yellow squash and lentils mainly tasted like sautéed onions. The polenta had gone into hot oil long enough to add texture, but had little flavor. An add-on of chicken, mixed in with the vegetables, was overcooked and dry.
A roasted acorn squash half ($18) stuffed with rice seasoned with African spices, chickpeas and almonds was my favorite entrée. Exotic spicing with a lick of heat kept things interesting, and a ginger coconut sauce added a splash of tropical flavor. It was vegan, gluten-free, delicious. An add-on shrimp skewer was well-seasoned and properly firm, not rubbery.
Chicken legs braised in spiced apple glaze ($21) were tender and tasty. Kale was sautéed but still crunchy. I shrugged, called it another salad, and ate it. The chicken came atop sliced potato discs that had been fried and hit with vinegar, a hearty side that went well with the chicken, even if the potatoes were cooked unevenly. Rainbow trout ($22) had been deboned and stuffed with First Light Farm feta mixed with olives. It was a delicious piece of fish, brought down by its side of turnip and Brussels sprout hash that contained scorched cubes.
Desserts ($7) included a carrot cake whose spice and cream cheese frosting more than made up for its stiffness, the table’s favorite. A chocolate lava cake offered a decent chocolate quotient but no lava, and an apple crisp that wasn’t. A pear cranberry tart, served cool, was warmed at request, which brought out more fruit flavor. Frozen dairy-free concoctions with the desserts, sweet and cold but grainy, reminded me why it would be difficult for me to happily go vegan.
My meal had its ups and downs, but Merge is successful in its own way. It offers an upscale setting that vegans can call their own, with enough vegetarian and fleshy options to satisfy a mixed table of appetites. We have enough places to get chicken wings. Whether for dietary reasons or the company you keep, sometimes you just want a nice plate of seitan.
Merge - 7
Restaurant offers vegans upscale place where they come first
WHERE: 439 Delaware Ave. (842-0600, mergebuffalo.com)
HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and Saturday brunch from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Sides, starters $5-$10; salads, $9-$10; entrees, $18-$22.
PARKING: Lot on corner.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.