Joseph Fenush has some pretty strong opinions about vegetables. Although Buffalo is between seasons right now—where most of the over-wintered root vegetables have been put to good use and the trickle of spring’s first ramps and fiddleheads provide more anticipation than satisfaction—Toutant’s vegetable game is coming into bloom.
The Ellicott Street restaurant, known for its fried chicken and barbecue, might be the last place you’d expect to find an assortment of flavor-forward technique-driven veggie preparations. But despite the neon “Hot Biscuits” sign in the front window, this place makes a mean plate of vegetables.
Take for instance these carrots. Harvested by Dan Oles at Promised Land CSA in late fall and carefully cellared, Fenush has roasted them in the spent grounds used to brew Toutant’s custom chicory coffee. Late harvest carrots are always sweet (Oles tells me it’s the cold weather that does it).
Roasting them in smoky grounds adds a rich, earthy flavor. To serve, Fenush sautes them in a little butter and salt, dresses them with fresh tatsoi greens and plates them in a little pool of tarragon oil, carrot juice, and housemade chicory vinegar. The result is heavenly—the carrots are indeed sweet, and the verdant tarragon and subtly spicy tatsoi bring the dish to life, foreshadowing the season.
Fenush, the restaurant's chef de cuisine, is a Buffalo native who came up under his current boss, Toutant chef-owner James Roberts‚ at Park Country Club in Amherst. As Fenush’s drive to succeed grew in step with his skill set and studies, he left to gain more experience, cooking in a number of kitchens around the country, but most recently as sous chef to Top Chef’s Bryan Voltaggio at Maryland’s famed VOLT.
The next dish, which features last fall’s beets, is so satisfying that it might as well be a strip steak. Beets are steamed in their skins, then smoked. This concentrates the natural sugar in the beets, adds smoke flavor, and imparts a pleasantly chewy texture to their exterior. While Toutant has served this dish with a variety of accoutrements over the last few months, on my recent visit they were heated with a little butter, charred shallots, sorghum molasses, and a cocoa powder-vinaigrette.
On the plate, they were accompanied by Alabama white barbecue sauce (a traditional Southern mayonnaise-based sauce that makes use of horseradish, Worcestershire, and other seasonings). The beets were then topped quite impressively with a crown of crunchy rings made of onions marinated in Tabasco and fried crisp after a bath in some potato starch and vinegar powder.
It’s easy to understand why Toutant’s vegetable abilities are relatively unknown. On the menu these dishes are featured simply as “Daily Vegetable.” Additionally, the restaurant’s early popularity meant that its senior staff spent the restaurant’s first nine or ten months in business just keeping up with Buffalo’s seemingly insatiable desire for fried chicken. While the bustling three-floor restaurant is no less busy today, the team has established systems and trained a staff, giving themselves enough breathing room to allow a little creativity. One of the best outcomes of that is an elevated vegetable program.
Flat 12’s mushrooms are brined in mushroom stock along with hay and lime leaves, for aroma. When an order is placed, they are transferred to a hot pan with some butter before being turned out onto a plate swirled with pumpkin seed butter and sprinkled with toasted pepitas, fish-sauce-fermented ramps, and pearl onion petals cooked in a bright escabeche-style sauce.
How does Fenush dream these preparations up? He tells me that as a cook, he’s obsessive in nature, but also that some things just seem to ring true to him. In wintertime, when vegetables are stored in dry, cold places, it seems natural to him to further dry the vegetable out to gain the best, most concentrated result. In spring, when all is green and damp, you’ll likely find him using techniques that add moisture to his vegetable handiwork.
When this article is published, asparagus, rhubarb, and maybe even garlic scapes will be in season, and Toutant’s Daily Vegetable will change again. While not every vegetable special offered at Toutant is vegetarian, many of them can be tweaked to accommodate this dietary restriction. Letting the host know at reservation time that there are vegetarians in the party is a good way to secure a delicious meat-free meal.
Info: Toutant, 437 Ellicott St., 342-2901, toutantbuffalo.com; 5 p.m.–2 a.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday; 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.–2 a.m. Sunday; closed Tuesday, Wednesday