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A big Encore Large place, big selection in Theater District

Recently opened in the heart of the Theater District, Encore is big, big, big. Three thousand square feet big, in fact, arranged on two floors of this old building, which was once the site of Hemingway's.

The restaurant has newly redecorated and is now a handsome, sleek space with crannies, fireplaces and bars wherever you look. Note the narrow room behind the main bar with high-backed booths for total privacy. Note also the sushi bar on the second floor -- in other words, something for everyone.

Encore boasts a handsome patio, too, and plans to start serving lunches when the weather gets warmer.

Under the aegis of Chris Daigler, the former executive chef at Oliver's, the place offers two separate menus -- actually three, if you count the sushi.

The bar menu offers the expected likes of steak sandwiches and wings. That menu has a slider trio ($9) -- but not just any ordinary sliders. This plate offers crab cake, beef and Cajun chicken. And, would you believe, the bar menu actually offers poutine, too? Often described as the ultimate French Canadian junk food, poutine normally consists of warm french fries with gravy and cheese curds. But, just like the sliders, Encore takes the idea upscale a bit. Encore-style poutine includes parmesan frites, gruyere and truffle aioli -- even short ribs.

If you opt for the dinner menu, as we did, there's plenty of choice. Those choices include our witty selection: tomato soup served with grilled cheese bites ($5). True, it's just like your favorite lunch all through high school. But still, it's very different. This is a big step up from the efforts of Messers Campbell and Kraft. The grilled cheese fingers had been freshly baked and came out piping hot. They provided wonderful dunking material.

Then, too, not too many restaurants in Western New York offer Coq au Vin, the classic French stew of chicken in red wine. At Encore, the juicy chicken was served generously with butternut squash polenta, winter vegetables and pancetta. Perfect winter eating.

As was my Maine Lobster pie ($30), beautifully served under a topping of square puff pastry. The rich filling included leeks, corn, mushrooms and truffled sherry cream. We loved every minute.

The Encore dessert menu is not without imagination, either. For one thing, there's an item with the name "How 'bout S'mores?" Well, actually that's a pretty good question. How can you resist toasted marshmallow ice cream with both caramel and chocolate sauces, after all? We certainly did not. And how can you resist the plate of assorted Krumkits, which turned out to be cute little cookies. A couple of meringues, some chocolate filled, and a rich, lime-flavored cream to dunk them in.

Though it's early days yet, Encore shows promise. It offers comfortable surroundings and a varied menu. You can stick with the familiar, of course -- a Caesar salad ($6) was a freshly made blend with plenty of Reggiano cheese, and French onion soup is also on the menu. There are grilled fillet and strip steaks galore.

But there's always the opportunity to go further afield, to move, in the tiniest way, to the wild side. Imagination is at work. The roast salmon ($19) is accompanied with macadamia nut butter, coconut chili sushi rice and bok choy. The red wine-braised short ribs ($18) are served with roast garlic and celery root puree. Even the beans and greens ($14) come with tiny orchiette, red pepper puree and sausage.

e-mail: jokun@buffnews.com

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>ENCORE

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

WHERE: 492 Pearl St. (931-5001). On the site of the late Hemingway's in the Theater District, this new restaurant is huge but manages to feel cozy. There are bars and fireplaces everywhere you look. Credit Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
FAVORITE DISH: Coq au Vin
NEEDS WORK: Food is of high quality.
PRICE RANGE: Dinner entrees from $14, although many are in the $20 range.
SERVICE: Very good.
HOURS: Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11. Friday, Saturday 5 10 12. Closed Sunday, unless Shea's Performing Arts Center has an event. Lunch to come in the spring.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: DifficultPARKING: On the street or in parking lots.
RATINGS: Stars reflect the overall dining experience at the time of The News' visit.

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