*** 91 Niagara St. (856-8373). The former Valentine's now under new ownership. An interesting menu of contemporary dishes presented in an elegant old house. Credit cards: American Express, Mastercard, Visa.
*Indicates that the restaurant is so new this is a provisional rating.
BEST DISH: Angel Hair Pasta.
NEEDS WORK: Ox Tail Soup.
PRICE RANGE: Dinner entrees from around $10 include house salad and vegetables. (Most entrees in the low teens.)
HOURS: Lunch, Monday through Friday; dinner, seven days until 10 p.m.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes, through the side door.
KEY: FAIR, GOOD, EXCELLENT, EXTRAORDINARY. Stars are awarded for the quality of the food only.
NEVER MIND the Ghost of Christmas Past -- the Ghost of Restaurants Past hovers around this elegant house at 91 Niagara Square, across from City Hall. The building was until very recently the site of the well-liked Valentine's Restaurant. Before that -- and a box of late, lamented Clark Bars goes to those who remember this -- it was the Spur.
The place is haunted by memories of good food.
Every restaurant that has occupied these premises to date, it seems, has turned out quality food. Carrying on the tradition is Grille 91, still in its infancy.
Physically the place is comfortable enough, though it's far from glitzy or shiny-new. Three rooms open off each other on the first floor; one houses the bar, where camaraderie tends to be . . . intense. The room to the right of the front door is the quietest place to be.
Maybe 20 tables in all are here -- all set luxuriously with stiff white cloths over silencer pads. There's both a printed menu and a special list -- thankfully, once the specials are recited, a written copy (without prices, though) is brought to the table.
A good way to begin your meal is with the Angel Hair Pasta on the appetizer list ($3.50). Two can share.
This was my favorite dish. It came out looking beautiful and Christmasy with bits of tomato, red pine and broccoli scattered throughout (and plenty of pine nuts, too). The dressing is a fine blend of quality olive oil, lots of garlic and good cheese.
That cheese also turns up on the Spinach Loaf -- the house a la carte signature bread, well-stuffed with spinach. Not so highly flavored was the house Ox Tail Soup ($1.95), which was forgettable. (The Companion quickly appropriated my pasta instead.)
Lamb Chops ($13.95) were excellent, pepped up with herbal flavor. (The menu refers to garlic and rosemary, but did I detect some tarragon, too?) These were good double chops; ordered rare, they were served rare.
Because they were seasoned so cleverly, they added an exciting touch to an ordinarily straightforward menu choice.
A special for the evening, Grilled Yellow Fin Tuna ($15.95), was -- oddly for tuna -- not so full-flavored. Kind of dull, actually. The Cilantro Pesto served with the fish saved the day.
The plate, when it came out, looked terrific -- a symphony of green and yellow. The tuna was set off with the pesto and cilantro leaves, spirals of lemon and avocado slices. Whipped potato and carrots, on a side plate, were OK but cold.
The house salad is a good one -- the restaurant-made Garden French Dressing is highly recommended. Fresh tomatoes crushed into the vinaigrette add color and taste. Other entrees include a Grilled Veal Chop With Porcini, Crushed Black Pepper, Balsamic Vinegar, Cabernet Sauvignon Sauce ($14.95) and Grilled Swordfish Sicilian ($12.95 -- tomatoes, capers, olives, et al.).
There's also a Duck Du Jour ($12.95) that is cooked tableside. Various beef preparations appear as well.
Your best bet for dessert is homemade ice cream. Grille 91 makes its own. We overdosed with Cinnamon Persimmon complete with nice chunks of fibrous fruit. (Being masters of excess, we had it topped with chocolate sauce.)
Another goodie should you be so inclined, however, is the Chocolate Mousse Bombe -- or maybe that's Bombe Mousse. There are some other desserts, too, presented on a tray.
SAKI'S (Dec. 7) *
Saki's, 28 Church St. (852-0012). A very contemporary Asian restaurant with sushi bar and a menu melding Chinese, Japanese, Thai and American flavors.
RICK ANNA'S BEAU GESTE (Nov. 30) *
Rick Anna's Beau Geste, 5246 Transit Road, Depew (681-4110). Modest, comfortable restaurant that serves home-style food.
SCOTT'S (Nov. 23) 1/2 *
Scott's, 675 Delaware Ave. (885-8888). An interesting menu of sophisticated food in this handsome restaurant, just opened in the Westbrook Hotel.
JUSTINE'S (Nov. 16)
Justine's, in the Buffalo Hilton, 120 Church St. A beautiful room with food beautifully presented.
MACARONI CO. (Nov. 9) *
Macaroni Co., 60 Maple Road, Amherst (633-6222). Much pasta in this newly opened suburban version of a popular downtown restaurant.
*Indicates the restaurant so new this is a provisional rating.