“Upgraded tavern menu” is the great white whale of restaurant concepts. It’s on the lips of every other operator, but the true beast is rarely glimpsed.
It’s an obsessive subject because giving customers noticeably better versions of dishes they already want sounds like a high-percentage shot at restaurant success.
It’s hard to find because it’s difficult to offer familiar tavern fare – burgers, fries, chicken – that’s better than usual without jacking up prices to objectionable levels. So the upgrades usually fizzle out at sweet chile sauce on wings, or arugula salad guest-starring cran-raisins and canned mandarin oranges.
Not in a little tavern in Lackawanna, though, where the free bar snack is house-made potato chips – and good ones. You can have them with the $7 cocktail jazzed up with house-made ginger falernum syrup, and poutine ennobled with glorious duck gravy.
If you’ve been there you know I’m talking about Winfield’s Pub. If you haven’t been there, this is your lucky day. Tab Daulton and his family are doing upscale food at down-home prices. Only steak and the walleye pike is more than $20.
Daulton is a career chef who used to run the food service operation at what’s now KeyBank Center. His wife, Cherryl, runs the front of the house. They're the kind of restaurateurs who will run cups of macaroni and cheese out to motorists stranded in front of their restaurant in a rush hour lake-effect storm.
Their son, Thomas, runs the bar, which includes making ingredients like jalapeno-pineapple shrub, honeyed Scotch liqueur (think Drambuie) and soy bitters for some of the custom cocktails.
[Related: Read more about cocktail program at Winfield's Pub]
Creativity flows through the kitchen as well. The day I arrived for dinner, the soup was cream of asparagus and ramp ($7 bowl), topped with a few of those brilliant bronzed potato chips and dabs of ramp pesto. The pale green potage, alive with the onion-garlic essence of the foraged forest alliums, tasted like spring dressed in velvet.
Then came the green pea fritters ($10), five crispy-edged patties of fresh peas mashed with mint and fried in panko crust. Underneath were roasted beet dice and a mole sauce, a chile-powered schmear more spicy than sweet, accented with a creamy lemon dressing. Peashoot wisps crowned the entire proceeding.
Duck poutine ($13) is a godsend for lovers of roast duck, its rich maple-brown gravy and plentiful shreds of duck meat elevating excellent house-cut fries. Choose your cheese to finish it off (both are made in Genesee County). Cheddar curds? Goat chevre? I happily avoided the dilemma by choosing half and half.
Another local produce-powered dish that tempted me to lick the plate was the pork cutlet Francaise ($18). Pork from Erba Verde Farms (East Aurora) was dipped in egg (from Always Something Farm, Darien). It was pan-fried, and napped in creamy lemon butter white wine sauce, with a fried egg on a bed of fresh spinach (from Sunset Farm, Wellsville) gilded with warm, housemade bacon vinaigrette.
For a Lackawanna tavern, Winfield’s covers a lot of ground. It goes Greek with its lamb burger ($13), juicy at medium, seasoned with cumin and coriander, topped with melted feta, on a house-made potato bun.
Daulton does heartland comfort too, like toasted cheese sandwiches ($11) of havarti cheese and house-smoked bacon on house-made jalapeno cheese bread, to be dipped in house-made cream of tomato soup.
For all his straight-off-the-farm sourcing, Daulton still appreciates unnatural ingredients, like Velveeta. It’s an essential component of one of the most indulgently retro dishes in Buffalo: Kiki’s Warm Potato Salad. Kiki was his mother, and she combined potatoes, bacon, green olives and Velveeta for a shameless crowd-pleaser.
Not every innovation soared. Calamari ($13) fried in a light, pale coat was tossed in sesame miso dressing, with arugula, red bell and poblano peppers. The rings got soggy quickly, and the sauce was too subtle to make itself heard.
The Reuben sandwich ($13) with housemade corned beef, bacon and sauerkraut didn’t quite hold together, the rye bread not able to corral the fixings. The mess tasted good, though.
For a heartwarming dinner, the chicken pot au feu ($18) came through. It was a big bowl of shredded braised chicken, with carrots, peas, leeks, turnips, potatoes and greens in a substantial chicken broth. Red-veined beet microgreens added freshness to one charming bowl of chicken stew.
House-made desserts ($7) included a four-layer chocolate cake whose flavor had been deepened with Guinness stout, echoing the dark fruit notes in the swoosh of chocolate cherry sauce. Crème brulee with white chocolate whipped cream and pickled strawberries, providing puckery tang against all that luscious lemon custard, proved that strawberries could be a pleasure in May.
The combination of local sourcing, craft and value makes this a tavern-plus menu I'd like seconds on. Winfield’s would be a boon to any neighborhood, the sort of restaurant diners hunt obsessively. Beware: Once you finally catch that white whale, you might want to make it Ahab-it.
Winfield’s Pub – 9 plates (out of 10)
Location: 1213 Ridge Road, Lackawanna (821-0700)
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Prices: appetizers, $3-$13; sandwiches, $12-$13; entrees, $18-$25.
Atmosphere: well-behaved tavern.
Parking: lot out back, street
Wheelchair access: no
Gluten-free: can accommodate, ask server