The rarest thing a restaurant can offer isn’t caviar from Belarus, or eggs from free-range hens that read Proust at bedtime. It’s a consistently excellent experience, from doorway to dessert. It takes capable people to perform the daily decathlon of cooking and communicating with customers, and they need the tools to succeed. ¶ Which brings me to my visit to the Byrd House. The Orchard Park tavern has a gastropub menu with ambitious touches, a broad selection of draft beer and a staff working on learning its trade, which is surely difficult enough without some restaurant critic showing up with a sworn duty to tell readers what dinner was like. ¶ We wandered in at dinnertime, and absent guidance from signs or staffers, took a table in the side room. We sat on pewlike benches with a view of brewing tanks behind glass and the main barroom. When a server found our foursome, she asked if we were going to order any food, then left to get menus.
That strengthened my impression that the Byrd House is a bar first, restaurant second.
There were many more drinkers than eaters that night, but I was there for the menu. It offers choices not found in most bars that serve dinner.
There is beef on weck ($8.95), Friday fish fry ($11.95), salads and burgers, but it’s more than the usual suspects. Besides the traditional heat calibrations, chicken wings ($10.95/$17.95) come in unusual flavors: orange cilantro, black BBQ, Asian lemon glaze. There’s a grilled vegetable pot pie ($11.95), and the signature pulled pork sandwich sports an apricot chipotle glaze, braised red wine cabbage and fried tobacco onions on a brioche roll ($10.95). There’s also soup made daily ($3.95/$4.50), like sausage and spinach chowder.
First, we had to get our order in. Our server had difficulty remembering what dishes guests named, asking one guest to repeat dishes three times. After she brought our drinks, she returned to ask how I wanted the beef tenderloin in my stuffed banana pepper roulade ($18.95) cooked, which is a different story; I am always happy to be asked.
A Mediterranean platter ($11.95) arrived with red pepper hummus, tapenade and an herbed diced tomato mixture, with red pepper spears, crostini and toasted pita triangles for dipping. The creamy chickpea puree and briny, chunky olive mash were pleasant enough, but the diced tomato mixture reminded me of something from a jar. The crostini were unpleasantly hard, so we used the pita bread, which had been warmed at some point but was no longer.
Tortola shrimp ($9.95) were delicious bites, four jumbo shrimp wrapped in bacon and grilled. The bacon was nearly crispy without overcooking the shrimp, and a mango barbecue sauce added zest. Gorgonzola potato discs ($6.95) were potato slices deep-fried and topped with blue cheese, crispy bacon bits and scallion, an unorthodox but tasty presentation that tasted like mini potato skins.
Cashew chicken egg rolls ($8.95), stuffed with chicken and julienned vegetables, were adventurous but the stuffing was bland, the wrapper chewy.
The orange cilantro wings I had been eyeing arrived hot and delightfully crispy, with a subtle orange hint in their sweet glaze. I could not detect cilantro, but I’d order them again to see what the other flavors were like.
Sausage spinach chowder was a thick, well-seasoned cream soup with a satisfying amount of meat and greenery. If only the spinach was chopped, so it did not hang off the spoon like seaweed from an anchor. Baked potato soup sported chunks of potato and bacon, literally thick enough to eat with a fork. I enjoyed it, craving a basket of warm tortilla chips for quasi-queso action.
Our appetizer dishes remained on the table as entrees arrived, requiring some plate-juggling. A garlic chicken Florentine focaccia pizza ($9.95) had a generous payload of greens, thick-sliced red onion and plenty of cheese, but was ultimately undone by chunks of raw garlic hidden underneath. The pot roast dinner ($13.95) offered slices of tender, rich beef, topped with fried onions. There was plenty of meat, but it was room temperature, as were the chewy onion rings. My guest took it home to warm up and eat later. A serving of pineapple coleslaw had crunchy vegetables and a creamy sauce that reminded me unfavorably of Coco Lopez coconut mixer.
Cat’s tobacco onion burger ($10.95) with boursin cheese was overcooked to a dry, gray medium well. My stuffed pepper roulade was a Buffalo-style stuffed pepper between steak slices. The pepper’s likable chile-cheese combo couldn’t make up for overcooked, gray beef. Sweet potato fries were room temperature and chewy, but the sautéed zucchini and summer squash was fresh and not mushy; I ate all my squash.
A Caprese salad ($9.95) had plenty of sliced plum tomatoes, a bouquet of lettuce mix with beet greens, sliced fresh mozzarella and balsamic dressing. The pesto had a pasty texture and tasted like something that came from a tube, not a garden.
At dessert, a disc of cheesecake ($5.95) was a serviceable sweet. Monkey bread ($4.95) had some enjoyable pieces of sweet bread, and others that were doughy. The brownie ($5.95) was piping hot, dry and chewy, as if microwaved too long.
The meal had its pleasures, but also dishes that didn’t make good on menu promises. There were more prefabricated shortcuts than I’d expect from a gastropub.
Everyone we met at the Byrd House was friendly, but we weren’t there for their company. We were there to enjoy a meal with our friends, and we left feeling like we could have done better. The Byrd House can, too.
The Byrd House - 5
Tavern with ambitious menu serves hits and misses.
WHERE: 4246 N. Buffalo Road, Orchard Park (662-3909)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $5.95-$11.95; pizzas and sandwiches $8.95-$13.95; entrees, $11.95-$18.95.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.