Trying to surprise restaurant customers is a mission fraught with peril. Two, three or more experiments might soar, only to have customers remember most vividly the one that blew up on the launch pad. Edward Forster of Buffalo Proper is a daredevil chef. In the former Laughlin’s space, Forster offers a brief menu in his own style – local produce elevated with technical skill and imagination to deliver moments of unexpected deliciousness. In two meals there, skyrockets vastly outnumbered duds – and none of it was boring.
Consider his roast chicken, fresh from Oles Farm in Alden. It’s a terrific piece of meat treated well, arriving with pan-browned crispy skin and oozing juice when cut. That would be remarkable enough.
Those juices help moisten Oles Farm potatoes that have been cooked, briefly smoked over hay, then finished in a hot pan with butter. The crackling chicken skin and smoke satisfied on a primal level, like a backyard barbecue with better ingredients, adorned with verdant truffled arugula purée that added flavor, not just color. Squash purée adds heartiness from the Oles root cellar.
The roast chicken is $32 for half, $58 full, which is a lot of money for chicken. But when you put it in your mouth, you know where that money went.
There also is a steak on the menu, a 32-ounce tomahawk chop ($65). Mine was perfectly cooked medium rare as requested, served sliced, alongside the bone, for gnawing. I could have eaten the whole thing, and more of the black quinoa underneath it, too. Who serves a nutty, dark-as-midnight grain with steak? But it worked well with carrots caramelized to the point of dessert and pickled spruce tips.
Braised pork shoulder, a relative bargain at $18, was a shaggy-looking plate that tasted surprisingly sophisticated. (You can order extra pounds of meat at $18 a pound if you want to feed more than one person.) The pork shreds, tender and chewy by turns, had the deeper flavor of heritage pork. It came with kohlrabi sauerkraut and al dente barley, and a sauce made from beer vinegar, balancing husky pork richness with acid and hearty grain. Fried malt crackers added texture but not much flavor, and mostly made me wish they were pork skins.
Fluke ($42/$64) offered golden brown seared filets with green beans, toasted almonds and a lemony sauce, well cooked but tamely seasoned compared to its rambunctious siblings.
Vegetables are the center of attention in the smaller plates, which are enough for one person. Forster said he welcomes the challenge of turning out vegan versions. A plate called local vegetables ($7) had a small, artful arrangement of roasted beets, fresh tomatoes, celery, pickled rhubarb and more over yogurt sauce, dotted with pumpkin seeds and adorned with fennel fronds and nasturtiums. Eggplant “dirt” made from charred eggplant added character to a delicious plate.
Chickpea and lentil fritters ($7) were batons of purée, coated and fried but not crispy, their earthiness good company for crunch and acid from the pickled cauliflower alongside.
Fried kale chips ($7) were tossed with gribiche, a tangy relish of chopped egg and pickle. The texture and flavor pleased, but the oil left a slick on my tongue. The shaved fennel salad ($7), with briny white anchovies, crunchy fried chickpeas and dabs of orange aioli, didn’t click with me. It was wet and underflavored.
A baby gem salad ($4) is a refined wedge salad in miniature, half a small lettuce head whose cut surface has been coated with Parmesan dressing flavored with black garlic and dusted with Parma ham crumble. It can serve one, or make two people wish they got their own.
Carrot soup ($9) was poured tableside over a block of carrot cake, licorice pudding and puffed rice. It was comforting, with flavor combinations and rice grains popping each spoonful, making it interesting to poke around.
The pouring flourish, and the generally artful display of the food, was diminished by the dim lighting. We resorted to flashlights for glimpses.
Noise remained at a reasonable level, and our server was attentive and had answers. She warned that the food comes as it is ready, rather than risk a dish cooling in the kitchen. The copper-topped tables are classy, but ours had splatters from previous customers.
Forster is half of the power duo drawing fans to Buffalo Proper. The second-story dining room looks down on the first-floor bar. That stage is commanded by Jon Karel, a master bartender who helped put Buffalo on the craft cocktail map with Vera Pizzeria.
What makes a $10 drink taste better? The notion that something might happen before it’s gone. Karel, a former drummer, is still a showman, with an arsenal of house-made ingredients and a flair for the dramatic. A Facebook video shows him standing on the backbar, ordaining an apprentice barman with his official vest.
Karel makes things happen in the glass, too. The Ginger Baker features a house-made ginger jalapeño syrup whose double bite cuts through the sweet molasses fog of Brazilian rum. Or you can “spin the bottle – tell me what you like, and don’t be shy,” the menu said. My guest Liz stipulated gin and got an effervescent, well-balanced cocktail with a Christmas tree finish. Spruce gin. Sounds weird, but it was delicious.
The exception was the CastleBar (Irish whiskey, cream, Joe Bean coffee, sugar, Fernet Branca) which hit me like herbal cough medicine. Kevin, who loves fine coffee above all other beverages, could not drink it. We moved on, because there were plenty of other delicious distractions on the table.
Buffalo Proper’s aim to please only goes so far. The restaurant does not serve bread, except as part of a tartine (topped with cured melon and house-made ricotta, or rabbit terrine).
For dessert, we got ethereal chocolate mousse dotted with ginger cream, pistachios and crimson beet purée, which added a hint of sweet earthiness to the least sweet chocolate mousse I’ve ever had. A trio of Spanish cheeses with tangy apricot preserves and crackers was classy and safe. Then came the fig and ricotta dessert ($8), figs simmered in coffee with honey, layered with some of the ricotta Buffalo Proper makes three times a night.
Two of us found it intoxicating, a sprawling interlayering of jammy fruit, dark coffee, milky fresh cheese and crunchy tuile flavored with Ciociaro Amaro aperitif. One, noting the absence of traditional sugar bombs on the dessert menu, said, “Now I want to go to Anderson’s.”
I didn’t swoon to every song either. But in a restaurant landscape dominated by cover bands, Buffalo Proper has got chops, and its best numbers are true originals.
Buffalo Proper -- 8 plates (out of 10)
333 Franklin St. (783-8699)
Original compositions of local ingredients, creative cocktails make new room rock.