To the random motorist, The Dove looks like a converted old house, a restaurant that owes its existence to the lack of other choices, surviving on the hunger and thirst of passers-by.
Step inside and you might find yourself mentally recounting all the restaurants the crowd drove by to get here. Turns out it offers a compact menu of Italian- and French-centered dishes with a few wild cards and small touches that elevate meals at The Dove above most of its price-point peers.
A live chrysanthemum was in a vase on the table with burgundy napkins and white tablecloth. We scanned a compact list of appetizers, including sauteed garlicky escargot on a cheese crisp ($10), before asking for two appetizer specials: potato pancakes ($8) and shrimp eggrolls ($10).
We listened to entree specials and forgot most of them, except for the grouper with crab-and-tomato salsa ($25), which I ordered. There's pasta, seafood and salad offerings, including much of your Red Sauce Italian 101 curriculum: alfredo, parmigiana, marsala, piccata. Many can be made gluten-free, the menu said.
The beef menu includes beef au poivre ($22) and chateaubriand for two with grilled vegetables ($75). But Cat negotiated a gorgonzola treatment for some beef medallions ($22).
(Sad but true: After I ordered, I thought I heard another server describe a pancetta-and-cheddar-stuffed chicken breast done francaise style. I kicked myself, hard.)
We didn't order soup. But it seems everybody gets bowls of pasta fasool, bean soup with shell pasta. The soup arrived flanked with small bowls of freshly shredded Parmesan and finely minced onion, so you can doctor it up at will. It's hearty and welcome, with white beans and still-crunchy celery for more texture.
The bread basket carried crusty, fresh rolls, butter and garlic breadsticks.
The house salad started with average field mix, but was elevated by creamy dressing that tasted house-made. Plus it was showered with fresh breadcrumbs, adding crunch and toasty flavor with each forkful.
When our pair of potato pancakes arrived, I liked the crispy edges but was disappointed by chewy middles, with the crunch of uncooked potato. (I like semi-raw potato in some settings, but not pancakes.)
The shrimp rolls were a pleasant surprise. An eggroll skin was packed with whole small shrimp and cabbage, then fried to a crisp. It was tame by itself, but fine as a vehicle for a pungent Asian black bean sauce that added vinegar tang and salty funk.
Before our entrees arrived, our attentive server brought us a dram of house-made limoncello in a frosty shot glass.
Our entrees were thoroughly satisfying, with Cat's slices of beef tenderloin still pink inside, luxurious with its quilt of mild blue cheese. Tender? "Like buttah," Cat said.
My grouper was flaky and sweet, tempered by the bite of black pepper. It remained moist despite the blackening sear. The cool tomato salsa packed big flakes of crab and chopped shrimp, brightened with cilantro, and left me wanting more.
The broccoli that came on the side with both entrees showed another appreciated touch -- it had been slightly browned in a hot oven or saute pan, adding caramelized flavor to an otherwise tame vegetable.
For dessert, we decided on cannoli and tiramisu (both $6). The three-inch square of tiramisu was sweet and dense, almost fudgy. But the syrup was well-balanced between coffee and liquor. The cannoli was two mini-cannolis with shatteringly crisp shells and a hint of cinnamon and a splash of Amaretto in the sweet ricotta filling. We wiped them out with pleasure.
There's a "Chef's European Tour" on the menu, $100 for two dinners. That's an eight-course meal from soup to dessert, including appetizer, pasta, salad, intermezzo and three small-scale entrees chosen by Executive Chef Dina Mattiello or her second, Daniel Miller, said co-owner Sherry Davies.
Reservations are required, and tell them about any allergies or aversions; when you come in they'll ask you temperature of meats, and take care of the rest, Davies said.
The next time I visit, I would seriously consider putting myself in the chef's hands.
The Dove - 8 plates (out of 10)
Description: Orchard Park house hides restaurant that pleases with small refinements across menu.
Where: 3002 Abbott Road, Orchard Park (823-6680).
Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner, 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Price range: Lunch $8-$12. Appetizers and salads, $6-$11. Entrees $13-$30.
Parking: In the lot.
Wheelchair access: Yes.