If you pick the right spot, Western New York’s waterfront views can be splendid. The same cannot be said of its waterfront restaurants, which have drawn a tepid response from customers wherever menus have aimed higher than fried fish.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a meal that made me think that dynamic could change. I don’t want to oversell Lucia’s on the Lake in this regard. There is a busy road between it and Lake Erie, and you can find finer Italian cuisine. But I left the restaurant walking into a glorious sunset, thinking that if you want dinner on the water, this is the place to beat right now.
It was McKenzie’s Bar & Grill until January, when owners Jay Pasquarella and Angelo Canna Jr. launched a blitz renovation. It reopened with a menu of Italian-American classics and Buffalo favorites (Cajun pasta, wings) which reads like half of the upscale casual menus in town.
Where Lucia’s separated itself from the pack was in the kitchen, with an attention to detail and robust flavors led by Chef Alex Diaczenko, and in the dining room, where servers produced piping-hot dishes and made empty ones disappear with pickpocket deftness.
There was a bistro-like hubbub to the place, amplified by the wall-to-wall crowd, so it’s not a candidate for a quiet, intimate night out. But it didn’t interfere with our conversations, as we ate ourselves silly.
A warm ciabatta-like loaf and deep ramekin of grassy, fragrant pesto ($2) was passed around the table until empty. A thick-cut slice of bacon ($7) was a decadent treat with warmed-till-melty fat and crisped meat layers. A steamed clams appetizer ($12) offered large shellfish in a spicy, garlicky broth that had us reaching for the last of the bread, and then a spoon.
Wings in bang-bang sauce ($9 single order) were crisp enough, but the extra fat rich, glossy sauce – chile-laced mayonnaise, like the Bonefish Grille inspiration – left me wishing I’d stuck to good ol’ medium. A caprese salad ($12), interspersing slices of sweet tomato with fresh mozzarella and a balsamic drizzle, was satisfying enough, though pricey.
Our entrees strengthened my impression of a kitchen with a better-than-average grasp of details. The procession began with the arrival of the 32-ounce tomahawk ribeye ($59), so named for the long rib bone left on the meat, big enough to require flashing lights when en route, according to Department of Transportation regulations. It was crusted without, tender within, thoroughly enjoyable even if it did end up rare at center instead of medium rare as requested.
Roast half chicken ($17) with gorgonzola cream was moist and decently spiced, with more of the pleasantly lumpy mashed potatoes that served as foundation for the steak. Halibut ($23) was well-seared and flaky, with creamy red pepper sauce atop mushy basmati rice. The matchstick vegetable medley that appeared with several entrees was fresh and not cooked to death, but seemed like a downscale time-saver.
Cajun mac and cheese with chicken ($17) arrived molten and steaming, with plenty of bacon-studded cheese sauce over penne pasta. Remarkably, the blackened chicken filet over it was both spicy enough from fresh black pepper and tender instead of being cooked to jerky.
Desserts ($8), made by a local baker, made a good impression. My favorite was a salted caramel crunch cake with indulgent slabs of soft caramel, and a blueberry crumble filled with jammy spiced berries.
Offering classy dining on a paper-topped table, satisfying dishes, and an able staff would make this place successful anywhere, but this place has something more. This is Lucia’s on the Lake.
Lucia’s on the Lake - 8
Classy, busy operation gives customers outstanding choice for dinner with a view.
WHERE: 4151 Lakeshore Road, Hamburg (627-9752, luciasonthelake.com)
HOURS: 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $2-$19; salads and sandwiches, $10-$22; entrees, $11-$59.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No.