There are nights when I feel like a walk on the wild side, exploring what imaginative chefs and exotic cuisines hath wrought. Then there are days where being able to look forward to a stable, predictable dinner seems downright comfy.
In a world full of uncertainties, a restaurant where you know what you'll order before you leave the house can anchor your day. No mystery ingredients, no archipelagos of tiny components strung out on ocean-sized plates, no transgressive flavor pairings.
[Gallery: Rock Bottom Kitchen & Bar]
Novel sensations and dishes that make you rethink previously held concepts can be satisfying in their own ways, but some nights you just want a good burger, maybe a good salad and quite possibly a stiff drink. If that's the case, Rock Bottom Kitchen & Bar has what you need.
For more than a decade, Ruzzine's Rock Bottom Eatery, a quintessential family run tavern-restaurant, brought in crowds on Transit Road. Eventually its burger won a following, with fans of its grilled, crusty exterior disputing claims that Grover's, across the street, deserved "best burger" honors for its griddled jumbo patties.
Last year, Rock Bottom was purchased by veteran restaurateur Steven Calvaneso and Austin Scaccia, who updated the restaurant's mechanicals but didn’t mess with the menu much. Judging by how long it took me to find a spot in the large parking lot beside the restaurant, the changes have not hurt business.
Diners enter through the bar, where they may decide to pull up a stool and stay. We asked for a table and were led to a round table in what might have been the sitting room when the building started its life as a Sears & Roebuck kit house.
The draft beer list offered only one local brew, so I asked for a Bombay Sapphire martini ($8.74). It was big enough, icy cold and aromatic, a refreshing stroll through snow-blanketed spruces, in booze form. There's also Saranac root beer on tap ($2.50), for discerning soft drinkers.
People come here for a hamburger and sandwich-intensive tavern menu with hearty salads and a few Italian nods.
A single order of chicken wings ($11.99), ordered medium, were competent, crispy and tangy, with the usual celery, carrots and blue cheese dressing. Artichoke hearts francaise ($10.99) were egg-dipped and sautéed, then tossed in a brown wine-based sauce instead of the promised white wine and lemon sauce. The gravy was amiable, but the coating fell off most of the hearts before they reached plates.
Clams casino ($8.99) were five large clamshells filled with a mushy crumb mixture with bell peppers, chopped clams and a touch of bacon, plentiful but bland. Stuffed peppers ($9.99, above) were more enticing, four tender chiles loaded with sausage and cheeses. The blistered peppers and garlicky filling made for happy mopping with fresh French bread.
A Trish's Favorite salad ($14.99) made me think Trish knows salad. The mixed greens bore blackened chicken breasts that had been vigorously spiced, grilled and chopped, yet retained enough moisture to avoid that widespread plague on restaurant chicken breast, Cottonball Syndrome. The hits continued with candied walnuts, mandarin orange bites, cran-raisins and shredded cheddar.
Being a Friday night, I looked forward to the beer-battered fish fry ($12.99), served with fries, tartar sauce and coleslaw. The filet was flaky but the coating held oil and parts of the crust were gummy against the fish. The french fries were average, the coleslaw sweet and crunchy.
Two burgers were excellent examples of hand-held char-broiled beef. Rock Bottom offers 8-ounce burgers at $9.99, $10.99 or $11.99, depending on whether you want them bare, with cheese or topped with more complicated stuff; 12-ounce burgers are $2 more. The server asked pink or no pink? Pink was the answer.
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The 8-ounce Raging Cajun burger ($11.99, pictured as lead image) was rolled in black-pepper-based Cajun spice before grilling, then topped with creamy blue cheese and plenty of brittle bacon. The patty had a smidge of pink left, and a fluffy, toasted Contanzo's roll kept the ensemble together. With help from a dill pickle spear and crispy sweet potato fries ($2.99) dipped in honey butter, my burger craving was conquered in style.
An 8-ounce stuffed pepper burger ($11.99), covered in mozzarella studded with pieces of chopped chile, was cooked well, quite pink, even if the chile flavor was muted.
A steak sandwich ($13.99) was another beef hit. Sliced sirloin, pink as ordered, overflowed a toasted roll and was smothered in provolone and garlicky wilted greens.
Desserts ($5.95) included crumb-topped Dutch apple pie, with damp crust and crunchy apples, and a chocolate-crusted peanut butter mousse pie whose salty sweet channeling of Reese's Cup goodness made spoons fly.
In the end, I applauded the stuffed peppers and was lukewarm about the other Italianate appetizers I tried. The fish fry could have been better; maybe the cook had an off night. Other than that, based on my meal there, when I'm hungry for the fundamentals that have fed tavern crowds for generations, I'd hit Rock Bottom.
Rock Bottom Kitchen & Bar – 7 plates (out of 10)
New owner keeps the tavern hits coming.
6261 Transit Road, Clarence (488-7625)
Hours: 4 to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday; brunch 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday, regular menu 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Price range: Appetizers, $4.49-14.99; salads, $4.99-15.99; burgers, $9.99-16.99; sandwiches, $10.99-13.99.
Wheelchair access: Yes
Gluten-free options: Many, including gluten-free buns.