“Underpromise and overdeliver” is an oft-repeated axiom of business success.
Restaurants – businesses that buy ingredients and fix them up to sell at a profit – are no exception. It may be even more important for new restaurants, places about which customers know nothing but the name. So even before it opened its doors, Elite Fine Dining faced a considerable challenge.
The Cheektowaga restaurant, successor to Friar’s Table, opened in September, having kept a chef and much of the steakhouse menu from the old place. My recent dinner there was a mostly fine meal in a well-appointed dining room. But it will take more finesse in the restaurant’s kitchen, and polished service in its dining room, to live up to that 24-karat moniker.
Due to poor planning on my part, we trekked to dinner amid a well-forecasted snowstorm. It was easy to tell our guests arrived first, because there was only one other snowless vehicle in Elite Fine Dining’s parking lot.
The florid wallpaper is gone, and a tiled fireplace inset glows under the mantel, but the wood-paneled dining room still says mansion. One other table was occupied.
Our server recited specials, and gave us crisp-crusted baguette slices and a trio of spreads: butter, honey apricot butter whose fruit flakes could be seen more than tasted, and tapenade, an enjoyably garlicky coarse olive mash.
Steakhouse favorites opened the scoring, with savory crab-stuffed mushrooms ($9) anointed with bright lemon cream, and Kobe meatballs ($10), succulent bites of rich beef jacked up with frizzled onions, beef gravy and sautéed shiitake mushrooms. (Which the menu spelled “shitake.” A typo or two won’t raise my eyebrow, but nine on the first page does not contribute to an elite environment.)
I examined the menu for evidence of how far Chef Kevin Allen, the former Friar’s Table chef, has expanded its range from prime rib and lobster tails. Red snapper “a la Vera Cruz” ($30) garnished with fried basil and plantains is surely a departure. I chose another new seafood dish, fish tacos ($20), with Cajun haddock, spicy aioli, avocado crema and jicama slaw. Three overstuffed, overwrought tacos arrived. After the crèma, aioli and thick chunks of onion, I could not taste the lightly cooked fish.
A buttermilk fried shrimp entrée ($24, pictured in header) with fries brought back the steakhouse feel. Five huge crustaceans were coated in beer batter, it seemed like, but otherwise thrilled the table with their texture, and their size. Apparently there’s another level after “colossal” in shrimp-size nomenclature. “Moby Dick”? These were the Paula’s Donuts of fried shrimp, and we plunged them into ranch dressing fancied up with a dab of herb pesto, and cocktail sauce.
Soups left a positive impression, too. Italian wedding offered beefy broth with a welcome spicy kick and tender one-bite meatballs. Seafood bisque, fortified with little shrimp and scallops, was creamy without being stand-your-spoon thick. Creamy tomato Florentine, slightly sweet, also won approval.
Besides those shrimp, our entrees left mixed impressions. The Berkshire pork chop ($27) was dry, but the apple-pear chutney was so likable I kept eating it. My N.Y. strip ($32) was satisfactory, cooked accurately with charred extremities but a tender center.
Its Parmesan risotto companion, with no resistance left in the grains, could have more accurately been labeled cheesy rice, but it was plenty tasty. A side of sautéed wild mushrooms ($6) was delicious, well-cooked and comprised white button and shiitake mushroom, not wild in the least. (I’m not singling Elite Fine Dining out for that misnomer, seen on many Buffalo menus. Shiitake mushrooms haven’t been wild, even in the aesthetic sense, for many years. Please stop.)
I also tried two versions of housemade ravioli. One stuffed with crab and shrimp ($22) was indulgent and fresh tasting. The other was jalapeno, cheddar and black bean ravioli with manchego cheese sauce and pesto. It was as subtle as a barbell and featured flavors more often seen in a bar menu, but its tastiness overrode my critical reservations and I took the rest home, and fought people for the leftovers the next day.
Dessert ($7.95) brought caramel crunch cake from Dessert Deli, which offered plenty of caramel while being more chewy than crunchy, and housemade Grand Marnier crème brulee. The nip of orange liqueur was an excellent addition. However, if you direct servers to brulee desserts tableside, you should train them to melt the sugar down to a glaze, so that when it cools, it cracks at the approach of a spoon. Ours was underfired and grainy. Other than that our server did a fine job.
There was a lot of promise in Elite Fine Dining’s performance the night we visited. The place gives Cheektowagans a classy room and steakhouse-ish menu that hits on many cylinders, but not all. Not yet, anyway, but restaurants are like people that way: until they start to grow, you can’t be sure how they’ll turn out.
Elite Fine Dining - 7 plates (out of 10)
Cheektowaga restaurant satisfies with basics, needs polishing to join ranks of elite.
WHERE: 301 Cleveland Drive, Cheektowaga (831-8181)
HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 to 8 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $3-$19; entrees, $16-$55.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.