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Amuse bouche: Chefs whet the appetite

There is such a thing as a free lunch -- or a tiny part of one anyway. Sure, times are tough, but there are still plenty of restaurants in Western New York that offer a little something to take the edge off before you actually begin your meal.

Compliments of the chef, of course.

In some upscale restaurants, this little tidbit -- a mere bite or two -- is actually called an amuse bouche (pronounced "ah mewz BOOSH"), which roughly means it stimulates the mouth (and it sounds a heck of a lot better than "freebie").

The amuse bouche also shows off what the kitchen can do, of course. And usually it changes daily.

Henry Gorino, an owner of Oliver's on Delaware Avenue, gives some examples of what might turn up: "To be honest, sometimes it's just what's in the kitchen," he confesses. But then, there's the little matter of creativity.

"In the summer we offered little shooters of chilled soup," Gorino recalls. "We've offered shrimp on a slice of cucumber; pear and brie in a little puff; sugar cured gravlax."

Everything is highly flavored and zesty, you will notice. On purpose.

"Gotta get those taste buds going," says Gorino.

Paul Jenkins of Tempo calls his little culinary gift a "pre-app."

"It's kind of an antipasto to share with the table," Jenkins explains, adding that the plate might include eggplant caponata, cured salami, cheeses, even grilled zucchini or whatever is is fresh that day. Every table gets a pre-app as soon as patrons are seated.

To Jenkins, "It's just part of going out to dinner.

"Dining is different from just going out to eat," he adds quickly.

Both Gorino and Jenkins think that while the idea of an amuse bouche is a contemporary one that supposedly originated in the haute restaurants of France, there is a history for it in Western New York.

"It comes from the old fashioned relish tray," Jenkins says. And Gorino remembers that Oliver's used to serve one before he took over the place. "I used to love the cottage cheese and chives," Gorino remembers.

The Parkridge, which used to be on Parkridge Street in North Buffalo, was famous for its gigantic relish tray. The former Park Lane on Delaware was famous for its olive salad, and the Clarkson House in Lewiston, which is still very much alive, used to be acclaimed for the bean dip on its relish tray. Sadly, the tray is now gone.

Those recipes have been lost through time, a Clarkson House spokesman told us.

Not to worry, though. There are still restaurants where that relish tray is alive and well. One of them is Eckl's in Orchard Park.

"We've offered relish trays every day from the day we opened, and that was 45 years ago," Dale Eckl says, adding that even the contents have not changed through the years.

The relish tray, served only to customers who order a full dinner or a fish fry includes; radishes, black and green olives, pickle chips, carrots, celery, baby corn, pepperoncini and roasted cherry peppers.

"If I leave anything off," say Eckl, "oh my God." The corn is especially popular.

Eckl is frank. He offers the relish tray as a come on, he says, adding that it's both labor intensive and expensive. "It costs about $300 a week to put them out," he says. "but some people come here just to eat it."

Not every amuse bouche is elaborate. J.J. Richert of Torches offers a different amuse bouche each day, such as bacon-wrapped shrimp or pulled pork on polenta. But the restaurant also offers sourdough bread. Very special sourdough bread, actually.

"We bake it every other day, using the starter we brought with us when we opened up a year and a half ago," he says. "We just keep seeding it. We introduce it as our 'house baked baguette' and serve it with a parsley, onion, olive oil, lemon dip. It's nice to get people's appetites going.

"For us the food cost is not astronomical. We're not handing out foie gras. When you go out to eat, you want to perceive value and want to feel you get what you pay for.

"We just give enough to get you excited about eating and to wake up the palate. Sometimes people can be a little bit on edge when they first are seated."

Jeff Giovino of the Coyote Cafe in Hamburg agrees that people are often very hungry when they first come in. So Giovino serves the usual Mexican offering of chips and salsa as soon as his customers are seated. He makes his own and is perfectly happy to offer refills.

He's always done this, he says, despite the fact that food prices are going up.

"About the only thing I change was the dishes I serve the salsa in," Giovino says, adding that those dishes are expensive and people sometimes stole them

"Now I offer the salsa in little black disposable cups. But the cups are small and we usually have to bring out two per order.

"So I don't know how much I saved in the long run."

The amuse bouche in Sinatra's is Camponatina, made from eggplant, olives and tomatoes and meant to be spread on bread. It's prepared by chef Michael Sinatra.

"People like it, " his father John Sinatra says. "Sometimes they even ask for seconds." And do you give them, we could not help but ask. Sinatra is careful "Well yes," he says cautiously.

"But of course you do run a risk if they eat too much," he says.

"Then they might not still be be hungry."

e-mail: jokun@buffnews.com

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