Climb the stairs to Rowhouse Bakery & Restaurant and you emerge in a soaring three-story space. Brick walls, stone floor, the perfume of woodsmoke from a massive tile-lined oven, tables of people enjoying their coffee evoke a street café in an old city.
Before I stepped inside 483 Delaware Ave., I thought I had already seen the most impressive restaurant spaces in Buffalo. How happy I was to be corrected.
Up more stairs and past the hanging garden, there's a cozy book nook, more tables, a ceiling done up as a starry sky and a portal to another rowhouse to explore.
Next door, a grand two-story window illuminates a bar on the first floor and dining rooms on the second. Even if you remember its predecessors, Lord Chumley's and Stillwater, you owe yourself a visit.
Get a coffee and one of its outstanding breakfast pastries, like its croissant or pain au chocolat. Treats like those help make Rowhouse a leader in classy bakery breakfast opportunities. The case for dinner is less clear-cut.
At breakfast time, there are splendid little delights like fruit pastries, coffee cakes and monkey bread (all $4.50), which are just aces with a coffee drink ($2.50-$4.50) from Rowhouse’s full-fledged coffee bar. A savory croissant option, ham and gruyere ($5.50), buttery, flaky and just rich enough, serves as a trenchant reminder that just because Burger King will give you two croissants for $5.99 doesn’t make it a better deal.
Cold-pressed juices and smoothies ($3-$6) are a fresh, healthy house-made option. Breakfast sandwiches are made to order in a back room over a convection burner, bacon, cheese and scrambled egg on biscuit, muffin (both $7) or croissant ($8).
The dinner menu has a farm-to-table vibe, with Rowhouse's extensive bakery operation contributing bread and pizza to the evening effort. Many dish components take a trip through that oven, like tomatoes headed for a tomato and fennel bisque ($9) and dishes of broccolini and brussels sprouts with bacon, maple and pecans ($9).
Things started off swimmingly, with custom cocktails at the first-floor bar, where we browsed menus tucked inside novel covers. Tasty tipples like the Middle March (bison grass vodka, crème de violette, elderflower syrup, green tea, lemon, lime) are $7 during happy hour, when the wall-length window behind the bar filled the room with light.
The second-floor dining room was decorated to the nines. Even the ceiling was done up, in a lace doily pattern. As eye-opening as Rowhouse’s surroundings are, its menu offerings are squarely in the Buffalo New American canon. My appreciation of dinner waxed and waned as unevenly executed dishes appeared, a performance more deserving of a suburban plaza box.
Cheese and fresh bread ($16) included Point Reyes blue, young Camembert and goat cheese with lavender, along with butter, honey and blackberry jam. The bread was pan levain, naturally leavened with a chewy crust. It had been grilled but was no longer warm, which would become a recurring motif of the evening’s meal.
Grilled romaine ($10) was surrounded with good things: Castelvetrano olives, a halved hardboiled local egg, roasted tomato, and garlicky green goddess dressing. But the lettuce, star of the show, wasn’t properly softened in its heart on the fire, just singed and sooty at the edges.
Those bright green Sicilian olives also adorned the grilled fennel and tomato confit pizza ($17), an amiable vegetarian number bearing cubed fennel, tomato, goat cheese and roasted garlic. It had more spirit than the margherita version ($16), with its pale tomato flavor. Their crusts were sturdy, providing structural support but less crisp-tender texture than my ideal.
Entrée successes started with a pan-seared local chicken breast ($28), which arrived still moist with apt partners brown-buttery spaetzle tossed with savoy cabbage. The leg, cooked separately, was tender as well, the ensemble improved by a mustard glace.
A hefty pork chop ($31) was properly grilled, with a breath of fire amplified by its foundation of smoky butter beans. Too often dried out, there was juice left in each faintly pink slice.
Vegetarians and vegetable fanciers should consider the judiciously charred cauliflower ($20), sweetened by its passage through fire and presented on a bed of sweet potato and golden raisins, with a thicket of crispy deep-fried kale for contrast.
Brussels sprouts ($9) were pleasantly blistered in cast iron, presented with bacon and pecans. Carrots ($9) were singed but not softened.
Branzino ($28), presented as twin fillets, had the tenderness cooked out of it, and I wished for more of the pesto applied in drabs around its perimeter.
Hanger steak ($34) arrived properly medium rare, on sunchoke puree, with grilled asparagus and a well-seasoned savory bread pudding. Unfortunately, the plate was room temperature. A disc of compound butter atop the steak would not melt, signaling its temperature as surely as a pop-up turkey thermometer.
Waiting about 25 minutes for dessert gave us time to speculate about its cause. I surmised that the kitchen and servers tasked with the long trek to table hadn’t gotten their timing down.
Among desserts (all $8), a ricotta cherry tart had our forks flying with its crisp crust and bright fruit. Flourless chocolate cake was blandly fudgy. Strawberry shortcake sported terrific local berries, betrayed by a dry biscuit.
Décor giveth, and décor taketh away. The unique, engaging surroundings inside the historic Delaware Avenue space make you hungry for food to match. Those breakfast pastries can keep up, but the dinner menu doesn’t offer the same level of satisfaction – at least not yet.
Rowhouse Bakery & Restaurant – 7 plates (out of 10)
483 Delaware Ave. (500-2253)
Hours: Bakery is open 7:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. Restaurant is open 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday brunch. Bar hours are 4:30 to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. All closed Monday.
Prices: Bakery, $3.50-$8; restaurant appetizers, $9-$16; entrees, $20-$34.
Parking: small lot behind restaurant, street.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes, back door.
Gluten-free: ask server.
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