Raclette is to 2016 what fondue was to 1965: The latest way for diners to engage in do-it-yourself meals without actual cooking. A French and Swiss dining technique named after the melting cheese of the same name, raclette is new to the states but all over Paris.
When Raclettes owner Sandra Wilkins decided to open a spot with her husband and sister, she thought back to the communal eating technique her family had loved for decades and that Buffalo had yet to discover.
“We got the idea to open a restaurant and my sister said, ‘Italian!’ I said, ‘No way!,’” Wilkins laughed. “There are a ton of Italian places in Buffalo, and lots of them are good. But we don’t have this. No one has this.”
Enter Raclettes, a long-anticipated French bistro on Main Street. Its front window boasts, “Paris style…Buffalo attitude” and if a full dining room opening night was any indication, Buffalo is ready to see what that means.
In traditional raclette style, a large piece of raclette cheese round is heated either in front of a fire or in a proprietary machine, then slices are scraped off onto plates or bread. It is then served with slices of dried meat, potatoes and pickled vegetables.
More recently, raclette restaurants have used tabletop grills with small pans, known as coupelles, in which slices of cheese are placed to melt. The grill is topped with a griddle or hot plate, on which diners can warm meat, vegetables and potatoes.
Finally, once the cheese is melted and the accompaniments warm, the cheese is scraped out of the coupelles onto galettes or crepes for a make-your-own wrap, over the top of potatoes, pickles, veggies, or a combination.
“It’s like a French taco,” my dining companion exclaimed with gusto as she tried her first raclette. Taco, wrap, crepe. Whatever you call it, it’s addicting.
And for first-timers, Raclettes has printed illustrated guides (pictured at the bottom of the page) for the technique, and staff was waiting to help newbies dive in. And at the end of the day, it’s gooey cheese, meat and bread: What can go wrong?
In France, raclette menus are generally basic, with the meal centering around the traditional, slightly pungent raclette cheese with an accompanying charcuterie. True to Buffalo’s more-is-better aesthetic, the Wilkins have expanded their menu too.
“When our kids were growing up, I used to get creative,” Sandra Wilkins explained, of her family’s at-home raclette technique. “We’d have cold cuts and sliced cheese for school lunches that I’d grab for the raclette, since we couldn’t always find the traditional stuff.”
And so, a menu was born. At Raclettes, diners can choose from the traditional French preparation, which comes with raclette cheese, Port-Salut cheese, smokehouse ham, chicken breast and steamed potatoes with a house salad on the side ($18). There is also an Italian, Swiss and vegetarian preparations, as well as a large a la carte selection, with six meats, eight cheeses, veggies and accompaniments.
Raclette is a leisurely meal, since it takes time for the cheese to melt and meats to warm and French diners often spend hours melting, eating and drinking. The combinations are as simple or daring as its assemblers.
Wilkins warned that raclette cheese can be smelly, although we found it pleasantly fungal with an assertive bite. It goes well with smoky ham and while the traditional buckwheat galettes were not ready at the time of our visit, standard egg crepes subbed in beautifully.
We also tried an Italian version, with capicola and asiago cheese. While very salty and slightly greasier, the combo hit all the right comfort-food notes. Here’s a raclette potato pro tip: Let the potatoes brown a little on the grill before transferring them to your plate, so the ends get just a tad crispy. C’est delicieux!
The accompanying house salad is a fresh blend of spring greens, halved grape tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion and crispy leeks with French dressing ($5 small, $9 large).
Even out of season, the veggies were crisp and fresh and the greens were lightly dressed, a perfect accompaniment to all that meat and cheese. It almost felt healthy, in the true French “two pounds of meat and cheese with a few leaves on the side” way.
The St. Germaine tartine ($8) almost pushed us over the edge of satiation, with creamy avocado cream cheese, smoked salmon and sprigs of fresh dill.
With three slices to an order, it would make great appetizer for one or two. The preparation was almost too pretty to eat, and we credit the long wait for the cold plate to a full dining room and opening day kinks and jitters.
The menu also features a selection of charcuterie, both French and Buffalo-style mussels and a handful of traditional French mains. While the raclette menu is by far the most unique to these parts, other diners said they enjoyed the dishes we lacked the stomachs to try.
A lunch counter by the door prepares each charcuterie board, since the kitchen is small and judging by wait times, already a little overwhelmed.
With a focus on both French cuisine and eating styles, as well as fair employment practices, the Wilkins may not be 100 percent unique in Buffalo, but they are definitely in the upper echelon.
A dollar of every dinner entree sold goes to a health care pot for the staff, a new way to address hiring standards, and Sharon Wilkins said they designed Raclettes for diners to linger and enjoy, not turn tables.
“We want to show Buffalo the French way of eating that we really love,” she said. “And we’re working to educate people, too. When they started, some of [our staff] didn’t even know what a charcuterie was.”
Whether for a date night, an exploratory evening on the town or just a carb and cheese craving, Raclettes has something the rest of the city – and most of the country – has not seen before. In our current culinary explosion, that’s hard to do, but absolutely welcome.
Info: Raclettes, 537 Main St. (436-3244); Wheelchair accessible: Yes