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Influential chef opening Toutant next to SeaBar

In an epic year of Buffalo restaurant openings, the announcement that James Roberts is opening a restaurant is the cherry on the sundae.

Toutant will be on Ellicott Street, next to SeaBar, in the former Golden Swan building, 437 Ellicott St. Roberts will be chef-owner, with Rocco Termini of Signature Development as his landlord. With construction under way, expect it in early 2015.

“I’m shooting for January, but my heart tells me it’ll probably be February,” Roberts said. The 120-seat restaurant is expected to use three floors of the building.

Roberts, executive chef at Park Country Club since 2007, is from bayou country, St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. His place is named after his great-grandfather’s hunting and trapping camp [see below].

At Toutant, Roberts will aim to serve meals that recall early childhood family dinners, “demonstrating the heart, preparation, and comfort experienced at those gatherings,” a press release said.

He’ll aim to offer dinner and a drink for $30 to $35, “casual comfort food done incredibly consistently, incredibly well,” he said. “I don’t want seven things they can’t pronounce on a plate. I want them to look at it and go, ‘This is great,’ and while they’re eating it go ‘Holy (expletive), why is it this great?’ That’s my goal.”

He’s excited, he said. “I think I’ve got a piece of what Buffalo wants – everyday food done extremely well, at a reasonable price, in an atmosphere where everyone can sit together, no worries about being under-dressed or overdressed.”

The menu will be broader than Cajun, though, with “vast amounts of fresh Gulf seafood and shellfish, buttermilk fried chicken, and accurate renditions of numerous Southern favorites like jambalaya, house-smoked sausages, cast iron skillet cornbread, and authentic barbecue offerings.”

Unless you are a Park Country Club member, Roberts is probably the best Buffalo chef you never heard of, but his influence has been felt in the restaurant world, across Western New York and beyond. Roberts’ training and mentoring program has shaped young cooks that have moved on up to run high-end kitchens from California to the British West Indies.

Former Roberts assistant Corey Siegel represented the U.S. at Bocuse d’Or, the closest thing to a culinary Olympics. Closer to home, Brad Rowell has helped make East Aurora’s Elm Street Bakery a dining destination with a fine touch. Dustin Murphy is now head chef at Tabree, in Snyder.

After steering numerous restaurants and food programs, Roberts finally has a ship of his own. “I’m hoping, humbly, that I can manage both good cooking and sound business, and do something good here,” he said. “To put everything you have on the line, step out into the left lane and just go for it, is incredibly nerve-wracking.”

The logo for Toutant, James Roberts' first Buffalo restaurant.

The logo for Toutant, James Roberts' first Buffalo restaurant.

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