If Teton Kitchen Elmwood is going to defeat the jinx that seems embedded in the woodwork at 153 Elmwood Ave., it’s going to ride three horses to victory: spaces, spirits and sushi.
Cozumel ended its decade-long run as the main draw between Allen and North streets in 2012. Since then the neighborhood has gotten a taste of a science-fiction-fantasy-inspired cocktails bar (Black Swan), South American cuisine, including flashes of Peruvian and Colombian (Pasion), and Cuban (Pasion again).
In September, Teton Kitchen Elmwood opened.
The times I’ve looked in on the Elmwood location, it’s been sleepier than the original on suburban Dick Road, but maybe that’s just the jinx talking. What’s not superstition is that the place has a rare Elmwood parking lot, a sprawling drinks list that starts at $4 during happy hour, and the only sushi list around that name-checks the National Football League, "South Park" and Marvel universes.
Teton Kitchen Elmwood is a spinoff of the popular Depew center for casual pan-Asian dining, opened in 2013 by the husband-and-wife team of Taka Win and Khin Aungmyin.
With a menu from sushi to soups to stir-fries, emphasizing inspirations from Japan to Thailand, it’s more of an izakaya – a sometimes boisterous after-work drinkery that serves food – than a serene zen temple to sushi artistry.
On a recent Thursday, it was quiet. We were the second table in the dining room, which was lit by a large television tuned to PBS. A guest informed me that the room was once the action zone of a disco called McArthur Park, which boasted a goldfish-filled floor.
Now the wildest thing in the room was the drinks menu. On top of dozens of beers, there are 18 types of sake, plus a standard hard liquor list fortified with a half-dozen Japanese whiskies. After thumbing through a book of options, a lychee sake-tini ($8), aromatic with the plumlike tropical fruit, was an appropriately exotic dram for the occasion.
There’s a full sushi menu, offering nigiri pieces, platters and bowls. Among specialty rolls, we scanned though titles from Hollywood before asking for Kiss of the Spider Women ($12.99), with fried soft-shell crab, crab salad, marinated seaweed, and flying fish roe. It brought seafood satisfaction from several angles in one bite – crunch from the crab, richness from the lightly mayonnaised salad, and vegetal features from the seaweed, while fish eggs popped between my teeth.
The Hulk ($11.99) brought some green crunchiness with apple along with shrimp tempura, and creamy avocado. The Big Guy Al ($12.99), an apparent reference to the “South Park” character, had a core of sweet sesame beef, crispy chicken, and bacon bits, and was a satisfyingly meaty romp.
Can a sushi roll go too far? The Cheatriots sushi roll ($12.99), with spicy shrimp, avocado, salmon and fish eggs, sounded like it was missing a sour grape component.
Grilled squid ($10.99) scored, with a foot-long creature cooked deftly, firm but not rubbery, and cut into rings and tentacles. Red curry wings ($9.49) were a good idea that didn’t perform well. Coconut curry laced with dried red chile, lemongrass and the other aromatic components of Thai curry paste made a fun foil for ye olde fried chicken digits, but the sauce sapped their crunchiness.
Another Asian hybrid that worked better was tom yam fried rice, flavored like Thai hot and sour soup. Ordered with shrimp ($14.99), it was a tangy, chile-tinged mélange of rice, broccoli, bell pepper, carrot and onion, fragrant with the aroma of slivered lime leaves.
My favorite dish of the evening was a hearty, sturdy appetizer called buta kimchi, ordered with pork ($8.99). It’s a saute of fermented Korean Napa cabbage kimchi and thinly sliced pork loin, in a red chile gochujang sauce, with a handful of mung bean sprouts for additional crunch. Its balance of sourness, richness and fermented funk made it deeply satisfying.
A surprise hit was a dish called grilled beef ($16.99), which was strip steak simply seasoned, seared and sliced. I would call it hibachi style, except this version nailed the medium rare I’d requested, and added a buttery finish. (At first I wished the cook had trimmed off the fat and gristle, but when I found how it had crisped up, I changed my mind.)
Disappointments included a sad pad thai noodle dish overwhelmed by sweetness. Also my two favorites from the Depew location, a fried tofu steak with mushrooms and lamb chops in soy-vinegar sauce, never made it to Buffalo.
Desserts ($6) included Thai sweet sticky rice, a layer of eggy custard on a dense, chewy rice undercoat in coconut cream, and a wedge of green tea cheesecake, tempura fried, whose contrast between crusty exterior and inner dairy luxury was everything Mexican fried ice cream aspires to.
Making a go of a restaurant in Buffalo is a tough enough climb without the weight of history behind you. Here’s hoping Teton Kitchen Elmwood can make it over the pass.
Teton Kitchen Elmwood – 7 plates (out of 10)
Location: 153 Elmwood Ave., 405-2599, tetonkitchen.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday, noon to 1 a.m. Saturday and noon to 11 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: appetizers, $4 to $11.99; sushi rolls, $10.99 to $12.99.
Atmosphere: quiet, television in dining room.
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free options: ask server what’s available.