I have never had much of an appetite for gambling, at least not at card tables. At dining tables, I will bet $20 that an unknown dish will turn up aces, but that's another sort of thrill-seeking – I may not win, but I won't leave hungry.
So when I went to see what $5 million in reinvestment had done for the Seneca Niagara Casino's signature fine-dining spot, The Western Door Steakhouse, it was unfamiliar territory.
I skirted the perpetual waterfall of flashing lights and digital jingles from the stadium-sized gaming floor and headed for the elevator to the second-floor restaurant. What I found was, in many ways, what you would expect from a steakhouse – fine steaks and fine service. Yet the menu was still a touch too random. At these investment levels, satisfaction should be a sure thing, not subject to chance.
Opened in 2004 and renovated last year, the restaurant's bar, clad in black and white stone, now offers a bistro area with a menu of smaller dishes, like fried chickpeas with lemon yogurt ($8) and a steak frites sandwich ($32).
The main dining area has wood-tiled floors instead of carpet and an inverted shamrock of four booths set into its center. Tables in secluded alcoves allow parties to view the sparkling gaming floor through windows, like high-rise views of city lights. The windows are airtight; there was no cigarette odor in the restaurant.
The wine list came on a digital tablet. A glass of J. Lohr Hilltop Cabernet was $15.
The menu follows steakhouse form, with touches of creativity. There's a shrimp cocktail ($16) and a crab cake ($16), but the scallop appetizer has pork belly and smoked corn jam. A special of oatmeal-crusted fried shrimp ($18) beat too-often-cloying coconut shrimp. Five shrimp wearing crunchy, nutty jackets arrived on pineapple salsa, a fried dish that somehow felt light.
Not so the clams casino ($16), five clamshells loaded with crab meat in a Havarti cheese matrix, broiled to a bubbly brown and topped with crispy bacon. If titled crab meat gratin with bacon, it would have hit the spot. I missed the clams.
Lobster bisque ($12) poured tableside over lobster tidbits and microgreens, shone for its concentrated lobster flavor broadened with a hint of sherry. I wished it was warmer.
Bone marrow ($24) was a spot-on rendition of this caveman-style classic. A big bone was split open to reveal seams of roasted marrow.
We spread the beef-butter on crispy toast, with a spot of fresh arugula and onion salad or sticky fig preserve for contrast.
A BLT salad ($13) was a welcome ensemble of whole-leaf Bibb lettuce in Dijon dressing with marinated tomatoes and crispy-tender slices of pork belly.
At my dinner, entrees were a mixed bag. Two steaks were outstanding, while two fish offerings were disappointing.
The 12-ounce Australian Wagyu strip ($65) arrived gently crusted and medium-rare, as ordered. Bites of luxuriant tenderness justified its premium status, as steak suffused with enough rich juice to blur the border between meat and fat.
The 16-ounce bone-in filet ($52), also cooked precisely, boasted a bigger beef flavor but was almost as tender. Our server had thoughtfully noted it would be rare against the bone, and he was right.
Chilean sea bass ($45) was baked in paper which was removed before it arrived at table, instead of being cracked with a flourish of steam. The diminutive piece of fish was flaky and tender, but underseasoned. Its accompaniment of broccolini over potatoes was plus-sized, the broccolini alluringly tender-crisp while the overdone potatoes crumbled at a fork's approach.
Faroe Island salmon ($36) was overcooked to a chalky well-done, a meek puddle of herbed beurre blanc unable to compensate.
Sides included excellent mashed potatoes ($8), with peel left in for rustic texture, a tower of first-class crispy-crumbed onion rings ($10), and fat spears of asparagus ($8) with tender middles and chewy stem ends. Lobster mac and cheese ($15) featured firm spiral pasta, a sparing application of cheese sauce and plenty of toasted bread crumbs. I could see lobster, but only tasted bacon.
Desserts included New York cheesecake ($9), not as fluffy as some versions, but plenty tasty. Beignets ($12) were bite-sized doughnuts rolled in cinnamon sugar and served with chocolate, cappuccino and raspberry dipping sauces. They were served piping-hot from the fryer, but were undercooked at heart.
Crème brulee ($11), accompanied by an oatmeal tuile and raspberry sauce, was a suave, velvety delight. A handful of plastic-wrapped mints came with the check, ending the meal on a down-market note.
The steaks were first-class, the room coolly luxurious. Yet while the windows looking out on the gaming floor may have reminded others of Vegas, they reminded me that at the Seneca Niagara Casino, fine dining is a sideshow, not the main event.
The Western Door – 7 plates (out of 10)
In renovated dining room, steak is a safe bet.
Location: inside Seneca Niagara Casino, 310 Fourth St., Niagara Falls (299-1100)
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.
Price range: Appetizers, $10-25; steaks, $39-$75; entrees, $32-$72.
Parking: Lot, ramp.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Gluten-free options: Many, across the menu.