Three and a half years ago, I was appointed restaurant critic of The Buffalo News. Some 200 restaurant reviews later, my view of my job has expanded a smidge.
My core mission is still giving readers actionable intelligence on where to spend their dining dollars. Put another way, it’s my job to find and proclaim the best in Western New York’s eating life.
“The best” is a matter of opinion, of course.
Here are some of mine:
Carmelo’s, 425 Center St., Lewiston, 754-2311
Carmelo Raimondi has been working on Carmelo’s for 22 years, and it shows. He seeks to use the best local meat and produce, developing relationships with farmers, like similar-minded New-School Buffalo chefs.
But his maturity means that he doesn’t aim for blockbuster plays, adding more and more elements to a dish. He concentrates on drawing out natural character, striving for simplicity, using a sniper’s bullet instead of carpet-bombing to conquer your palate. Refined but unpretentious surroundings and expert service complete the mission.
Best New-School Buffalo Restaurant:
The Black Sheep, 367 Connecticut St., 884-1100
More Buffalo chefs are exploiting the best local meat, vegetables and fruit they can find. No one has gone as far as chef-owner Steven Gedra, from edible pig fat candles and pig head dinners to sunflower hearts and Hungarian sour cherry soup. Ellen Gedra, his wife and partner, bakes breads and desserts that are their own reasons to visit.
When folks tell me they’re hungry for what’s new in Buffalo, dishes that thrill from amuse to sweet, I reply: The Black Sheep.
Best Italian Restaurant:
Ristorante Lombardo, 1198 Hertel Ave., 873-4291
When one family spends decades polishing their restaurant’s food and service, hiring like-minded people and giving them what they need to shine, a gem like this is possible.
From the doorway to dessert, the experience sparkles. Mick Jagger came for dinner, but he only gets to Buffalo once a decade. Chef Michael Obarka and company will treat you like a rock star six days a week.
Elm Street Bakery, 72 Elm St., East Aurora, 652-4720
The puffy-edged pizza, emerging from the wood-fired oven, is my favorite restaurant pizza. There’s Luci Levere’s pastry - cakes, tarts, pain au chocolat, seasonal fruit exploitations, desserts that explore the sweet spot between indulgence and excess.
Then there’s real bread, in a dozen flavors, including brioche, sourdough and a baguette that is its own reason to visit, especially stuffed with ham and butter, “jamon beurre.”
Best Fine Dining Value:
Rue Franklin, 341 Franklin St., 852-4416
An appetizer, entrée and dessert from the prix fixe menu sets you back $37, Tuesday through Thursday.
For the price of a single entrée at a top-flight restaurant, this French-inspired fine dining veteran will show you why it remains one of the best tables in Buffalo.
Best New Ethnic:
Allen Street Poutine, 242 Allen St., 883-7437
Because French-Canadian cuisine is a thing, whose world-class drinking partner, poutine, has been offered on menus across Western New York, in versions ranging from “tasty but not poutine” to “indictable offense.”
Two Canadian fellows got across the Peace Bridge and set things to rights, with twice-cooked fries, housemade gravies and real cheese curds.
Tony Rials, Bourbon and Butter, 391 Washington St., 253-6453
Delicious drinks built of housemade ingredients can reliably be had at Buffalo Proper, Vera Pizzeria and other places in town, but there is only one Tony Rials.
Most drinks are as direct as a tweet. Rials’ work more often unfolds like a one-act mystery, engaging your cerebrum as well as your taste buds as you try to solve the puzzle, not just ride the buzz.
Best Pasta Fagioli:
Santasiero’s, 1329 Niagara St., 886-9197
The historic blue-collar red-sauce joint was hit by a destructive flood in January. It has come back strong, dishing up meatballs and chicken parm, but if you’ve never been, go for the pasta fasoola. That’s what they call pasta fagioli here, a combination of butter beans, chickpeas and ditalini pasta in a vegan broth of onion, garlic and spices. However you spell it, it’s the best in town.
Best New $5 Dinner:
Eddie’s Chophouse, 3171 Main St., 835-8888
Red, sticky boneless pork, barbecued Cantonese style, hangs in the glass case with spare ribs, ducks and chicken. Order a boneless pork box ($4.85) and a cook slices chunks off with a cleaver and piles it on white rice, with a splash of sweet soy, with sautéed cabbage on the side.
For an extra thrill, ask for crispy pork. It’s pork belly, roasted so its top layer of fat approaches chicharron texture ($5.25).
Best $20.50 Dinner for Two, Tonawanda Division:
Balkan Dining, 687 Kenmore Ave., 834-0462
Park around the corner or across the street. Then order a sopska salad ($6) of feta, cucumber, bell pepper and tomato; cevapi ($8, pictured), stubby skinless beef sausages on thick housemade pocket bread, and a beef and cheese pita ($6.50).
Balkan’s pitas, called burek elsewhere, are marvels of hand-thrown filo dough, filled and baked to order. Available in other flavors too, they fade significantly in a takeout container.
Best Tea Leaf Salad:
Lin Restaurant, 927 Tonawanda St., 260-2625
Made with fermented green tea leaves, cabbage, tomatoes, beans, peanuts, lime juice and garlic, tea leaf salad, or le peth thoat, is juicy, crunchy, spicy and savory.
And at Lin you can try the best one in town as part of a $35 dinner for two that can serve as a delicious primer to the basics of Burmese cuisine, including the three starter dishes I always recommend to Burmese beginners: le peth thoat (tea leaf salad), owno koksware (chicken coconut noodle soup) and chicken curry.
Best Food Truck:
You could also title this “Best Reason to Get Twitter.” Jay Langfelder’s obsession is wood-fired pizza, Neapolitan style. To get a pie, you have to track him on social media and plan a rendezvous. He might make the best pizza in Buffalo. At least for people who don’t mind eating on a street corner, looking for a place to set the box.
Langfelder says he can do even better with a stationary oven. Keep giving this guy money and encouragement, and eventually he might open a restaurant.
Maybe that should have been “Best Way to Make a Restaurant Critic’s Pizza Dream Come True.”
Best Readers in the World:
My job includes reporting restaurant news and evaluating eating options across Western New York. The problem is, I’m just one guy. A guy who spends most days stuck at a desk, typing and making phone calls.
Without my readers, I’d miss half of the delicious discoveries I write about. They send tips about the place on the corner reopening, or the surprising dish they had. I still do the reporting, but the head start helps.
My readers also help by criticizing the critic, pointing out factual errors or perceived lapses in judgment. I don’t agree with every missive, but I reckon if I’m in the business of offering opinions about people’s work, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
So Happy New Year, dear readers, and here’s to a hungry 2016.
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Story topics: Allen Street Poutine/ Balkan Dining/ Best of 2015/ best restaurants/ Bourbon and Butter/ Burmese restaurants/ carmelo's/ Eddie's Chophouse/ Italian restaurants/ lin restaurant/ New-School Buffalo/ Ristorante Lombardo/ Santasiero's/ Steve Gedra/ The Black Sheep/ Tony Rials