In many American cities, an industrial building two miles from City Hall transformed into office space would be unremarkable. But this is Buffalo. The Larkin at Exchange building, and the Larkinville District it anchors, has brought the city more than Class A square footage. Larkinville is a testbed for the notion that a community can be reborn in blocks gone dark a generation ago.
Communities need places to break bread together, to gather for companionship and, when necessary, a good stiff drink and a pizza. Which brings us to Hydraulic Hearth. After the office lights are turned off, the restaurant gives companionship-minded people a reason to linger in Larkinville.
The restaurant, which opened in November 2014, serves dinner and Saturday brunch. It’s led by Harry Zemsky, son of Larkinville creators Howard and Leslie Zemsky.
[See Sharon Cantillon's photo gallery from Hydraulic Hearth]
Décor includes lots of exposed brick and mechanicals, wood floors and wallpaper with Larkinville scenes drawn by Leslie Zemsky.
Most restaurants exist to sell food and drink, period. Hydraulic Hearth’s community-building mission gives it a taste for collaboration. Brunch brings in BreadHive, a Baynes Street bakery, to dish up bagel-based sandwiches in an alcohol-enabled environment. Hydraulic Hearth also is home to a Community Beer Works pilot brewing program, and has built a concrete pad next to the building to feature food truck co-conspirators.
The drinks menu is more elaborate than most, including not only the by-now-obligatory custom cocktails, but barrel-aged entries like a martini and a Rusty Nail. There are 12 taps for craft beer, including Community Beer Works efforts found nowhere else, like Driezehn, a classic Pilsner and Old Sir John, an Old Ale.
The food side of the menu has a lot more white space. I wouldn’t miss the Swedish meatballs in cream sauce ($8), which come with the traditional lingonberry sauce, which is like cranberry sauce but better. Chicken wings (seven for $10), were fried and grilled before being tossed in a spicy Asian sauce with sesame seeds and scallions. (There’s also a bourbon barbecue version.) Crispy, sticky and dunked in smoked blue cheese sauce, they went fast.
A Bitter Caesar salad ($8) brings whole leaves of dressed lettuce and radicchio, dusted with Parmesan, which the diner must hack into bites. I welcomed its bracing astringency. Massive mozzarella sticks (four for $10), made from house-pulled mozzarella, sported a terrific crunchy crust. Everyone enjoyed dunking them into tomato sauce, but I was puzzled by a gush of water that drained out of mine. It was still tasty, though, so it didn’t stop me.
Pizza, baked in a brick oven behind a stool-lined bar, is the heart of the menu. It comes in 12 to 15 varieties. Gluten-free crust is $2 more. They serve one for dinner, unless you order other dishes. These are flatbread-style pizzas, more chewy than crispy, and with no rim to speak of.
The arugula pesto pizza ($14) with shredded Brussels sprouts, pistachio and mozzarella was tasty, but the oven didn’t get hot enough to caramelize the sprouts. Chorizo and chicken ($16) was satisfying with strips of chicken, onions and crumbled Mexican sausage.
A mushroom pizza ($14) presented with shiitake and crimini mushrooms, and taleggio cheese, was topped with a handful of fresh arugula after emerging from the oven. My favorite was a beef and weck number ($16) with tender slices of robustly grilled ribeye steak and horseradish cream.
Dessert choices are minimalist, but feature two more Buffalo producers. Gourmet chocolates (four for $5) are from Blue Table. Coffee from Public Espresso is free, another public-minded gesture, and it’s good, too. Gelato ($6), in vanilla, chocolate and cherry, was tasty but grainy, reminding me of ice milk.
Popularity has its price. Hydraulic Hearth often hit 80-85 decibels on my sound meter app, and strained conversation left my throat sore. (But it still wasn’t as punishing as Cantina Loco.) Sound-absorbent material is on order.
Hydraulic Hearth has done what it set out to do. Like old-school taverns, Hydraulic Hearth is a good place to socialize over a beer and a bite. The fish fry has given way to thin-crust pizza; the Labatt’s pitcher to a flight of craft brew. Every generation has to find a place it can call its own.
Hydraulic Hearth - 7 plates (out of 10)
Restaurant near Larkin Square offers pizza, beer, place to gather after office lights dim.
WHERE: 716 Swan St. (248-2216)
HOURS: 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday brunch.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, salads $6-$13; pizzas, $12-$16.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.