Rstrnt rvws nd vwls – nt rstrnt nms.
Ahem. Restaurant reviews need vowels. Not restaurant names. Just wanted to get that out of my system before proceeding with my review of SZND (pronounced “seasoned”), the new upscale restaurant just off Hertel Avenue.
When I mentioned SZND earlier this summer in a story about restaurant names, I speculated that the no-rules approach to naming might carry through to the restaurant’s cuisine.
Lucky guess. When I sat down for dinner recently, there were few plates from the Been There Done That Department. Hummus was made from sunchokes, sunflower tubers. Artichoke hearts were blackened, coated in gunpowderlike pepper and fried. The tuna ceviche gets strawberries. Chicken breast, normally the most straitlaced offering, gets a charred onion sauce and apricot glaze.
And while a poached egg with noodles and broth is straight out of the ramen playbook, one rarely sees it come from a duck.
Owner Cheryl Ann Gill, who runs Everyday Gourmet, a Niagara Falls catering company, opened the restaurant in May. Her son, Andrew, manages the place, with Ian Macdonnell as chef.
The room has a Hertel address, but SZND is in the back of the building on Norwalk. It was last a wine bar. It’s done in off-white and paisley, with a row of pillow-lined banquettes against the wall opposite the bar.
A flock of appetizers let me answer some of the questions about the menu. Those blackened artichokes ($12), split open, Cajun-spiced and singed to a crisp, were accented with crabmeat and microgreens, providing enjoyable contrast of spicy vegetable against sweet seafood. There was no sign of the green goddess dressing mentioned on the menu.
Wontons ($12), described as Korean hot chicken with kimchi and chile aioli, were crispy single-bite nuggets of spicy poultry, enjoyable though I wanted more than four.
Harissa shrimp salad ($22) brought five spice-coated shrimp on mixed lettuce, enriched with fresh corn, sliced avocado, blistered grape tomatoes and crispy chickpeas. The combination was hearty and fresh. Octopus ($14) was a single tentacle, braised then crisped, atop plantains and crumbled sausage, brightened with flower petals and pea shoots. It was weird to look at, but the flavors got along amiably.
Sunchokes have a nutty character that makes a decent hummus analog ($10) mashed into a garlicky puree. The lavash crackers served with it, however, were chewy as tar paper.
A white pizza ($16) carried summer squash, fresh tomatoes, bell pepper and goat cheese with a topknot of dressed lettuce. I didn’t spot any of the advertised sunflower greens. It was still a likeable combination of crisp summertime vegetation on crunchy edged flatbread with salty-sour chevre.
There were plenty of sunflower sprouts atop a special of housemade ravioli ($24), the pasta pink with beet juice. They were filled with a rich avocado purée, plenty tasty, but unexpectedly spicy.
A well-seared hunk of meaty white halibut anchored a noodle bowl the menu was described as including braised greens, bacon-miso dashi broth, udon noodles and a poached duck egg.
The halibut was lovely. But the broth was weak, the noodles were spaghetti-gauge, not pencil-thick udon, and the egg component was a raw yolk. Now, I eat uncooked eggs, but they are forbidden to others, so that’s a menu-dish disconnect that matters.
Apricot glaze was exceedingly subtle on the well-browned airline chicken breast ($28), whose moist flesh was aptly accented with a cheesy polenta cake whose golden corners turned especially scrumptious, and husky charred onion purée. A hefty bone-in pork chop ($34) was smothered in a peach bourbon barbecue sauce with plenty of fruitiness, perched on a mound of risotto laced with sweet, crunchy kernels of fresh corn.
A 14-ounce Delmonico steak ($40), ordered medium-rare, arrived rare. Black garlic butter added a savvy boost of umami, but it had been crusted with enough fine black pepper before griddle-searing to count as blackened. The fingerling potatoes, carrots and whole mushrooms with it were properly roasted.
Jambalaya ($26) was a satisfying rice casserole that packed a pound of flavor, bronzed grains suffused with a by-now-expected stiff dose of heat, bell pepper, onion and celery, plus plentiful shrimp and chunks of smoky andouille sausage.
Delightful desserts ($9) rounded out our meal, especially an indulgent salted caramel tart, down-home decadent peanut butter pie, and an airy cheesecake with a crunchy crust that reminded me of gingersnap cookies.
Noise is an issue. When I left, my ears were ringing, and I wished we had taken a patio table on the temperate evening. Gill said noise-deadening measures, like draperies, could be coming soon.
SZND struck me as a promising startup operation, certainly the most interesting operation to open in the Hertel neighborhood in recent years. The operation could tighten up the linkages between dish descriptions and what arrives at table. Menus make promises that dishes should deliver on, and while vowels may be disposable, wrds mttr.
SZND – 7 plates (out of 10)
Location: 1448 Hertel Ave. (around the corner), sznd-dining.com, 322-0037
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday
Prices: small plates, $10-$18; entrees, $18-$40
Atmosphere: solid din when full
Wheelchair-accessible: patio; step to dining room
Gluten-free options: artichokes, ceviche, salad