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At Neat, aiming a notch above TGI Fridays

Transit Road has a restaurant type now, soaring new-build boxes rigged out with agricultural implements, rustic wooden tables and festooned with barnyard-inspired modern art.

Set into multi-use plazas or on the lip of vast strip malls, they strive to offer an updated version of the chain restaurant experience, an oasis of country charm embedded in suburbia. They are our homegrown TGI Fridays.

During a recent dinner at Neat, our cheerful server offered TGI Fridays as a reference when asked about the Jack Daniel’s “demi glaze” guest-starring in multiple meaty roles (filet, chicken, meatballs, pork) on the menu.

With that model as its base, Neat communicates clearly what to expect: no surprises. The evening’s specials included pasta with asparagus and sun-dried tomatoes, and a 10-ounce filet enhanced with some of that Jack Daniel’s sauce, reassuring wary eaters that the menu wouldn’t stray far from the paved path. How fitting for Transit Road.

Wood and rope figure prominently in Neat's decor. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Neat, which opened in August 2017, hasn’t stuck to the template entirely. It signals aspiration to finer things with a tomahawk steak for two on the menu, illuminated liquor cabinets with engraved nameplates, and a washroom lined with faux animal-skin wallpaper.

Massive wooden beams hang from the ceilings, supporting nonchalantly coiled rope and Edison bulbs, the balsamic glaze of modern restaurant illumination.

On the plate, balsamic glaze was a recurring motif, including lashed across a straightforward roasted beet and goat cheese salad ($11). Fork-tender, earthy beets surrounded a bed of arugula topped with canned mandarin oranges, crumbled chevre and chopped walnuts. It also tried to perk up a dish of pale, undercooked brussels sprouts ($10) tossed with tough little bacon pebbles.

Hot pepper arancini ($10), three baseball-sized spheres on tomato sauce with dabs of pesto, smooshed flat when cut. The menu said they were made with Hungarian peppers, the long yellow chile being a mainstay of Buffalo stuffed pepper preparation, but their soupy interiors did not offer much chile heat or flavor.

Spicy sausage and honey wood-fired pizza, a Neat best-seller. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

A meatball trio ($12) won favor with tender peach-sized orbs napped in a tomato sauce whose acidity made it an excellent foil for the unctuous polenta underneath. Provided with a bit of Italian bread, I would have mopped the plate.

A spicy sausage and honey pizza ($16.50) charmed with its airy crust and just-barely singed undercarriage. The heat-to-sweet ratio was just right, jacked with cracked black pepper.

After a personable greeting and appetizer delivery, service went slack. No one cleared plates before runners showed up with armloads of entrees, so guests helped shuffle dishes and hand off used plates. Later, having despaired of re-watering, a guest walked by staffers chatting at the hostess stand to get her own pitcher.

Avocado stuffed with a three-cheese blend and tomatoes, with a cranberry-nut coating, and roasted red pepper sauce, at Neat. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

A 32-ounce tomahawk steak for two ($72) arrived first among the entrees, its well-marbled meat having been accurately cooked to medium rare, then brought out at room temperature. Accompanying potato puree was pleasantly buttery, and asparagus nicely crisp-tender under its balsamic glaze.

A Neat burger, with bacon jam, cheddar and whiskey mustard ($15, photograph at top of article) was a juicy success, cooked precisely and presented in a sweet sturdy roll that held up. Truffle fries ($2 upgrade) brought a heady dose of truffle oil and waxy pre-shredded Parmesan.

Braised pork ($26), served on mashed potatoes with Jack Daniel’s sauce, was fork-tender but pallid in flavor, like meat that’s been cooked for stock. Accompanying Brussels sprouts were a delight, fried to a frazzle.

Sea scallops with salsa verde, arugula, parsley, quinoa and lemon sauce, at Neat. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Roasted chicken ($25) was overcooked before being doused with Jack Daniel’s sauce and then an aromatic salsa verde whose delightfully herby resonance made me wish it was the only sauce on the plate. Baby carrots, prepared without any apparent seasoning, came alongside.

My favorite bites of the night were the scallops ($26), five fat mollusks well-seared and seated on nutty quinoa and arugula. Crowned with that terrific salsa verde and circled with subtle lemon sauce, its brightness and balance made it a thoroughbred at the rodeo.

That salsa verde also shows up in the lone vegetarian entrée, roasted cauliflower on quinoa and toasted red pepper sauce ($18).

Desserts ($9) included a brownie turtle sundae lodged into the bottom of a square jar, which tipped over when spoons tried to scoop out its contents. We settled on one person holding it steady while others excavated bites. After dessert-as-teambuilding-exercise, it can only be a matter of time before we get dessert-as-escape-room.

A big, warm chocolate chip cookie in a cast-iron pan with ice cream would have fit in at a chain restaurant, down to the whipped topping. I looked for a bell to ring, but the only noisemakers were the young men shouting at a football game on a television screen over the bar.

Choosing a chain restaurant usually means giving up distinctive dishes in exchange for knowing what to expect – for consistency. Neat’s menu is more ambitious than TGI Friday’s, but until it can hit its marks, it will be a day late.

RESTAURANT REVIEW

Neat – 6 plates (out of 10)

Location: 5175 Transit Road, Clarence (632-6328)

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., pizza until 11 p.m.

Prices: appetizers, $8-$15; pizzas, $16.50; entrees, $18-$72.

Parking: small lot in front, big one in back.

Wheelchair accessible: yes.

Gluten-free: many choices on clearly marked menu.

The mall parking lot behind Neat has more spaces. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

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