New restaurants in out-of-the-way places usually fret over getting customers in the door. William K’s has that licked, because a generation of Buffalonians know the path by heart.
The restaurant on the downtown waterfront was built next to the Hatch, to command one of the best views in Buffalo, starting at the Buffalo Lighthouse, heading out into Lake Erie, and coming round to the city skyline.
In the very same space crowds once defended french fries from seagulls, Buffalonians can now sip chenin blanc and nibble brick-oven pizza in cool comfort. That’s the good – no, the great news. The downer? Excellent dishes mixed with disappointing ones, less consistency than I expect at that price point.
The Hatch is still open next door. Both are city-underwritten amenities serving those visiting the slip of land sheltering Erie Basin Marina.
The city’s chosen operator is Molly Koessler of Acqua (ex-Harry’s Harbour Place), who named the place after her husband, William, a former Park Lane owner. The Koesslers put six figures into the interior, and the city spent $900,000 on the glass walls, air conditioning and other capital improvements.
The investment helped create some of the most memorable dining seats in Buffalo. If you suspect the Buffalo restaurant boom is just hype, come have a sip while the sun sets.
I was recognized, which may have accounted for some of the kitchen-side server huddles that delayed food delivery.
There were fresh flowers on bare tables, and cloth napkins. A server brought honey butter and a vase of cheesy breadsticks as long as your arm. Impressive to look at, but unevenly executed, some mouthfuls delightfully crunchy, others tough.
Chef Todd Lesakowski commands an open kitchen with brick pizza oven that looks out at the dining room. His roasted beet salad ($10, pictured as header) won my heart with a gorgeous tableau of four kinds of beets on a maroon slash of beet puree, accented with burrata, shaved radish, arugula and Indian-inflected milk powder.
Its intriguing interplay of exotic spice, dairy richness and earthy tubers made it my favorite beets of the year. It also made me wonder why more Buffalo chefs don’t draw from the Indian lexicon.
Another creative combination that worked well was a dish of Roman gnocchi hidden under blueberries, braised mushrooms, pork belly and an oozingly soft 45-minute egg ($12). Preposterous on paper, the jammy fruit and meaty mushrooms led a sensuous tango cut short only by the lack of bread for mop-up duty.
Octopus ($13) over chorizo and chickpea stew was an enjoyable combination of tender, gently charred tentacle, beans and saucy sausage, one of the best versions I’ve met.
Other dishes got mixed marks. A Vietnamese sausage ($10) in nuoc cham, or fish sauce vinaigrette, was spongy, the sauce unbalanced, acidic. Crudo ($10), a raw fish presentation of hamachi with pistachio and grapefruit, offered impeccably fresh fish, but the overly citric sauce shouted over it.
Molly Koessler brought our table roasted bone marrow topped with oxtail marmalade. The beef-butter-like marrow and tender candied beef shreds made for decadently rich bites marred by charred bread.
Pizzas ($16) range from simple (tomato, mozzarella, basil) to complex (bone marrow, smoked beef tongue, fresh horseradish, pecorino). The vongole, or white clam pizza, was a tasty combination of clams, garlic, onion, fresh parsley and oregano. The puffy softness of the crust’s love handles reminded me more of supermarket pita bread than standard brick-oven pizza, but that was no reason not to eat it.
As entrees, we tried a Kurobuta pork trio of belly, sausage, loin ($32). The pork belly was tender and well-crusted, the loin tender and properly pink inside, the sausage robustly garlicky but spongy again. It was served on chewy farro that could have used more time in the pot. A tuna with carrot puree special ($28) offered a nice chunk of seared-at-the-edges fish that was translucent at center, but the carrot schmear didn’t take it higher.
The menu lists two big ticket items which are “for the table”: a 36-ounce porterhouse steak ($98) and roasted Giannone chicken ($48). We chose beef, and got an excellent piece of meat.
It was cooked precisely and covered in fresh arugula, with vats of currylike vadouvan butter and roasted-and-pickled vegetables, both heightening the steak’s pleasure. Onion rings were perplexingly chewy, an unworthy accompaniment to the most expensive steak in Buffalo.
Desserts ($9) included a lovely plate of profiteroles, airy pastry puffs filled with cream and drizzled with chocolate. There was also a fig cake with caramel sauce, and a duo of chocolate mousse and brownie gelato.
My favorite was another adventurous spin, black sesame ice cream with candied coconut foam and local honey with dukkah, a crunchy mixture of seeds, nuts and spices. Taken together or separately, the three components offered a pleasantly diverting assortment of flavors and textures.
The city’s establishment of a restaurant to take advantage of the Erie Basin Marina scenery is one public works project no taxpayer should miss. The best parts of my meal suggested that William K’s can take the next step, and offer victuals as compelling as its views.
William K’s – 7 plates (out of 10)
Brick-oven pizza, sophisticated cuisine added to some of city’s best views.
WHERE: 329 Erie St. (852-0500)
HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday brunch; 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday dinner. Closed Monday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $9-$16; pizzas, $16; entrees, $28-$98.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.