In the summer it may be ice cream, but in the winter it's soup. Those first windy gusts bring thoughts of generously sized bowls pouring out steam and fine aromas.
But here's the tricky part -- there's soup and then there's soup. The real stuff nourishes the body and imparts a sense of well-being. And sometimes it even imparts health as well.
(Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City has done research that indicates hot soup can indeed help cure a cold, just as we've always thought. It helps open the nasal passages, they say. More than that you don't want to know, believe me.)
Meantime, hokey soup just takes up valuable space in the stomach.
Now then. Plenty of restaurants on the Niagara Frontier serve up a worthwhile bowl, but for this article, we're concentrating on a select few. Here, in no particular order, are 10 local soups worthy of the name.
Please pass the crusty bread and we'll get started.
Chicken Pesto Soup at Cameo's, 482 Niagara Falls Blvd., Tonawanda, 832-2790.
This combination is just chock-full of goodies and has an invigorating herbal taste besides. In fact, that herbal taste is what makes it memorable. Owner Charlie Walker says that's because the pesto is "straight out of the garden." The diner can tell. (In the winter, they make use of basil they put in the freezer earlier.)
The soup is built on good strong chicken broth. With added carrots. And onions. And bow tie pasta, too.
Pho at Le Metro Cite, 284 W. Utica St., 885-1500.
This Vietnamese staple comes in a huge bowl and provides enough sustenance for a whole meal. It's often served as breakfast in Asia, in fact, and if you want to be really authentic, you'll pronounce it "fa."
At Le Metro, Pho cames in several different versions, all made to order: Seafood, Cinnamon Beef, Coconut Curried Chicken and my favorite, Vegetarian. Whichever one you have, the basil, mint and lemongrass broth is filled with rice noodles, bean sprouts, julienned vegetables and lettuce.
Think of it as a nice warm salad.
The soup is spicy but not too spicy -- there's just enough heat to cast a warm glow on a chilly night.
Pasta Fazool at Santasiero's, 1329 Niagara St., 886-9197.
OK, OK, I may be in trouble here. Technically speaking this isn't soup, but it ought to be. After all, this protein-filled combination of cannellini beans, chickpeas and pasta resides in chicken broth and can be slurped up with enthusiasm.
And yes, while we're at it, I also know that the dish is supposed to be spelled "Pasta Faglioli," which means, of course, Pasta and Beans, but if you actually called it that, the whole thing would taste different. "Fazool" has a wonderful goofy sound and makes the dish special.
Moving right along, if you're going to eat Pasta Fazool, the place to do it is at Santasiero's, which is one of the oldest restaurants in Buffalo. It may be where the term "no frills" originated. (Santasiero's is famous for the fact that they absolutely refuse to serve coffee.)
But the restaurant is also famous for Pasta Fazool, justifiably so. And it's available daily.
It comes in a large soup bowl, a big beige mass. But it's very hearty with just the tiniest hot pepper edge. It's precisely that little edge that keeps you slurping.
Chicken Sausage Gumbo at the Rendezvous, 520 Niagara St., 849- 1349.
It's the real thing -- a hearty soup made from roux and chicken broth with real andouille sausage. It's thickened with file powder just like they do in down on the bayou.
No okra, though. "People are afraid of it," says manager Dave Foster.
But not surprisingly, you can find okra in the restaurant's Okra Vegetable Gumbo, which is pretty good, too.
Spinach Soup at the Park Lane, 33 Gates Circle, 881-2603.
Rich, pureed spinach garnished with creme fraiche, the soup goes down easily enough. But the little extra is added with the garam masala flavoring.
What is garam masala, you ask? An Indian blend of spices that might (but does not have to) include cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, nutmeg, toasted cumin and nutmeg. The mixture is strictly up to the chef. It's hard for a diner to detect specifics.
Spices should never stand out as separate ingredients. They should blend with everything else. And this soup meets that stipulation nicely.
Rib and Mushroom Soup at the Red Osier, Route 5, Stafford, 343-6972.
Thick and stuffed with mushrooms, this soup also includes fresh tomatoes and onions. It's highly flavored.
But what makes it really exceptional is that the broth is actually made from prime rib drippings. (After all, the restaurant sells more than 100 tons of prime rib a year. Each individual serving is big enough to feed the entire population of Lichtenstein.)
Oh yes, we almost forgot -- the soup contains chunks of prime rib, too.
Sailor Soup at La Marina Seafood Market and Grill, 1264 Hertel Ave., 873-5066.
What this is, is tomato soup with all sorts of good stuff in it. For instance, spinach, the stuffed pasta known as tortellini, and seafood. And because it's being served at a fish market, you know that seafood is fresh.
This soup is also notable in that it is served piping hot, an absolute necessity if it's going to do its job. Pair it with the restaurant-made coarse, crisp-crusted bread.
Tom Yum Shrimp Soup at Pad Thai, 1098 Elmwood Ave., 881-6028.
You name it, it's in here. Shrimp, shrimp broth, sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, chili paste, lemongrass, lime leaves are all included. The soup has such lively flavor, it practically jumps out of the bowl. A strong citric tang balances the chili/spice edge. No wonder owner Thang Vongprachanh says it's hugely popular.
Cheddar Cheese Mushroom Soup at the Place, 229 Lexington Ave., 886-9180.
It's hard to pick up just one soup at the Place because there are so many of them. Owner Kenny Moriarty advises that the restaurant offers five homemade soups every day. About 95 percent of the patrons order soup, he says. All are nourishing and down home in flavor.
Let's see, there could be Chicken Noodle, Lentil, Vegetable Beef, Lima Bean with Ham, Turkey Mushroom, Beef Barley, Split Pea, Cream of Broccoli -- the list goes on and on. We've chosen the incredibly rich Cheddar Cheese for consistency's sake. It's almost always on the Friday menu and it almost always sells out. Besides, it's ...
Beluga Lentil Soup at Biac's, 581 Delaware Ave., 881-9439.
Welcome to the lentil of the moment, beluga by name. And a sophisticated legume if there ever was one.
Beluga Lentil Soup is a sexy gray black color resembling you-know-what caviar. It's almost as dark as black bean soup and is a variation on that theme. But it contains moderately spicy Moroccan sausage (merguez) instead of ham hocks and Madeira wine instead of sherry.
The lentil soup is almost sweet in flavor; it's garnished with creme fraiche.