Hotel restaurants have long belonged in their own category of dining experience, characterized by high prices and lowest-common-denominator menus. They earned that reputation by relying on their home-field advantage: namely, being located in the same building as travelers too exhausted to go any farther in search of sustenance.
No wonder, then, that so many hotel restaurants show the creativity and genuine cheer of a hostage situation where cheeseburgers may be purchased. There might be plenty of exceptions in Las Vegas and Manhattan, but not in Buffalo. Until Patina 250, that is.
The restaurant opened in September, offering the city an upscale restaurant in a stylish space whispering of luxury. Nothing in the room gives the game away. If you approach the restaurant from the north, it's possible to miss the Westin Buffalo entrance, and dine without realizing you've just spent the evening in a hotel.
At the main entrance off Delaware Avenue, a vestibule opened to a room with mansion-height ceilings. An open kitchen glistened behind glass, a white marble counter and white tile walls contributing to an antiseptic air. A cluster of cone-shaped lamps dangled over a horseshoe-shaped bar.
On the other end of the room, peek-a-boo booths offer the prospect of more private dining. A grindstone the size of a truck wheel anchored the room's décor, and works by local artists gave diners better eye-candy than usual to savor during slow moments in conversation.
There were no tablecloths, but service was fine-dining formal, for me at least, as I was recognized. We enjoyed cocktails at the bar until a server with a tray offered to ferry our drinks to the readied table. Ordering a glass of wine brought the bottle to tableside for inspection and sampling before the pour.
Chef Homer Ford's menu, on its last days of its winter phase during my visit, stuck to straightforward upscale standards with a few nods to locale. Potato and leek pierogi ($9) were present, but no chicken wings.
Instead, we got cauliflower in a crisp tempura jacket on Buffalo wing sauce with grated blue cheese ($9), which successfully delivered most of the iconic flavors in a tidy package without involving chicken.
Mussels in Thai green curry ($12) broke from staid hotel menu stereotypes, with slices of ginger and garlic bolstering the herbal heat of the sauce. The shellfish were tossed with skinned cherry tomatoes, which could have used a simmer in the curry. The dish got even better two-thirds through, when we could soak up more of that curry with pieces of Elm Street Bakery bread, provided in seeded sourdough, rye and baguette.
A crab cake ($19) was an exemplar of the form, a big handful of jumbo lump crab barely held together by a golden crumb crust. Its mustard aioli and bright salad of greens and pickled vegetables made it an attractive, balanced plate, a premium experience at a premium price.
An Empire salad ($11) brought a refreshing melange of greens, radishes, apples, walnuts and a slice of New York blue cheese, dressed up in a fruity apple cider vinaigrette. A lively version of poke ($17) jazzed up cubes of raw ahi tuna with pineapple, pickled garlic, sliced chile and macadamia nuts in smoky sweet soy.
Entrees were more by-the-book. A fist-sized chunk of short rib ($29), braised until fork-tender in dark, satisfyingly lip-sticking sauce, was served over diced rutabaga with braised cippoline onions. It was a good if unremarkable piece of pot roast. Crispy chicken ($25) offered crackling skin and meat that ranged from moist to dry, helped by a rich tarragon-mustard aioli.
Judging from two dishes we tried from the wood-fired grill, expect well-cooked meat and fish, but not the high-profile cooking implement to impart extra smoky flavor.
Sea bass ($27), butterflied and grilled, accompanied by fingerling potatoes, artichoke hearts and green olives, was moist but dull, with an undercoat of disappointingly bland salsa verde. A tomahawk ribeye was a judiciously charred, perfectly cooked steak splurge, served sliced with a little pitcher of jus. (Listing it as "$35 per person, for two," seems sneaky. In a room this swanky, a $70 steak doesn't seem excessive.)
Among sides ($7), shoestring potatoes with sour cream onion dip were crisp and addictive. Hand-cut fries, potato wedges really, were also expertly cooked, with fluffy interiors. Broccoli raab was cold and stringy.
Duck breast ($28), its skin seared crisp, its center rosy, was the table's favorite. Its accompaniments of pan-browned spaetzle with cherries and mushrooms, and huckleberry compote made an engaging ensemble.
Desserts ($8) were outstanding, polished versions of American standards. A circle of banana cream pie exulted in tropical creaminess. Bread pudding excelled at melding crunchy brioche mountains on top with boozy, velvety custard below. Cheesecake with a red velvet crust sported a vivid sour cherry topping that kept my spoon returning for more, past all limits of comfort and discretion.
Patina 250 has started its own Buffalo restaurant genre, the hotel restaurant you might go to without room reservations. It's pricy, but the overall quality of the food backs it up. If you're going to pay hotel restaurant prices, you might as well get food that's this good.
Patina 250 – 8 plates (out of 10)
Where: 250 Delaware Ave. (290-0600)
Hours: dining room open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Price range: Small plates, $9-19; salads, $11; sides, $7; entrees, $25-$70.
Parking: Complimentary valet, street.
Wheelchair access: Yes
Gluten-free options: Many items.