When I was in high school, I had a little bit of a cheese problem. A bag of fresh Kutter’s Cheese Factory cheddar curds could not survive the night in our refrigerator, not even in the protective custody drawer. My parents eventually cut me off.
Pembroke Junior/Senior High School was a mile from the source, and I couldn’t go by without feeling the pang of loss. In subsequent decades, my appreciation for the ways cheese, “milk’s leap toward immortality,” can make me happy have broadened substantially. The finest should be enjoyed by themselves, perhaps with carefully calibrated accouterments.
When it comes to tavern-style appetizers, though, nothing pleases like cheeses.
Here’s a selection of favorites sold in Western New York restaurants, most with foreign accents: Welsh, Greek, Italian, Mexican and Buffalonian cuisine are all represented. Each is, in its own way, truly great.
[PHOTOS: Sharon Cantillon's full cheese gallery]
Gorgonzola fondue from Left Bank Restaurant, $15
511 Rhode Island St., 882-3509
Gorgonzola and white cheddar and a dash of horseradish cheddar, are heated together with cream. It’s accompanied with toasted points of housemade focaccia, blanched asparagus spears, and portobella mushroom cap slices that have been tempura-fried to a crisp, and about four ounces of beef tenderloin, grilled and skewered. Meant for two, it’s one of the restaurant’s most popular small plates.
Bouyourdi from Zoe Restaurant, $10
5711 Transit Road, Clarence, 639-4550
Domestic cow’s milk feta is too grainy, so imported Greek sheep’s milk feta is used for this appetizer. It goes into a baking dish, where it’s joined by garlic, pickled cherry peppers and fresh tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, oregano and spices. Then it’s run under a broiler until the top is golden brown and bubbly, touched with more oil and spices, and served with points of toasted pita.
Banana pepper dip from Rick’s on Main, $12.95
687 E. Main St., East Aurora, 652-1253
First, a round bread boule is hollowed out and puts in the oven to crisp up. Asiago, parmesan, mozzarella and cream cheeses are folded together, then seasoned with fresh herbs, sautéed onion and garlic, eggs, anchovies, and fresh peppers. The filled boule returns to the oven to get a browned top. Served with bread. (A gluten-free version in a ramekin comes with vegetables and corn chips.)
[RELATED: Restaurant review of Rick's on Main]
Mozzarella sticks from Orazio’s, $8.95
9415 Main St., Clarence, 759-8888
It starts with a block of Sorrento whole-milk mozzarella, about a pound, cut into five batons an inch-wide. They’re dipped into flour, then egg, then bread crumbs seasoned with romano cheese, garlic and parsley. Then a second egg-crumb cycle, giving the mozzarella a thick enough to contain the cheese after a trip in the deep-fryer. They’re served with a cup of marinara sauce. Pictured as lead image.
Fried cheese curds from Gene McCarthy’s, $6
73 Hamburg St., 855-8948
The classic neighborhood tavern, which started brewing its own beer in 2014, offers its own version of the classic Wisconsin snack. Bite-sized cheddar curds from Vermont's Maplebrook Farms are dunked in a beer batter, then bread crumbs, before frying. They are accompanied by bread-and-butter pickle chips from Barrel + Brine, which is also the source of the sweet pickle relish in the pickle aioli dip.
Queso con chorizo from Deep South Taco, $8
291 Ellicott St. and 1707 Hertel Ave.
Fresh poblano chiles are roasted, skinned and julienned into strips. Those go into a small cast iron skillet, along with imported Chihuahua cheese in two forms, shredded and powdered. That gets melted under a broiler, flambéed with tequila, and piled with crumbly cooked chorizo, pork sausage flavored with five chiles, cinnamon, cumin and garlic. Served with corn chips, or corn tortillas.
Welsh rarebit from Eagle House, $10
5578 Main St., Williamsville, 632-7669
One of the longest-serving dishes at one of the oldest taverns in Western New York (built 1827), fittingly starts with beer. The latest version starts with Sam Adams lager, which is blended with lots of sharp cheddar, then flavored with dry mustard, Tabasco and Worcestershire. When ordered, ladlefuls go into a preheated pewter dish so it arrives at tableside piping hot, with choice of toast.
Saganaki from Mythos, $9.99
510 Elmwood Ave., 886-9175
It’s the Greek appetizer that comes with a side of drama. A slice of imported kefalotyri cheese is floured and pan-fried until golden-crusted and oozy. Then, it’s deglazed with Metaxa brandy and flambéed. If it’s done in the dining room, it catches eyes, and can test smoke alarms. The flames die, and it’s spritzed with a fresh lemon wedge, then pieces are maneuvered onto pita.
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