While the names on the bottom of Oliver’s menu change, the Delaware Avenue nightspot has remained a top Buffalo fine dining restaurant for a generation.
Its enduring allure relies on its owners’ knack for drafting talented young chefs to quarterback the franchise for a season. Its former chefs have gone on to create an oversized chunk of the area's fine-dining pantheon, including Hutch’s, Tempo, Seabar, Bacchus and Daniels in Hamburg.
Oliver’s new guy is Ross Warhol. His career, which started with Daniel Johengen at Daniels, has wended through refining kitchens around the world to Johengen’s old domain.
I visited on a Tuesday, when Warhol unleashes his creativity in a tasting menu, and left with stars in my eyes.
Two years ago, I gave Oliver’s 9 plates, calling it one of Buffalo’s best, a finely tuned sports car of a restaurant. Now Warhol has given it another gear.
The restaurant received a facelift last year, freshening up the room, rebuilding the backbar and adjusting the lighting. It’s an ideal room for stress-free dining, acoustically forgiving to ease conversation.
I was recognized as I arrived. I hope the affable, well-trained service corps treats everyone that well. My table’s well-paced, well-informed meal had one minor service gaffe I noticed – an empty wine glass was whisked away from the forest of stemware before me, instead of the used one.
A dish of warm herbed marcona almonds arrived as we studied menus, followed by a dish of delicately crispy spice-speckled flatbread alongside white-bean puree with chive and chile oil.
[Related: Sharon Cantillon's photos from Oliver's]
I was there for the chef’s tasting menu, which was $75 for seven courses this particular Tuesday; a five-course option was available. I chose the classic wine pairing, $50; other pairing offers went to $130. Most of the tasting dishes change weekly.
First an egg arrived, the top of its shell cracked away, revealing a white cloud. A spoonful drew a gasp of delight. Its yolk had been turned to custard, speckled with crisp prosciutto crumbs and covered with warm potato foam, scented with truffle oil. A simple food had been finessed into an indulgent pleasure-bomb.
Could the rest of the meal measure up?
If Warhol had only luxurious amplification in his toolkit, the adventure would have sunk into a tar pit of fatty gluttony. But his vision was wider.
Some dishes challenged preconceptions and rewarded risk-taking. King crab leg anchored a tableau of white asparagus ice cream, shaved watermelon radish, lemon puree and white chocolate powder, dotted with blossoms and a geranium leaf. The result was a playground of contrasting sensations, warm and cold, rich and astringent, ingredients absurdly right for each other (pictured in header).
Foie gras’ typical foil is fruit. Warhol offered discs of foie torchon with smoked eggplant mostarda harmonizing with the liver’s richness, and faintly bitter cocoa nib crumble echoing its mineral twang.
Heart of palm sorbet’s flavor, akin to creamy water chestnut, was an effective palate-cleanser, punctuated with finger lime pearls that popped for extra tang.
The fifth course, Elmer’s Revenge, was an extended riff on the possibilities of rabbit and carrots. A tiny rack of rabbit, its matchstick-sized bones frenched, was the most preposterous element. It was joined by a bacon-wrapped section of loin, and a small cabbage roll of lardo-enriched rabbit and farro that called for its own entrée presentation. Carrot pudding and black trumpet mushrooms added vegetal notes while savory oat crumble added crunch.
Even the thumb-sized rack was cooked properly. Too often elaborate, visually engaging dishes sacrifice substance on their way to becoming eye candy, but Warhol’s dishes avoided that snare. The pairing by Wine Director Brandon Ford, 2007 Vina Ardanza Rioja Reserva, offered earthy berries that amplified the rabbit’s subtle gaminess.
After a cheese course of Truffle Tremor chevre, candied Marcona almonds and local honeycomb, it was time for dessert. Carrot cake arrived in a small terra cotta flowerpot, spicy cake and whipped cheesecake frosting topped with dark chocolate “soil.”
Meanwhile, my companions weren’t having a bad night, either. Oysters Rockefeller ($18/5) with spinach-Pernod puree and bacon jam, were as opulent as their name.
A small plate of potato gnocchi ($23) sauced with rabbit ragu, aged goat cheese and cremini mushrooms were pillow-light.
Beef tartare ($19), with meat cut almost sugarcube size, made carnivores happy as they scooped it up with puffy Gruyere wafers, even before they got to the duck egg pudding, pickled mustard seeds, and pine nuts. I appreciated the texture in the tender beef, sometimes minced to a spread in other versions.
Warhol’s fall duck entrée ($45) was a worthwhile take on the standard. It featured a European union of crispy-skinned rosy-centered breast slices, shredded confit leg, on garlicky chard, caraway spaetzle browned in butter, and lingonberries.
Desserts from Pastry Chef Samantha Nicholson ended the night on a (sugar) high note. A bruleed custard tart ($9) offered the splendor of fall in robust Concord grape gelato, grape sauce and cinnamon cookie besides. A whisper-delicate two-toned malted milk chocolate mousse ($11) with raspberries and cocoa nibs arrived under a chocolate canopy.
Oliver’s being Oliver’s, do not assume Ross Warhol will work there until the next presidential election. If his work sounds interesting, conduct yourself accordingly. Museums state how long shows will be available for your enjoyment. Restaurants offer no such countdown.
The first-class food, setting and service that have distinguished Oliver’s remain undiminished. Plus it now features another exhibition: an artist named Warhol.
Oliver's - 10 plates (out of 10)
Where: 2095 Delaware Ave. (877-9662)
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday; 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday and 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
Price range: Small plates, $11 to $23; large plates, $23 to $54. Seven-course chef's tasting on Tuesdays; $75, but can vary