As your designated eater, my jurisdiction covers six counties of Western New York and southern Ontario. But between Buffalo’s restaurant-opening blitz and crossing off places I’ve never visited, in practice I rarely range an hour from City Hall. It usually takes credible reports of an ongoing culinary conspiracy to get me across the county line. After the third confidential informant dimed out Zambistro, I headed an hour northeast, to Medina. Would it be worth the schlep? After gathering a tableful of evidence, the answer, beyond a reasonable doubt, was yes. ¶ There is something about the historic downtown blocks in Erie Canal villages that strum a chord in me. Every time I drive through one, a tiny part of me wants to stay. On Medina’s Main Street, a handsome building of rough-hewn stone looks the part of a sophisticated bistro offering California vineyard cuisine. It’s already named Napa. But it sells auto parts.
The sophisticated bistro is right across the street. Zambistro has tablecloths, careful servers and the finest menu within a 30-minute drive.
The dining experience has enough gloss to survive an introductory embarrassment. The foyer has two doors. The one on the right leads to a small but comfortable dining room with about 50 seats. The one on the left leads to the restaurant’s sole bathroom. After I blundered into the lavatory, the rest of the evening went smoothly. (Chef-owner Michael Zambistro, who also runs Mericana in Lockport, said a renovation will move the bathroom and add dining space.)
We got a booth near the front. Soon the restaurant was stuffed with a table for 20 that would have challenged any waitstaff on a Saturday night, and patrons standing waiting for tables.
The food kept us focused, though. An appetizer of lamb meatballs ($12), wearing toques of tzatziki and mohawks of crisped pita bread, surrounded with fresh dilled cucumber salsa got us going. A salad of greens, endive, fresh figs and pears, plus walnuts and blue cheese ($14 large), had us slowing down to enjoy the premium ingredients.
My side Caesar salad ($4 upcharge) offered properly garlicky dressing with a hint of anchovy, with well-dressed chopped romaine that almost hid the treasure beneath, a crispy, golden tuile made of Parmesan cheese. A side fall salad ($3 upcharge) had more blue cheese and almonds, but most notably a crisp dehydrated apple chip and a happily fruity strawberry vinaigrette. The autumn salad ($5) boasted sweet cubes of roasted butternut squash and goat cheese over arugula.
The menu is marked with numerous gluten-free selections. The wine list is short, the beer list bottled macrobrews, with only crisp, medium-dry Leonard Oakes Steampunk cider ($6) as my local craft consolation prize.
It went well with a little dish of fried olives in delicate crust, with toasted sliced almonds and golden raisins ($8), which had the savory power to convert olive agnostics. It could so easily have descended into a greasy mash, but careful cooking proved otherwise. It was around that point that the people standing patiently waiting for a table started to make sense.
The hits kept coming with entrees. The Tuscan ribeye ($28) was a satisfying steak, well-crusted beef still supple and pink inside, with an engaging ensemble of broccoli rabe, herbed aioli, fried garlic chips and the sort of crispy potatoes that make the dish’s owner feel honor-bound to share with the table.
Light gnocchi ($20) with more of that roasted butternut squash and golden raisins, kale and walnut pesto and romano cheese was an enjoyable autumn spin on gnocchi. Bass ($24) was golden-crusted and flaky, paired well with a tangy tomato relish and roasted fennel. The risotto it was perched on was too loose, but did offer fresh peas and asparagus.
I ordered liver and onions ($15), which arrived gently cooked, still pink inside. The sauce of cherries, caramelized onions and balsamic vinegar was thick and delicious, but the copper organ flavor got to me, and halfway through I decided I was less of a liver lover than I thought.
A loaf of warm rosemary bread was pale but flavorful, with regular butter and a pumpkin pie butter that was a welcome sweet-savory diversion.
Desserts were highlighted by a silky crème brulee with spot-on cappucino flavor ($8) and the double-barreled chocolate punch of mousse next to a butterscotch-centered bon-bon ($8). Apple crisp wasn’t, except for the apple chip ($6). A root beer float made with Saranac root beer ($5) hit the spot, and for the first time since I sat down, made me think, “Now this is a Medina dish.”
That wasn’t fair, though. To say Zambistro is “good, for Medina,” would undervalue the substantial achievement of a fine dining restaurant that, nine years in, has people willing to wait for their turn at a table. Zambistro is good, period.
Zambistro - 8
Medina bistro draws from miles around with successful fine-dining touches.
WHERE: 408 Main St., Medina (585-798-2433, zambistro.com)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; 4 to 10 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $4-$12; salads and sandwiches, $4-$14; entrees, $12-$30.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.