This year brought a bumper crop of new dinner choices in Buffalo and environs. Throughout 2014, I’ve asked veteran restaurant owners and observers if they can remember a comparable period of ambitious restaurant openings. No one could.
Here are my choices for the 10 most remarkable new restaurants, in alphabetical order.
Black Iron Bystro, 3648 South Park Ave., Blasdell, 240-9830
Former Vera Pizzeria sous chef Bryan Mecozzi opened his own place in Blasdell in May, a former print shop outfitted in eclectic style. His cuisine avoids the wings-and-weck stereotypes in favor of creative dishes like scallops with spinach and black-eyed peas, and a beet-and-chevre sandwich. Mecozzi changes his menu frequently, so the tuna croquettes, duck sliders with rutabaga blue cheese gratin and apple crisp with coffee caramel that impressed me on a recent visit might not be available. But this chef’s resolute originality and clear love of vegetables makes his kitchen one worth seeking out.
Bourbon and Butter, 391 Washington St., 253-6453
Chef-owner Mike Andrzejewski pulled the plug on luxe attempt Mike A’s and moved the dining room into the stylish barroom inside the remodeled Hotel at the Lafayette. The menu includes upgraded versions of Buffalo favorites, like a “beef on weck” loaded with velvety beef short rib, adventurous plunges like crispy pig ear salad, and Asian delights like buns loaded with Korean kalbi beef. Chef Bruce Wieszala joined the staff in September, adding creativity and the promise of charcuterie to the restaurant’s menu. Another signal attraction is the drinks of beverage director Tony Rials, the most accomplished craft cocktail creator in town.
Buffalo Proper, 333 Franklin St., 783-8699
Cocktails by Jon Karel and Edward Forster’s cuisine makes this one of the most distinctive takes on fine dining in the city. Karel and his staff are from the barkeep-as-ringleader school of alcohol sales. Their drinks are potent and range from interesting re-spun classics to provocative inventions. Forster’s dishes start with premium ingredients whose pleasures he heightens in thoughtful and often unexpected ways. The gem salad’s dressing is fortified with house-made black garlic. Cured melon on toast and hay-smoked potatoes underneath a gorgeous, juicy roast chicken are two tasty inventions worth encountering. If you fear Forster’s inventions are too esoteric, a plate of his braised pork shoulder, barley and kohlrabi sauerkraut will set you right.
Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, 301 Franklin St., 880-1677
The Syracuse-based barbecue chain finally opened a store in Buffalo in February. It feels like a barbecue joint even though it’s housed in a cannily repurposed building that was once a film vault. Barbecue aficionados are welcome to argue if it’s the best slow-smoked ribs and chicken in town, or not. I thought its work indisputably made it part of the argument. What it takes exceptional marks in is consistency, which is the bugbear of barbecue. The menu spin-offs, like its chimichurri-topped chicken steak, are worth the diversion. The side dishes, so important in an overall meal, are freshly made, and the servers aim to please.
Elm Street Bakery, 72 Elm St., East Aurora, 652-4720
The massive wood-fired oven at the heart of this place isn’t a gimmick, it’s the foundation for dishes both thoughtful and delicious. Opened in 2011, it started serving dinner this April. Local ingredients, presented in deceptively rustic surroundings, star in dishes that draw on international flavors. But Brad Rowell’s menu is rooted in traditional culinary arts like butchering, preserving, and cheese-making. A chicken raised in East Aurora finds its glory in Moroccan curry spice, hummus and made-to-order flatbread. Fine bread is served with house-made cultured butter. Desserts from Executive Pastry Chef Luci Levere seal the deal by properly exploiting glorious local fruit and decadently upgrading classic sweets.
Oshun, 5 E. Huron St., 848-4500
Built as the Waldorf-Astoria’s coffee shop, the room is highlighted with Art Deco styling and bas-relief murals that evoke Buffalo’s grander days. The seafood-centered menu keeps up the sense of wonder. An oyster bar offers a half-dozen or more varieties, and chef-owner Jim Guarino offers dishes that present fish, bivalves, cephalopods and crustaceans in delicious settings. Meat and potatoes eaters get their due, too. Try the fried catfish with bacon vinaigrette, calamari in pineapple tamarind glaze, or pork cutlet and golabki in smoky tomato broth. Have the argument about whether they go with seafood if you must, but don’t miss the Parker rolls. Somehow, save room for dessert.
Pho Dollar, 322 W. Ferry St., 748-0049
Menus of Vietnamese basics have been available in Buffalo for decades, but this former neighborhood bar on West Ferry Street was different. With a menu more than 100 dishes deep, it expanded the Buffalo Vietnamese lexicon significantly. You can get pho, the characteristic beef noodle soup, lots of places. Try a roll-your-own salad roll kit for the table with grilled pork or shrimp sausage, and ask the server to roll the first one. Or try the bo nuong xa ot, spicy glazed beef slices wrapped around onions and lemongrass; goi ga, shredded chicken salad with cabbage and mint; or thit kho to, pork braised in caramel sauce in a clay pot.
The Black Sheep, 367 Connecticut St., 884-1100
Owners Steven and Ellen Gedra are the chef-baker team that made shoebox-sized Bistro Europa a cult classic restaurant on Elmwood. Now in their own building, the Gedras offer nose-to-tail cuisine from heritage-breed pigs and choice seafood selections, plus sticky toffee pudding and jacked-up Americana for dessert. The new space is 50 seats, twice as large. It’s Bistro Europa all grown up – the silverware and plates match, the food is more carefully presented, and the service more polished. The most compelling bread basket in town comes with burro di chianti, seasoned whipped lard. The smoked-and-grilled pork chop and the “beets five ways” shows Steven Gedra’s knack for both primal pleasures and plates that encourage diners to play with their food.
Sato, 739 Elmwood Ave., 931-9146
Sato has brought authentic ramen soup and the broadest Japanese menu in Western New York to Elmwood Avenue. Owners Satomi and Joshua Smith have developed a restaurant that offers a Japanese menu far broader than the usual teriyaki clichés, featuring seasonal locally inspired dishes. Seafood goes beyond sushi, stews and soups are a strength, and Japanese home-style dishes are part of the attraction. Its sake collection, administered by certified sake sommelier Joshua Smith, is the broadest in town. Try any of the ramen flavors – including the vegetarian, which is worthy, not just pandering – and my favorite vegetable side dish, a deep-fried caramel-coated sweet potato called daigaku imo.
Valle of Mexico, 1585 South Park Ave., 822-8880
This small restaurant, run by Hector Martinez and his family, is a humble place. It doesn’t have a liquor license yet, or particularly swift service. What it does have is the best Mexican cuisine in Buffalo. Particularly praiseworthy are its sauces: dark, complex mole; aromatic salsa verde; smoky chipotle-based salsa rojo. Try them in a context of your choice; a plate of carnitas (braised and seared pork) is a safe bet. Its collection of meats can be enjoyed as tacos, tortas (subs), burritos or plates. Stuff like lengua (tongue) might get sold out, but the server will tell you what’s good today. It’s a must-try for any serious Mexican fan – just not one in a hurry.
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