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Very special Meals are events to be savored at elegant Tempo

Universally acknowledged as one of the stars on the Western New York dining scene, Tempo presides over Delaware Avenue with dignity.

It is housed in an old mansion, elegant inside and out. Simply decorated, two high-ceiling rooms stretch back from the barroom, which is well patronized by well-attired young professional types in very high spirits. (Go to the back room if you want a quieter meal. Those high ceilings sometimes make for noisy eating.)

This is a restaurant that is run with professional flair. The martinis are perfect; the wine list is interesting; the menu is imaginative (intelligently so).

And your server delivers a nice little spiel when he comes to your table, something along the lines of: "Tonight we are celebrating the beginning of fall." And then he points out the evening specials that bear out that theme. A Caprese Salad made with heirloom tomatoes, perhaps; locally grown Baby Beet Salad; locally grown Blueberry Tart.

There's nothing like anticipation.

So we began the meal with that Caprese Salad ($9), very different from what we thought we would get. Oh, the ingredients were the same: heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil, mozzarella, olive oil and balsamic, but they were arranged in a shallow bowl rather than on a plate. Not a bad idea, by the way, since each of those components could receive an equal dose of oil. And the salad was easier to fork up.

The Caesar Salad ordered from the regular menu ($8.50) was served that way, too. Not a big salad, you understand, very much a first course. But zingy enough to serve as an excellent introduction.

I tried one of the special first courses, Polenta con Vitello ($14) -- a soft Parmesan polenta served alongside silken osso buco, enlivened with a caper or two. And so flavorful it could have served as an entire meal. (An entire dinner of small plates is an excellent way to go at Tempo.)

But we decided to go a more formal route, moving on to the entrees. Risotto alla Milanese from the evening special list ($36) was an obscenely rich and delicious collection of deshelled Maine lobster, diver scallops and large shrimp served atop lightly saffroned rice. The Peppercorn Seared Atlantic Salmon ($29) was taken way out of the so-what-else-is-new category because it was served with fennel, arugula and feta, topped by lemon-flavored vinaigrette.

Pan Seared Alaskan Halibut ($32 for a huge, juicy hunk) came out with calamari, green olives, fennel and a potato puree. The olives were a masterful addition.

With all of this we had a bottle of Cloudy Bay Savignon Blanc ($45) suggested by the server from an interesting list. A fine choice, though he may have been just a little slow in refilling our glasses at first, although the pouring did speed considerably when uber chef Jenkins came through and said hello. Jenkins is a longtime friend, so call me oversensitive if you wish. We also were politely escorted from the restaurant when we got up to go -- doors opened and all. Most appreciated. And maybe it's standard service.

I almost forgot about the desserts, which would have been a mistake. That warm local Blueberry Tart ($9.50) we talked about? It was a wondrous thing. The House Made Cookie Plate ($8.50)? Great, especially the Pistachio Shortbread. Sour Cream Chocolate Cake with espresso ganache -- a huge serving, and much more succulent than anything your mom cooked up.

But my real admiration goes to the Mini Dutch Apple Tart -- alas, made with Granny Smiths. Are the tart Western New York York varieties still on the trees? But the fine autumnal flavor of those apples really came through -- mainly, I suppose, because the kitchen was restrained in its use of cinnamon.

You have the message by now, I'm sure. Tempo is not an inexpensive place. The Stuffed Rib Veal Chop will run you $46, which is a lot of money on this side of the Hudson, even if does come with Asiago, sun-dried tomato stuffing, risotto and broccolini. The grilled Steak alla Fiorrentina runs $38, and Grilled Lobster Tail Risotto goes for $48.

But check out the pastas or go the small plate route, and you can get fine food without losing the farm.

(Restaurant Week, which goes through Monday, features a three-course meal based on Kansas City Strip Steak, Shellfish Risotto or Atlantic Salmon for $20.09. Next year it will cost at least a penny more, $20.10. Make the most of it.)

***

TEMPO

Four stars (out of four)

WHERE: 581 Delaware Ave. (885-1594). www.tempobuffalo.com. One of the dining-out scenes in Western New York. Under the supervision of well-known chef/owner Paul Jenkins, it's housed in a grand old Delaware Avenue mansion. The menu features well thought-out contemporary dishes. Credit Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.

FAVORITE DISH: Polenta con Vitello (special appetizer)

NEEDS WORK: Food is of fine quality.

PRICE RANGE: Dinner entrees from $29 up include starch and vegetable. Most upward of $35. "Scondi" are pastas from $18.

SERVICE: Basically good.

HOURS: 5 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Difficult.

PARKING: On the street.

RATINGS: Stars reflect the overall dining experience at the time of The News' visit -- including service, ambience, innovation and cost -- with greatest weight given to quality of the food.

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