Steak is the easy part of delivering the classic steakhouse experience. Buy the right meat, treat it well and cook it with the precision of a jeweler splitting a diamond. Charge accordingly, because the good stuff ain't cheap, and if customers are walking into your steakhouse already worrying about the bill, they're in the wrong place.
When you pay steakhouse prices, you are buying the ingredients for a splurge night. Surroundings, service and steak add up to satisfaction.
At Sear, downtown's new high-profile steakhouse in the Avant building, a recent visit found first-class steak and service, but the surroundings left a few questions that could only be cleared up by a return visit. (Note to editor: going back is the only way to know for sure, I swear.)
First among my questions is how often the bartenders wipe that swanky white marble bar that stretches the length of the entrance area. In keeping with the ethos of a steakhouse-as-special-night, I wore a jacket to dinner, which happens less often than the Bills win road games.
I'm not sure if the red cast of the light from the ceiling fixtures made it hard to see, but I put the sleeve of my jacket in a sticky puddle camouflaged by the marble pattern. It was at least half my fault, but still made me cranky enough to ask my second question: Who puts a table next to a cocktail party?
Sear's dining room has a chain link screen that drops down and separates one end from the rest of the space. The convivial noise of the private event spilled through the mesh and onto our public happiness, leaving us leaning in to hear each other and the server. I mention these demerits first because they were so out of place with the fine, professional meal we were served afterward.
So even before Executive Chef J.T. Nicholson's menu was set before me I was bemused, but I settled down as I weighed its temptations. The card is built on meat, with beef its beating heart, arrayed from grain-fed to super-premium Wagyu-genetics steaks.
A steak sandwich with caramelized onions, mushrooms, garlic aioli, provolone and arugula ($18) on the low end, and an 16-ounce NY strip that had been wet-aged for 30 days then dry-aged for 60 to concentrate its flavor ($85) for a premium beef experience.
A 10-ounce filet with blue cheese ($57) offered a swoonful blend of funk and fork-tender beef. The 8-ounce Wagyu filet ($62) proved why it fetches a premium, with surpassing richness that made it an appropriate way to share one steak among four carnivores not intent on personal steaks.
All of the meat was cooked perfectly, as ordered, ticking one box off the list for successful splurges. The kitchen's meat skills continued to the rack of lamb ($38), whose rosy pink center proved extremely mild and well-suited for a swipe through the jus around it.
Does this restaurant have anything besides meat? Why do you ask?
A kale salad (toasted almond granola, goat cheese, honey citrus vinaigrette) exploded the notion that steakhouses must be a vale of despair for vegetarians ($10). That continued with a plate of burrata ($14), properly oozy, served with tomato marmalade, pine nuts and grilled bread.
Seared scallops ($17) came nestled into a fresh, of-the-moment accompaniment of corn maque choux, a sort of relish that let the sweet, crunchy kernels shine, with zip from lime gastrique.
A Thai shrimp special ($16) was a version of the bang-bang shrimp made famous by a seafood chain, which made the plump fried shrimp no less tasty in their spicy mayonnaise topcoat.
Bourbon bacon ($14) was a consensus crowd-pleaser, with thick slices of pork belly smoked and coated with molasses-bourbon glaze, paired with apricot mustard and topped with crunchy pork skin.
Sides ($6-$8), ordered separately from proteins, were not as strong as appetizers. Millionaire's potatoes, whipped with so much butter I'd spread them on toast, were classic, as was grilled asparagus, crisp-tender broccolini and mushrooms.
Creamed spinach took a surprisingly abstemious route, light on cream, while truffle fries were a disappointment, undercooked and over-spritzed with pungent truffle oil.
The lobster mac and cheese ($16) is listed as a side, but should be its own main event. Nicholson, appearing after I was spotted, explained why the creamy sauce over shell macaroni was so emphatically outstanding. He mixes the cheese sauce with lobster bisque before adding chunks of lobster claw meat and bread crumbs.
A seafood platter ($49) offered pristine clams, oysters, shrimp, crabmeat and a poached, split lobster tail, with two mignonettes and cocktail sauce pungent with horseradish.
Outstanding desserts included warm sugared doughnuts with chocolate sauce, and a glossy chocolate-peanut butter layer cake with peanut brittle.
The champion was a warm brown sundae scattered with salty, crunchy caramel corn, surrounded by ice cream and chocolate sauce. My guests had their fill by that point, but that sundae quickly became an ex-dessert.
With first-class food and service, Sear is a splurge-worthy dinner, from a type of top-flight restaurant Buffalo hasn't had. Proving capable with everything from from 90-day aged steaks to kale salads is quite a stretch, but in its first year in town, Sear has left its mark.
Sear – 8 plates (out of 10)
Where: 200 Delaware Ave. (319-1090)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Small plates, $10-$15; steaks, $18-$85; seafood, $16-$99.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Valet, street.
Gluten-free options: Many meat, seafood and vegetable choices.