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Bacchus raises the bar on downtown eating

The bars of Chippewa Street come and go, but for the last decade, Bacchus has remained a beacon of fine dining amid a sea of Long Island iced teas. Two years ago, chef Brian Mietus bought out restaurateur Steve Calvaneso and became master of his own domain. The result is fine dining without a hint of intimidation. You might goggle at the extensive wine list, but there’s nothing on the menu that will make you reach for a dictionary.

The former Calumet Café offers a cozy dining room, with banquettes and tables, and a view of Chippewa nightlife through its glass front. Chairs were comfy, the tablecloth was topped with paper and lighting was ample. Out back there’s a courtyard where movies are shown during the summer. There is valet parking, too, which meant you could have enjoyed a peculiarly Bacchus blend of high- and lowbrow by handing the valet your keys and stepping inside for a viewing of “Animal House.”

Bacchus owner-chef Brian Mietus holds the ahi tuna. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Bacchus owner-chef Brian Mietus holds the ahi tuna. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

If you look at the Bacchus menu from the right angle, you can see hints of Mietus’ culinary roots. He’s led the kitchen at Tempo and Oliver’s, but he started in a Woodlawn hot dog stand. The appetizer menu includes a blue-collar favorite not usually associated with white tablecloths: potato skins ($9). Mietus has translated them from pitcher-of-beer partner to an upscale starter that delivers all the taste sensations – crispy browned potato skin, sharp cheese, crispy pork – in a refined package.

First, we got a basket with two breads, a dark olive-studded loaf and sliced baguette, plus a saucer of olive oil, balsamic and fresh herbs for dipping.

Our server chatted deftly and explained the Local Restaurant Week menu. We went in a different direction, ordering off the regular list. Curried butternut squash soup and cream of cauliflower (each $8), potato skins and tuna tartare ($15), beet salad ($8) and beef carpaccio ($12) were our appetizers.

For entrees, we chose roasted chicken ($24), shrimp-crusted mahi mahi ($32), duck breast with risotto ($34) and a special of halibut with parsnip purée ($34).

Soups arrived in steaming pitchers. The squash bisque was poured over a shrimp dumpling, smooth, spicy and satisfying. Cauliflower soup was rich without drowning the cauliflower flavor in cream. Bright pink carpaccio, topped with shaved Parmesan, arugula and a fried egg, was fresh but its mild taste didn’t make much of an impression.

Like the curried butternut squash soup, Bacchus' French onion soup is served in the pour-over fashion. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Like the curried butternut squash soup, Bacchus' French onion soup is served in the pour-over fashion. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Bacchus rescued tuna tartare from cliché by crossing the border to Mexico, adding guacamole, and spiking the chopped raw tuna with jalapeño. Beet salad was another dish I’ve seen a lot, just not usually so well done. The beets were tender and earthy, atop a luxe foundation of crumbled-and-fried goat cheese, with arugula and juicy orange segments.

The potato skins (pictured in the header), with Gorgonzola cheese instead of blue cheese dressing and crispy prosciutto instead of bacon, were the kind you could feel perfectly fine eating – with a knife and fork – before you go to the theater.

My chicken entree was anything but boring. The char-tipped skin on the boneless half chicken was tasty even without the addition of pesto and herbed sour cream, and was moist to the bone. Perfectly rendered skin over rosy meat made the duck breast memorable by itself. Its pairings with pie-scented risotto, squash cubes and toasted pumpkin seeds had its owner talking about their relationship, as in buying curtains together.

The ahi tuna is crusted with coriander and glazed with a citrus chili sauce, served on a crispy rice cake with an avocado salad, (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The ahi tuna is crusted with coriander and glazed with a citrus chili sauce, served on a crispy rice cake with an avocado salad, (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Cat’s shrimp-crusted mahi mahi was a shrimp and scallop mousse seared onto a moist piece of fish. It came on risotto and grilled asparagus, topped with a lively, chunky cooked tomato salsa. It was delicious, just less adventurous tasting than it sounded. The halibut was a solid wow, though, a meaty slab browned and resting on faintly sweet miso-pumpkin purée and mushrooms, then adorned with fresh pomegranate seeds. The crimson pomegranate berries added needed acid to a rich dish. “Very autumnal,” its owner said.

Noise didn’t interfere with conversation, even as the room filled up. Service was first-class throughout our meal. Our server helped a guest pair a glass of wine with his duck, bringing the bottle and offering him a taste before he approved. The staff also landed the simultaneous-entree-delivery move, rarely attempted – and even more rarely accomplished – in Buffalo dining.

For dessert, we ordered Ethiopian French press coffee ($10) and four desserts ($8): grilled pound cake with peaches, chocolate mousse cake, lemon raspberry cheesecake and crème brûlée.

The sweets were a slight letdown after the high standards of the earlier dishes. The pound cake had chewy, green-skinned apple slices instead of peaches, and not even ice cream, caramel sauce and a sprawl of crumble eased my disappointment. The chocolate cake, rich and rambunctious with a chocolate chip crunch, was the table’s favorite. Crème brûlée was a bit jiggly and softly crusted. The cheesecake was unusual, sporting a cake core layered with raspberry, for a delicious difference.

Between Mietus’ cuisine and his staff’s polished, thoughtful service, Bacchus’ relaxed sophistication is redefining “comfort food.”

DINING OUT

Bacchus Wine Bar & Restaurant - 9 plates (out of 10)

Chippewa’s fine-dining standard feeds need for relaxed sophistication.

WHERE: 56 W. Chippewa St. (854-9463)

HOURS: 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday.

PRICE RANGE: Small plates, $7-$15; entrées, $22-$36.

PARKING: Valet.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.

The exterior of Bacchus, a fine-dining restaurant that sits on the corner of Franklin and Chippewa streets. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The exterior of Bacchus, a fine-dining restaurant that sits at the corner of Franklin and Chippewa streets. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

email: agalarneau@buffnews.com

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