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Bourdain finds a 'masterpiece' in Buffalo 'No Reservations' about beef on weck

The cable TV menu is so varied and so full that there is a good chance most Western New Yorkers never have sat down to watch an episode of the Travel Channel series, "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations."

But Bourdain's acerbic, salty style should get many new local viewers at 10 p.m. Monday when he airs a Rust Belt episode that features his visits to the beleaguered cities of Baltimore, Detroit and Buffalo.

If you're not a regular, be warned: Parental discretion is advised. And it isn't entirely Chamber of Commerce material. That's really part of the fun.

Bourdain's series is a tasty delight that combines terrific writing, cynical narration, dry humor, flavorful characters and varied food choices from around the world.

If you're a Buffalonian, you might say Bourdain saves the best for last on Monday. Our town and its specialties of beef on weck and chicken wings are served in the third and final segment of the hour.

"Buffalo is so much more than chicken wings and Rick James, isn't it?," narrates Bourdain.

And then there is this Bourdain nugget: "There is a perverse joy of being alive and living in Buffalo even in the coldest part of winter at night in what I call a blizzard."

Bourdain cleverly words his explanation of Buffalo's appeal as he enters Ulrich's Tavern. "Experience the basic, delightful duality of the Buffalo experience -- cold and harsh outside, warm and hospitable inside."

Bourdain said he made Buffalo the final stop in January because the entire Rust Belt show was inspired by local musician Nelson Starr, who convinced him to come here after becoming the runner-up (isn't that so Buffalo?) in a contest that had a first prize of a Bourdain visit.

To enter the contest, people made videos pitching their communities as fitting destinations for Bourdain to film a show. Starr, with filmmaker John Paget, created a video in which he asked Bourdain to "come to the Blizzard Capital of the World" and featured local culinary favorites at various restaurants like Ted's Hot Dogs and the Anchor Bar.

Bourdain being Bourdain, he couldn't help but remark about Buffalo's economic "fall from grace," which is highlighted by video of some of the area's blight.

But he balances that negativity by adding, "What is surprising to me is how much of its former glory still stands. I wasn't expecting to see so many architectural treasures."

The host isn't quite as impressed by chicken wings as he is by beef on weck, which he refers to as "a tasty little masterpiece."

He and his Russian buddy, Zamir, sample the masterpiece at a local restaurant, Schwabl's, that Bourdain said "most people here agree" has the best beef on weck in the area. I can almost hear the beefs from fans of Charlie the Butcher's and other restaurants. But you can't argue about Schwabl's having a better ambience for a TV show.

Not one to avoid hyperbole, Bourdain says of Starr: "Now that James Brown is dead, (Starr) is the hardest working man in show business."

In the 15-minute Buffalo segment, there is time for a little snowmobiling, to hear Starr perform and for a little fun with Zamir, who serves as comic relief. And in the end, Bourdain gives Buffalo his seal of approval, praising its "nice" and "cool" people.

Of course, he is just as complimentary earlier about Baltimore and Detroit. The Baltimore visit has more star power than Starr -- two actors from "The Wire," the former HBO series set in Baltimore, show him around the city and also sample local delicacies like crab cakes. They aren't the big names -- one is a former policeman and one a former criminal who became characters on the show.

He calls David Simon's "The Wire" "the greatest series in the history of TV." He's not alone in that sentiment, but I much preferred "Homicide: Life on the Street," which was based on a Simon book and written and produced by Buffalo's Tom Fontana.

And "Homicide" (which Simon also wrote for) actually had a decent-sized audience during its run. "The Wire" had about as many viewers as, well, "No Reservations," despite its critical acclaim.

Snowy Detroit gets the same balanced treatment as Buffalo. Bourdain shows the city's economic warts and takes in a game called "feather bowling," which he cleverly says "makes no sense in the most wonderful way."

That's a good way to describe "No Reservations." There's a "perverse joy" in watching the duality of Bourdain praising our town and detailing its familiar problems and stereotypical image.

All in all, "No Reservations" is a pretty cool reality series, even if "cool" and "reality series" often seem like a contradiction in terms.



>TV Review

"No Reservations"
Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
10 p.m Monday
Travel Channel

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