The more these newfangled digital days swerve off the familiar map into unprecedented territory, the more nostalgia sells. When you don't recognize the world any more, you can still set your clocks back a century and drop by the Asa Ransom House for a spot of afternoon tea and cucumber finger sandwiches.
Robert Lenz built an inn into a pre-Civil War building, and expanded it with several additions. He has run the place for 42 years, since the Gerald Ford administration, making him a Clarence historic figure in his own right.
Pretend you're on a tour at a restored turn-of-the century home of a well-to-do Western New Yorker. Then duck under the red velvet rope, and sit down to eat. At dinner recently, fine food mingled with dishes that could have used a modern touch, by which I mean a microwave.
On one level, it's not quite fair to compare Asa Ransom House to standalone restaurants. The place advertises itself as an inn first. But it also offers sophisticated meals to passers-by, so I stopped by. Turn-of-the-century décor abounds, with gilt-edged pictures, elaborately appointed fireplace mantels and flowery wallpaper.
There's a gift shop to browse, and if you ask about the inn's history, the server will fetch a binder with enough background reading to last through to cognac. The table settings were fine, with cloth napkins and a real candle.
Tuesday through Friday and Sunday, dinner guests choose from a menu organized in standard fashion. There's appetizers like an asparagus, mushroom and smoked salmon crepe with white wine dill cream ($10), and salads including the spinach with warm bacon dressing ($8).
Entrees range from traditional fare like a turkey dinner with stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce ($22) to the fruity flair of duck breast with Concord grape drizzle ($28) and almond raspberry chicken ($22).
It was Saturday, though, when diners are offered a five-course meal: hors d'oeuvres, appetizer, salad, entrée, coffee and dessert. The price ranges from $40 to $58, depending on entrée, from broccoli alfredo pasta to half rack of lamb in a garlic Dijon crust.
Four bites arrived first: a cucumber slice with tuna salad and a nub of cheddar; portobello wedge with boursin cheese, toast with pesto and cheese, and a phyllo cup with beef and cheese. A basket of fresh rolls and muffins was accompanied by honey cinnamon, raspberry and plain butters. I wished the mushroom bite was warm, but I could have eaten a bowl of the pesto. The flavors were sound, for an encouraging start.
Appetizers didn't carry the momentum. A salmon cake had become hard and biscuit-chewy in reheating. Sausage-stuffed mushroom caps needed more cooking to tenderize the fungus foundation. Creamy wild rice soup was loaded with comforting cream, its placid richness asking for a splash of sherry or black pepper.
A shrimp cocktail was simply satisfying. My favorite was a roasted garlic and onion soup, sweet caramelized allium perfume in a puree that retained enough texture to encourage continuing.
Salads with chickpeas, shredded carrots, grape tomatoes and cucumber were a fresh intermission. Sprightly cranberry vinaigrette and resonant garlic Parmesan dressings ably accented the greenery.
The entrees arrived at tableside in the uncrowded dining room under covers, the lids lifted before presentation. As it turned out, the concern over food warmth was well-founded. Mashed potatoes piped onto the plates had gone cool, and the vegetable medley of zucchini and yellow squash, red bell pepper and broccoli was room temperature.
The proteins at their sides were mostly delicious. The rosy half-rack of lamb provided five chops, the sharpness of mustard lifting its musky richness. Prime rib was served accurately cooked, and well-rendered duck enjoyed its timeless partner of port and figs.
Even an oddball entrée of salmon filet with strawberry vodka sauce had us nodding and reaching for another taste. Overcooked chicken breast was tough under more of that zesty, aromatic pesto.
Asa Ransom looked down sternly from his perch above the fireplace as we ordered dessert. The "famous" apple strawberry rhubarb pie offered bushels of fruit flavor but little contrasting texture from its damp streusel topcoat. Warm slices of bread pudding under butterscotch sauce was a fine ending, as well as baked cheesecake with strawberry sauce.
If I had dinner after whiling away the afternoon in the library listening to cassettes of old radio shows and napping in my elaborately appointed room, I might have been more accepting of the kitchen's fluctuations.
It's not my cup of tea. But if "tea" means a meal, not just a beverage, Asa Ransom House might be just the thing.
Asa Ransom House – 6 plates (out of 10)
Where: 10529 Main St., Clarence (759-2315)
Hours: 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday and 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. No Monday service.
Prices: small plates, $5-$12; entrees, $14-$33; Saturday tasting menu, $40-$58.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Gluten free: Menu available, ask reservationist.