Before Ulrich’s Tavern closed in 2012, I had mainly enjoyed the shabby charms of Buffalo’s oldest operating tavern for lunchtime potato pancakes and German draft beer before Sabres games. The dead Trico plant at its side was a blocklong reminder that things end. Its genuinely historic charisma drew Anthony Bourdain in 2009, but anyone who used the bathroom could guess the place needed a financial boost.
I returned last month to the corner of Virginia and Ellicott streets to find the shiny towers of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus overshadowing the newly reopened Ulrich’s. There is money to be made in their shade, and it gladdened my heart to see the tavern crowded with young professional drinkers who spilled onto the sidewalk.
Thanks to owner Salvatore Buscaglia, Buffalo can get its drink on at 674 Ellicott St. again, and eat decent food at a decent price. Buscaglia emphasized its history by renaming it Ulrich’s 1868 Tavern, and touched up the historic interiors with a deft hand, the tone set by the gorgeous wood and stained-glass bar in the front room.
We shouldered our way through the crowd and found the dining room mostly empty. The details remain: pressed metal walls and ceiling, piano, cast-iron radiators and a phoneless phone booth. Our old, bare wooden table held something I don’t remember seeing before: fresh flowers in a beer mug.
Our server told us Ulrich’s was out of German draft beer. Bummer. We chose alternatives from Hamburg Brewing Co. and Sam Adams.
The menu was a single card of soups, salads, sandwiches and entrees. Most of the prices end in “68,” as in potato pancakes ($7.68).
Here’s the skinny: The food was cheap, and it was hot, and if we had stuck to potato pancakes and sausages, schnitzel and kraut, we would have been happy. Outside that, things got a bit wobbly. But there also was a dish or two that suggested this kitchen has only started to cook. New executive chef Dan Galvin, on duty less than a month, said the menu I tried is being revamped.
First, we tried pretzels, regular and cheese-stuffed ($10.68). They were OK. Dunked in spicy mustard and grainy cheese sauce they were prefab, not as tender-crusty as fresh ones.
Then came the borscht ($5.68), a Polish white version: a bowl of milky broth, onion and parsley, with accoutrements of ham, potato and beet cubes, and a thimble of beet vinegar. There was horseradish on rye bread, and half a hard-boiled egg. Bialy barsczc is supposed to be sour and savory. This was neither, a blank slate of cream. Adding the accoutrements helped, a little. The potato cubes were crunchy.
Potato pancakes ($7.68 for two) were terrific, browned well, topped with sour cream and a sautéed apple, then drizzled with honey.
A quinoa salad arrived as four dainty dabs of cucumber, tomato, scallion and quinoa grains placed on four lettuce leaves ($10.68). I ate it imagining a lunchpail-toting ghost guffawing. It was fresh, but wispy.
An appetizer of pork belly and salmon ($13.68) was a surprise hit. A well-glazed, moist piece of salmon filet was balanced on a tender cube of pork belly, with sweet-and-sour sautéed red onions and greens on the side. An unusual, rich surf-and-turf combination that made it the first plate emptied.
The schnitzel ($13.68) and Oktoberfest sausage ($14.68) plates were both satisfying German-American tavern food, if unorthodox in certain details. The schnitzel comes in chicken and veal. I chose veal and was rewarded with two crispy cutlets breaded in rye crumbs that added a fetching toasty flavor. The sausage plate – smoky bratwurst, hot dog-like knackwurst and Ulrich’s original recipe – was satisfying too. The German potatoes, dosed with crispy bacon crumbs and tangy sauerkraut, hit the spot.
Rouladen ($11.68), flank steak around a pickle and pork stuffing, was tasty, but the beef was pink and chewy. I like my rouladen as braised, pot roast-like rolls, with gravy. It had more of those terrific potatoes, though.
If you read carefully, the menu does signal that chicken pot pie ($13.68) is a bowl of creamy chicken stew with a rectangle of puff pastry. I would have accepted the name game better if the potato cubes, amid acceptably tender chicken, peas and carrots, weren’t crunchy again.
For dessert, we ordered bananas Foster, whose brown sugar rum sauce hadn’t been cooked long enough for the sugar to melt, leaving it grainy over warmed, but not caramelized, bananas. There was still ice cream and walnuts for consolation. The poached pears were undercooked and spoon-resistant.
I liked the apple tart because it was warm, accented with a vanilla-scented Anglaise sauce, and I was eating it in Ulrich’s, which I feared was gone.
The food can improve, and there are signs it will. The hardest part of restoring Ulrich’s to the hearts, minds and bellies of Buffalonians has already been done. It is a substantial achievement.
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Ulrich’s 1868 Tavern - 6
Potato pancakes, sausage still satisfy at restored historic tavern.
WHERE: 674 Ellicott St. (989-1868, http://ulrichstavern.com)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday; and 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers and soups, $5.68-$12.68; sandwiches, $7.68-$12.68; potato pancakes and entrees, $7.68-$14.68.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.