Say “The Left Bank” three times in a circle of Buffalo diners, and Yogi Berra’s ghost appears in a puff of cigar smoke. “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” And Berra never even tried to get in for Sunday brunch, as far as I know.
The Left Bank is one of the few restaurants Buffalonians must plot weeks ahead to book. After 23 years in business, little of that is customers looking for a new thrill. Before my recent dinner there, I’d eaten in the former barrel factory on Rhode Island Street twice in the last decade. I enjoyed my meals, but wasn’t in any hurry to return.
As your designated eater, however, I am compelled to figure out what makes restaurants tick. When I noticed The Left Bank was the No. 1 rated Buffalo restaurant on TripAdvisor.com out of 765 restaurants, I wanted to understand what I was missing. If I could solve the mystery, I’d leave with something more satisfying than a hefty doggie bag.
[See Sharon Cantillon's photo gallery from Left Bank]
I found my first clue in The Left Bank’s 36-spot parking lot. One way to lure suburbanites into the West Side for dinner is the promise of off-street parking. What makes that particular spot even better is the Buffalo Fire Department 4th Battalion quarters across the street adding round-the-clock activity and reassurance for jittery parallel parkers.
The room is important. Tables on two levels contribute to a sense of intimacy for the raised diners. The décor included fresh flowers and white paper over tablecloths, with tables lit with real candles, not electric simulations or feeble tealights some restaurants offer.
Food is key, of course, and the Left Bank menu is genius, getting full marks for crowd pleasing. The legions come for a menu spanning “peasant” and “bourgeois” fare, leavened with European elan and a dash of Asian flavors. The dishes are just different enough to be distinctive, while avoiding flights of fancy.
The Left Bank has prospered offering a menu with at least one thing to hook practically anyone. Perhaps as important, it offers consistency, because Michael Christiano and Mai Lien Chichester, its owner and general manager, have been there to maintain its standards from the beginning.
The Left Bank sticks with what works, keeping 80 percent of the menu standard. Chef Zachary Gehring runs the kitchen today, but red beans and rice ($15, $17 with chorizo sausage) and the portobello mushroom with artichoke stuffing ($9) have been on the menu since 1993. It also has a daily fish, meat and pasta special as wild cards, and the bruschetta, soups and mammoth ravioli change daily.
First, the hits. I couldn’t tell what made the “Left Bank fried calamari” ($10/$15) distinctive, but it was excellent, with the crispy, ungreasy coating on tender seafood I look for. The crust on the fried oysters with corn salsa ($11) was terrific as well, though I found the oysters watery.
Seared scallops and black rice ($14) was a pretty, tasty plate. Three judiciously cooked scallops on a wave of hearty ebony grain, across a plate crisscrossed with lemon aioli and balsamic syrup, gave eaters plenty of reason to play.
A smoked Gouda and asparagus soup ($7) was terrific, with enough asparagus flavor nudging through the creamy smoke to keep it interesting. The large-format ravioli ($26), really more of an Italian burrito served with roasted red pepper cream, was terrific. On this night it held breaded pork filet, spinach, ricotta, mozzarella and more cheese. We passed it around the table until it was gone.
And that panko chicken with arugula and avocado salad ($23)? I could eat that every week. It was an Asian-inflected spin on chicken Milanese, thin chicken schnitzel in extra-crispy panko crumbs, topped with an arugula, avocado, tomato salad in a miso dressing heady with sesame oil. It had white rice, too, rounding it out as an engaging plate. That hit the spot.
Other dishes didn’t reach their targets. A Santa Fe focaccia ($12) listed cilantro pesto, fresh tomato salsa and chorizo as ingredients. It arrived fully loaded, but tasted mainly of peppers and cheese. The crust was still doughy at the center. Cheese tortellini ($17) allegedly had garlic in the cream sauce, with spinach and red peppers, but I missed it.
The flavors of a thinly cut New York strip topped with lobster, cheese, greens and red wine demiglace ($38) didn’t convince me it was worth the calorie splurge. More garlic would’ve helped there, too.
The Left Bank offers Dessert Deli desserts ($8), which are better than nothing, but noticeable after a largely scratch meal. The Chocolate Overdose Cake absolutely did the job, a fudgy avalanche covering my palate. But the gelled cherry topping on the almond tarts and a greenish-white-capped strawberry on a piece of Raspberry Delight felt second rate.
A minor complaint is that I felt shoehorned into our table, even after we inched it away from the upper-tier railing. Once the neighboring party arrived I needed to apologize to strangers to move my chair. Our server couldn’t quite reach me, either, leading to some awkward hand-to-hand plate action. Not a dining felony, certainly, but it left me feeling squeezed.
Looking back, the panko chicken cracked the case. I want to go back to the Left Bank for it, and I’m pretty sure I can get a close copy when I do. The Left Bank’s prices are reasonable considering the quality of food and the experience. I won’t have to sweat parking, and I’m pretty sure I can get my friends to go. They already know what they want from that menu.
There’s plenty of new restaurants in Buffalo where you can gamble on seeing stars, but The Left Bank remains one of the safest bets in town.
The Left Bank - 8 plates (out of 10)
Longtime favorite packs the room with quiet, consistent excellence.
WHERE: 511 Rhode Island St., 882-3509
HOURS: Dinner 5 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until midnight Friday and Saturday. Brunch is 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $6-$14; entrees, $12-$44.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes, will place ramp.