Stepping inside Carte Blanche to meet my guests, I marveled that Hamburg has come to this.
In place of the former generic pub I found a wisp of woodsmoke, sturdy Amish-made furniture of blond hard maple, and a thicket of twigs bristling from the ceiling, reminders of the field and forests beyond.
On my way out after an outstanding meal, I tried to remember the last time I saw a new dining room so well suited to framing the meals taking place there. Want to see how talented chefs are using time-honored techniques to turn the best local ingredients into novel sensations – what I’ve taken to calling New School Buffalo? Put “61 Buffalo St., Hamburg” into your wayfinder, and buckle up.
What Andrew Murtha and his crew are offering for dinner, 25 minutes south of Buffalo, is worth the drive.
[Gallery: Dining at Carte Blanche in Hamburg]
Staffers could not find our reservation but recovered smoothly, finding a table for us before I was recognized. The host led us up stairs with a sapling handrail to the quieter second-story dining room. That’s where I learned that Roo Buckley, the former owner of Coda, is serving and contributing wine knowledge at Carte Blanche.
As we studied menus, the kitchen’s opening bid arrived: two-bite onion tarts. The tarts were onions from Plato Dale Farm cooked down to savory caramel inside a crisp buttery pastry shell, glossy with good Gruyere. After ordering the first round of dishes, bread service arrived: bronze popovers we cracked open to release eggy steam before loading them with completely unnecessary butter. It was perfectly tender-crisp.
Then food we paid for started arriving.
To get a feel for the restaurant, consider how Carte Blanche has upgraded the ubiquitous beet salad. Two kinds of roasted Plato Dale Farm beets were topped with rosy slices of bresaola, cured beef eye of round cured in-house with juniper berries, rosemary and black pepper. They were adorned with Arden Farm arugula gently dressed with housemade lemon oil, and beet “jam.”
Vinegar made from Draudt Farm’s red-skinned plums cut against the dusky sweetness of the beets, the nutty beef bringing a touch of salt and spice.
The freshest vegetables possible from local farms, combined with old-fashioned charcuterie and fermentation skills with enough finesse to let each ingredient speak for itself. What did this New School Buffalo gem cost? Seven dollars.
[Related: Review of Giacobbi's on Allen Street]
The absence of tablecloths threw me off at first, but as one precise, nuanced plate followed the next, it sunk home: Carte Blanche is stealth fine dining.
Fried oysters ($4 each) showed up as dainty fish-fry analogs on a potato-skin chip with a dab of potato salad and a dash of housemade tarragon tartar sauce. Carrot salad ($5) had sweetly charred Arden Farm Chantenay carrots cooked with cardamom, served over a sauce of carrot juice, preserved lemon and orange peel, carrot yogurt and crushed pine nuts, with a drop of spruce oil that connected field to forest.
Foie gras terrine ($12) was gratifying in another way, sandwiched between brioche slices and topped with gently pickled seedless Erdle Farm Concord grapes. It created a moment of delicious confusion between adult (buttery liver) and childish (grape jelly sandwich) pleasure.
Mushroom toast ($9, lead image) was another elegantly simple dish with local roots. It’s built on a slice of sourdough bread, which is housemade, along with Carte Blanche’s desserts, by Butter Block’s Colleen Stillwell. It was topped with meaty, garlicky sautéed Flat 12 oyster mushrooms (grown in Buffalo), First Light Creamery goat cheese (East Bethany) and FingerLakes Farms egg yolk sauce. The combination was glorious; if I could only have one Carte Blanche dish again, it would be this.
Murtha’s menu doesn’t list most of these farms. I detail them to help explain how something as simple as topped toast can be so moving: because it’s built with better ingredients that have been handled with care.
Classics got respect, too. The Gruyere-and-crostini-crusted French onion soup ($6), is among the best in the region. A small crock stuffed with more caramel-candy onions, in a minimal amount of veal and onion stock, was passed around the table until empty.
Main courses start in familiar grooves: short rib and Wagyu beef, duck, salmon, chicken, lamb. The spoon-tender short rib of beef ($28), topped with parsley-garlic gremolata arrived on housemade pasta – slightly undercooked – luxuriating in mushroom cream.
Duck breast, crispy-skinned and rosy inside as I prefer, was presented on an earthy foundation of creamy scarlet barley cooked with beet juice and diced beets, brightened with lemon and parsley.
Chicken pot pie ($17) was classic creamy chicken stew with carrots, topped with gorgeous housemade butter puff pastry. The filling had plenty of chicken flavor but needed salt. No such complaints about the lamb ($36), two precisely medium-rare double chops on silky celery-root puree with caramelized diced apples and sherry-enriched lamb jus.
Two desserts ($9) sampled were outstanding. A mini-loaf of pumpkin poundcake, moist and rich, was presented on a schmear of pumpkin butter that tasted like pumpkin, more than “pumpkin spice.” Pecan streusel and aromatic thyme gelato completed the picture.
A chocolate caramel walnut tart included a layer of buttery-soft caramel on a chocolate cookie base, and toasted walnuts, with wavy ganache topping and vanilla-bean-speckled sour cream.
Next time I would opt for the chef’s tasting menu. It’s a bargain likely to get more realistic pricing once people catch on. Three courses with wine pairings, $50. Five for $70, seven for $90. Everyone at the table has to get the tasting, the menu says, but that’s negotiable.
What’s set in stone is that the next time I dine at Carte Blanche, I’m going to let Murtha and his crew chart my course.
Carte Blanche - 9 plates (out of 10)
Where: 61 Buffalo St., Hamburg (649-2101)
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Price range: small plates, $4-$18; medium plates, $12-$14; entrees, $17-$36.
Parking: Street, municipal lot across street.