Buffalo needs more grand rooms, places where dinner offers the potential for romance, for dazzle, for a night to remember. Where you can star in your own black-and-white classic movie, your table a stage for acts of deliciousness performed by expert practitioners of the culinary arts. Something more than the nutritional equivalent of pulling into a gas station to top off the tank. Bourbon & Butter has all the ingredients to be one of those rooms, to make going downtown mean something again.
Bourbon & Butter is Mike Andrzejewski’s retooled place in the Hotel @ the Lafayette, the downtown hotel that has been restored to a condition approaching its original glory. Andrzejewski has lowered the luxe profile, and the prices. Most of the menu is from $10 to $20 and nothing hits $30. Remaining unchanged is beverage director Tony Rials, whose $10 cocktails are worth the trip by themselves.
Andrzejewski has let talented chefs cook what they like to eat. Chris Daigler and Bruce Wieszala, formerly of Encore and Tabree, power a menu full of defiant acts of caloric extravagance, thrill rides that make it hard to keep your hands and feet inside the car at all times, in a dietetic sense.
There’s fettuccine carbonara of housemade pasta and local eggs ($14), and a slab of smoked pork belly with a crispy egg and truffled potato hash ($14). A fried pig ear salad that scatters crispy, porky shreds through a heap of greens and pickled jalapeños ($11), and Korean barbecued beef stuffed into puffy white buns with housemade kimchi and spicy mayonnaise ($12). “Beef on weck” is slabs of tender braised short rib, like a gravy stream running down Pot Roast Mountain, with a foothill of first-class fries ($14.50).
I pulled up and handed my car keys to the valet, who warned us about the slippery patch of marble at the top of the stairs. The hostess took our coats and showed us to our table.
Cocktails included a Bacon Old Fashioned, updated with bourbon flavored with Spar’s bacon, a hint of maple and orange oil for fragrant citrus. I would suggest Salsa Something, with tequila, mezcal and tomato honey for margarita fans tired of Kool-Aid drinks.
Our server brought rich molasses brown bread studded with golden raisins and butter that had been whipped with bourbon. Spreading butter with a spoon was awkward, but it was a homey treat.
First up was a mushroom Lyonnaise salad ($8), a vegetarian version of the French classic offering oyster and shimeji mushrooms in smoked olive oil instead of bacon. A wobbly poached egg contributed its creaminess to mustard vinaigrette, and potato crisps added crunch, for one of my most satisfying salads of the winter.
Plancha grilled octopus ($13) was slightly charred tentacle segments and seared Spanish chorizo atop perfectly cooked risotto. The octopus still had a proper bit of chew. Salt and pepper shrimp ($18) had six big fried shrimp served over fried rice, with baby bok choy and Thai dipping sauce on the side. The shrimp were fried well and got to our table still crispy, but the fried rice was slick with oil.
A pear tart topped with frisee and a snow of frozen shaved foie gras torchon ($15) was a real head-turner, offering crisp pastry and remarkably tender fruit for February. Its guajillo chile caramel and the foie’s mineral liver richness resonated deeply.
Entrees arrived with sides of pommes frites, and squash with bacon (both $5). The potatoes deserved their name, twice-fried to a glorious crispiness with creamy interiors. A huge bowl, enough to derail meal plans, came with addictive housemade truffled mayonnaise. The squash was caramel sweet, but heavy.
Duck ($28) was a three-parter, with pumpkin gnocchi and red wine sauce. A confit leg was tender and rich, but I would have liked the skin crisper. A strip of skin-on breast was perfect, crackling skin over rosy flesh. A patty of duck sausage was dry, like a well-done burger. The gnocchi beneath the duck were tender, the Brussels sprouts appropriately al dente.
Pressed chicken ($17) was a crispy-skinned boneless chicken thigh ingot over chestnut spaetzle and cauliflower puree, drizzled with honey vinegar to cut the richness. It vanished under the forks of the table quickly. Chestnut puree in the spaetzle added a nutty flavor, which worked as a winter pasta.
Striped bass ($29) was browned yet moist atop greens studded with crunchy browned garlic. Adornments were pearls of vinegar, adding acid without diluting liquid; powdery, salty, brown butter solids and a judicious swath of brown butter hollandaise. It was delicious, but at this place, even the fish flirted with richness overload.
The pork chop ($19) brought moans of happiness. It was a blade chop, tender inside though crusted, over a sauce made with smoked pears and moistened with pork jus. It came with more al dente Brussels sprouts and squash spiced like eggnog. “Everything just explodes in your mouth,” said Cat, and I agreed; the combination of smoke and salt, pork and fruit, was primal satisfaction.
At dessert, the server warned the chocolate soufflé ($10) would take 15 minutes, but that suited us fine, since we didn’t feel like moving. It was worth waiting for, a not-too-sweet dark chocolate puff with crispy edges and a tender center. The waffle ($9) crispy and sandwiched with ice cream and Crème Anglaise, was a real crowd pleaser, too.
The apple turnover ($8) offered limp pastry and tender apples. The lemon “pie” ($8) had a velvety, vibrant lemon curd, but crunchy sugar crystals in both pastry and meringue topping.
Overall, service was attentive and capable. As we stepped out into the cold, the valet had our cars waiting for us at the curb, motors running. Andrzejewski said that I had been spotted, but the warm car touch happens for regular customers, too, if it’s not too busy.
The space could improve, starting with that slick marble threshold. Restrooms are a corridor away. The banquette seating was not quite at the same level as the chairs.
The food had a few hitches, including the overarching issue – at many restaurants, not just Bourbon & Butter – of richness overload. I want to return in vegetable season.
A menu studded with killer dishes. Outstanding drinks. A room that’s a throwback to the days when Buffalo was on top of the world. You still have to build your own adventure, but Bourbon & Butter makes a fine setting for a remarkable night on the town.
9 plates (out of 10)