Selling beer to undergraduates used to be the Steer’s bread and butter. The University Heights mainstay’s menu made it a safe choice for students to suggest to visiting parents who frowned on drinking their dinner, but happy hours and 2-for-1 drink specials brought the real crowds. That has changed. ¶ With the introduction of a broad selection of vegan, raw and gluten-free appetizers, entrees and desserts, the Steer has become a rare Buffalo restaurant where meat eaters and vegans can happily break bread together. That’s giving University at Buffalo students another reason to choose it when dad’s buying, and made it a destination for a new crowd of plant food enthusiasts. Besides its other nutritional advantages, eating a vegan feast at a place called the Steer is an excellent way to fill your recommended daily allowance of irony.
Owner Tucker Curtin broadened the Steer’s menu over the last decade, including stone oven pizzas and more seafood, all the way to cioppino, seafood stew in a fennel-tomato broth. In the meantime, his wife, Erin, became devoted to a vegan diet, and started cooking it for her friends. But Curtin Restaurants, which include Lake Effect Diner and the seasonal Dug’s Dive, had little she wanted to eat. Her husband eventually saw the light, in a business sense, and dishes she developed took hold at the Steer.
The result is a place that can deliver both the yin and the yang of today’s culinary obsessions, a satisfyingly crusted cheeseburger and a hearty tofu “steak” over quinoa, lentils and kale.
It still felt like a tavern at heart, though, when we wandered inside the spacious barroom until a server spied us and offered a table. We walked past tables of people waiting for trivia night to start, and were seated in the side room. The menus are unwieldy boards the size of cafeteria trays, and the empty glass on the table should have held a lit tealight, judging from other tables.
Just because dishes fit the definitions of vegan (no animal products), raw (nothing heated above 118 degrees) and gluten-free, doesn’t mean they’re tasty. To help me gauge their merits I brought my parents, who eat vegan half the year for religious reasons, and have consequently forked up more tofu, kale and lentils than most Americans of their generation.
First up was vegan chickpea fries with hempseed ranch dip ($4), batons of hearty, well-seasoned garbanzo mash fried and stacked up like an edible version of Jenga. They were tasty enough to consider ordering more, but by then the fried calamari ($10) arrived. It was well-fried too, crispy-tender squid rings, tentacles and pepper rings and tossed with sweet chile sauce and dusted with cheese.
A goat cheese salad ($12) brought two well-browned pucks of goat cheese mixture atop a robust assortment of salad greens and curlicue-cut raw beets, carrots with sliced red onion, cucumber and red bell pepper. A fruity cranberry dressing and croutons completed a pretty picture, and the earthy, sweet crunch of raw beets added to the fun.
My father tucked into a Marathon Bowl ($12), which puts griddled orange-marinated tofu atop a quinoa-lentil mixture with pine nuts and dried currants on a heap of steamed kale. Pretty soon I was stealing forkfuls of tofu and lentils from his plate. “That’s good tofu,” he said, and I agreed; the searing accented its meatiness. He thought the kale was too crunchy, but ate it anyway.
Quinoa meatballs on spiral cut zucchini pasta and tomato sauce ($14) were a surprise hit of raw cuisine. The balls of quinoa, cashew “cheese” and mushrooms seasoned with garlic, onions and more had a crusted exterior that came from dehydrating, not sautéing. But you would be hard pressed to tell. If my mom was not my mom she would not have gotten the last one. The chunky tomato sauce was lively and fresh-tasting, but the dish would have benefited from a sauce that united its elements. The zucchini spirals needed hacking in the bowl before it could be forked up, a minor inconvenience.
A Hot Mama burger ($11), coincidentally ordered by Cat, was a stuffed pepper atop a cheeseburger with aged provolone. It was crusted on the outside, tinged pink in the middle, as ordered. The Hungarian yellow chile stuffed with cheese mixture was quite spicy. The burger arrived first. The fresh-cut fries arrived a little later, soft and undercooked.
Lobster mac and cheese ($22) had wedges of pressed macaroni in cheese sauce, and a split grilled lobster tail. We pried the lobster out and cut it up, and enjoyed the dish. I wanted more sharpness from the advertised aged cheddar.
Vegan mac and cheese, with a cashew-based cheese analogue, was passed quickly around the table. Its odd sourness, almost a fermented tang, left no one eager to take a second fork. Asked if it was supposed to taste that way, our server offered to remove it from the bill, and I accepted.
Service was spotty, with no check-back after entrée delivery and clipped exchanges that gave me the impression something more important was happening in the other room. Judging from the clamor, the trivia competition was heating up.
Desserts were uneven. Vegan coconut ice cream ($6) was light and refreshing, but the stiff chocolate cookies of vegan whoopee pies ($6) sent thin cream filling squirting out with a single bite. Strawberry shortcake ($6) had admirably fluffy biscuit layers and whipped cream, but the sliced berries had been tossed in granulated sugar not long before they were served, giving them a sandy effect. Bananas Foster ($8) was a terrific if untraditional version, a big bowlful of caramelized bananas, ice cream, whipped cream and doughnuts. Fried pizza dough, really, making them more like fastnachts, but let’s not quibble. It made my mom happy, and that made me happy, even if we agreed that it needed more bananas.
Earlier in the meal, as I found myself gleefully dunking a hunk of cheeseburger in vegan hempseed ranch, I wondered if this kind of menu could catch on. Vegetable entrees with not just style and substance, but flavor, too. Lots of places say they have something for everybody. The Steer really does.
The Steer - 7
Vegan, raw and gluten-free diners find unlikely champion on Main Street.
WHERE: 3151 Main St. (838-0478, www.curtinrestaurants.com)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, with limited bar menu offered until midnight.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $4-$22; pizzas and entrees, $8-$32.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.