Since it opened in 2004, Tempo has been one of the most impressive restaurants in Buffalo. In 2012, Buffalo Bills brass took Mario Williams to the converted Delaware Avenue mansion for a steak while wooing the sought-after free agent. Williams decided he could live in Buffalo.
Tempo remains a reliable purveyor of luxe Italian treats, presented with first-class service. Meanwhile, the competition for the finite pool of fine dining dollars has heated up, turning Buffalo into a buyer’s market. I enjoyed my recent dinner there, but when I signed on the dotted line, I was aware of all the offers I left on the table.
At the highest price points, fine dining satisfaction is a game of inches. When I pulled up to the parking lot next to Tempo, I read permit required, then the car behind me started beeping. The closest spot was a football field away. I gave Cat my elbow to cling to as we skittered across glacier-covered sidewalks.
The first floor is swanky, with expanses of exposed brick, a classic bar and a big table in the display window overlooking the avenue. The bartender said we could have parked in the lot, information we weren’t told when we made reservations. (It says so at the bottom of the sign, but I missed it.)
We climbed the stairs behind the hostess to reach our table on the second floor. As I sat down, the cushion on the chair skidded and I secured it, wishing for one of the stout chairs from the first floor. When I leaned on the table to study the menu, it wobbled, not enough to slosh wine out of the glass, but a distraction. The gas-fed fireplace under an ornate mantel added a soothing glow to the room, but the cheetah-print carpet seemed more 1970s rec room than Tuscan villa.
The menu is dominated by glammed-up Italianate perennials (chicken Milanese, $34; veal chop, $48; butter-poached lobster on risotto, $46), and few dishes of mild adventurousness, like grilled quail ($12) and carbonara made with lamb pancetta ($13).
A bite-sized amuse bouche featured housemade 2-year-old prosciutto, according to the server, with First Light Farm chevre and scallions. I couldn’t pick out the prosciutto flavor over the toast and cheese, making me wish the menu offered a showcase of this rare treat.
A helper served us bread, focaccia and baguette, and olive oil with a quenelle of tomato spread. Another gratis amuse was sopressata, green olives and feta; all quality versions, a bite apiece.
First to arrive was my appetizer of lamb carbonara with mint ($12). It was toothsome fresh tagliatelle pasta enriched with a welcome nudge of muskiness from housemade cured lamb belly. It avoided cream overload but would have benefited from more mint chiffonade to freshen up rich bites. A smoked duck breast salad ($15) was an arugula salad livened with shaved fennel, toasted hazelnuts and slices of rosy smoked duck, tender as ham with a more assertive smokiness.
Mussels steamed in wine with fennel ($14) were a tender sip of the sea, and we welcomed the suggestion of more bread to mop up the broth. Fried calamari tossed in sweet chile sauce ($16) was a textbook version, with tender rings of crispy-crusted squid and a spray of arugula.
My dry-aged strip steak with hedgehog mushrooms and potatoes ($56) was a perfectly cooked hunk of tender beef with that hint of blue-cheese-like taste that comes from proper dry aging. It was charred at the edges yet juicy in the middle. It was topped with a spray of arugula and shaved Parmesan cheese, which I combined with the meaty mushrooms and tender potatoes for a deeply satisfying plate. This was an all-star steak.
Butter-poached lobster ($46) was a sight to behold, with the shelled claws perched just so on a mound of corn-speckled rice. The lobster was cooked right, but seemed less decadently savory than other versions of the dish. The rice, loose for risotto and not deeply creamy, still comforted with fresh kernels and smoky bacon.
The shrimp risotto ($29) rice seemed richer, with a tomato base and strong basil floral note. The jumbo shrimp were adeptly cooked, balanced between firm and tender. It was a good dish, with nothing luxe about it.
Gnocchi pomodoro ($26), the sole vegetarian entrée, was a disappointment. Some dumplings were gummy, softer than marshmallows. The sauce of crushed tomatoes aimed for rustic and came off as watery. If I had asked for a replacement, I’m confident the staff would have provided one, but we didn’t have the time.
Dessert (most $10) included an outstandingly eggy lemon cheesecake with an addictive citrus edge, and delicious pistachio gelato from Hutch’s, Tempo’s sister restaurant, that could only have been better if the nuts were crunchy, not soft. My favorite dessert was the torta gianduja, a hazelnut-crusted chocolate mousse wedge that played toasted nut aroma against chocolate bitterness for an engaging sweet. A towering slice of sour cream chocolate cake ($11) was more glamorous to see than savor, as I sought tanginess to offset the sweet and rich, and did not find it.
Our server’s patter was a touch formal, as though he was talking to our parents, but he was a fount of useful information. Throughout our meal, he anticipated our needs, dispensed good advice and somehow made scraping crumbs off our tablecloth seem like a natural human activity.
In its first decade, Tempo helped define the heights of fine food and service in Buffalo, inspiring dozens of competitors. Most of them are closed now. Tempo still offers an outstanding experience, but as it starts its second decade, my visit left me thinking it could freshen up its game. In football, when young bucks push for a veteran’s roster spot, you learn whether they have what it takes to become a legend. Is the restaurant game so different?
Tempo - 8 plates (out of 10)
Luxe Italian, steaks and seafood keep restaurant in all-star contention.
WHERE: 581 Delaware Ave. (885-1594)
HOURS: 5 to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, salads $8-$23; entrees, $26-$59.
PARKING: Lot after 6 p.m., on the street.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No.