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Off the beaten path, a fine dining experience -- bar none

When it comes to fine dining, it all depends on the fork -- the fork in the road, that is, and the path we choose to follow.

You can play it safe and select the well-beaten trail. The result will likely be as pedestrian as your trek: risk-free but routine, quality to set your clock by. Or you can take the high road, as in high-risk . . . but possibly high-reward. Taking chances, rolling the dice.

That's what this week's installment is all about.

The truly adventurous, I am told, frequently discover vast treasures at (of all places) their favorite watering holes. Personally, I thought bars were only good for three things: pickled eggs, pickled pig's knuckles and pickled people. I discovered recently that I was very wrong. And I can attribute it all to soup on a plate.

That's right -- kind of. It's called French Onion Chicken, and it is served up in the Raintree Restaurant at JT Wheatfield's on Niagara Falls Boulevard. The bar known for volleyball and clams and being a great place to work up a sweat, now offers a cool dining experience that you won't want to miss.

A word of warning, though: Don't just head there on whim. The hours, I have learned from experience, can be somewhat flexible, and it may be best to call first, just to be safe.

The Raintree is set in an intimate corner of the JTW complex, an interesting mishmash that offers floating sharks and vintage signs amid a scattering of tables. The decor doesn't exactly inspire conversation, but then it need not. If it's talking you want, head over to the open-air side and chat up the bartender.

This side is for serious dining, compliments of Chef Frank.

On a recent visit we sampled two of the "five nightly dinner specials," those being the aforementioned chicken and the pineapple-teriyaki mahi mahi ($12.95 and $14.95, respectively). Daughter Meagan opted for the "build your own pasta" at $14.99.

The menu at Raintree is inspired, but limited. And that's OK, since everything we've had there, to date, has been excellent. Better to do what you do best and do it right than to try doing too much and screw it up, right? It's not cheap, either, but that's OK, also . . . providing the quality is there. And in this case, it most definitely is.

There's champagne haddock and glazed ribs and beef and seafood "dishes of the week." Then there are dishes like Lobster From Heaven and Duck ala Orang. There's a Wisconsin Cheddar Beer-Cheese Soup, which I had to try, only to find out that a fresh batch was currently being "brewed" and wasn't quite ready yet.

For openers, we went with the "awesome" stuffed hot peppers instead ($6.99). We were brought a plate of three Hungarian peppers, mildly hot, stuffed with multiple cheeses and then grilled. The stuffing was delectable.

"Awesome," it turns out, was an apt description.

My mahi mahi (a freshwater dolphin fish, not the friendly "Flipper"-type beast from your childhood), was served with wild rice and steamed broccoli. The fish was an ample filet, flaky and tender, and was covered with a thick, sweet-pungent sauce that really set it all off nicely.

I could eat fish several times a week with arrangements like that.

The pasta dish was served with a thick, dark homemade pasta reminiscent of a vermicelli, with peppers, yellow squash, zucchini, Asiago and Parmesan cheeses and nice fresh mushrooms tossed in. Meagan selected chicken for inclusion, but could have had beef, shrimp or all three tossed in.

She called her dish "OK," saying it was "a nice change from [her usual] chicken fingers." I sampled and agreed; OK, but could have been better.

The keeper, on this night, had to be the French Onion Chicken over pasta. It was just as billed, like a bowl of French Onion soup boiled down until thick and gooey, with a chicken breast dipped into the middle, topped with melted Parmesan and then served atop homemade noodles.

"Different . . . great!" commented Teresa. The only thing missing were the croutons, but you kind of had the feeling they were in there, somewhere, among all the thick onions.

Meals are served with fresh-baked bread, a chef salad, vegetable and "starch du jour."

We topped things off with a helping of the Bananas Foster, a flaming dish prepared right at your table (nearby, actually, so as not to set off the smoke alarms!).

It was sweet, sticky and cool, all at once, compliments of the bananas, booze and ice cream combination. A real nice way to top off a nice meal.

Hey, who knew? Maybe I'll have to get out to the bars more often, if this is what they're cooking up.



>Raintree Restaurant

6935 Ward Road, North Tonawanda, (695-8888)

Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of four)

Favorite dish: Pineapple-teriyaki mahi-mahi

Needs work: Hours of operation

Healthy choice: Champagne broiled haddock

Price range: Moderate, most dinners $12 to $17

Service: Good, friendly

Noise level: Quiet

Wheelchair access: Yes

Parking: Connecting lot, ample

Kid appeal: Casual, but menu options limited to "bar foods" like wings and burgers.

Summer hours: 4 p.m. until close Wednesday to Saturday; noontime for Sunday brunch until mid-evening; closed Monday and Tuesday.

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