Roost likes playing hard to get. The only signage is a small neon rooster in the center of the sprawling first-floor space, behind a door that does not open.
After you identify the entrance door, on the southern end of the building, you might notice inky ventilator grease dripping down a nearby wall. Once you’re inside, though, past a bewitching rooster mural and through a curtain into one of the edgier rooms in town, it seems more like camouflage.
In 2017, Martin Danilowicz took over the first floor of the Crescendo Loft apartment building, a six-story West Side factory makeover. Subtitled “A new start on Niagara Street,” Roost is the successor to Martin Cooks, his chef’s-counter-dominated spot in the Horsefeathers building.
Here, outfitted with a massive Italian pizza oven and a taste for showmanship, Danilowicz leads a kitchen that draws on a United Nations of flavors to produce one of the most reliably surprising menus in Buffalo.
Changing every few months, their common threads are amped-up Americana like fried chicken with chow-chow, spot-on Mediterranean classics with fresh-baked pita, and delicious edible concepts whose design should make them eligible for framing in an Albright-Knox gallery.
One such dish on the current menu is identified as Watermelon with flavors of Japan ($13). A ruby-red ingot of watermelon, two Three Musketeers long, was the foundation. The melon was compressed in soy sauce, imbuing its crisp juiciness with salty umami.
Atop it were raw baby white radishes, and discs of translucent pickled daikon radish, each with their own peppery bite. Then cubes of cooling coconut gel, black and white sesame seeds, and pickled ginger, all under a snowy coat of powdered halvah-like sesame, nutty and sweet.
Then a dish as all-American as fried chicken ($23), bone-in breast and thigh, steamed to tenderness for a juicier finish, cornflake-coated and fried to a crisp. The bird perched on a corn pancake, doused with a rousingly sweet-and-sour chow-chow relish of corn, bell pepper, onion, and garlic, in a pool of chile-charged maple syrup that set off a slow, sweet burn.
It’s hard by the Amtrak line, and trains flashing by amplify its metropolitan feel. The interior is post-industrial warehouse done up in beige duct work, gray wood, clunky furniture, a flock of roosters, and a sprinkle of raunchiness. The restrooms are identified by visual genitalia puns.
Inside the women’s room, Burt Reynolds smiles from beneath his ‘stache in his Playgirl centerfold glory, and Farrah Fawcett beams in the men’s. I was reminded of Roost’s Facebook video of a lightly clad woman on the bartop. She found pasta an aphrodisiac, it seemed, to be absorbed through skin.
In the kitchen, Danilowicz cooks like a chef who does not give a heck what people think. A stoner-inspired 4/20 prix fixe dinner concluded with a joint in an ashtray, rendered in cookie. Who else would serve a cheese course on a mousetrap?
Roost has got some brass, all right – and the rakishness carries over into the food, whose quality backs up the swagger.
My favorite dish was lamb pastelillos ($15), ground lamb spiced like kibbeh with allspice, cumin, coriander, and cinnamon, folded inside crunchy pastry. They were surrounded with lemony chimichurri-ish green herb paste, roasted pepper tomato sauce, and a swoonful tzatziki-like yogurt sauce. Smashed to pieces, every morsel of meat and crust found flavorful partners in crime.
Another gutsy dish with humble roots was a beet tzatziki dish ($10), with horseradish to cut through the earthy lactic sourness, dusted with za’atar, scallion curls and cilantro, served with griddled pita.
Pizza with thin slices of unpeeled lemon ($17) thrilled with citric bitterness and the scent of thyme. A merguez version ($20) had the same excellent crust, but disappointingly tame sausage.
A plate of heirloom tomato carpaccio ($15) sparsely accented with fresh basil, shaved red onion, olives and capers, were just the tomatoes we wanted at the moment. Burrata with grilled peach ($14) didn’t stand out, the fruit insufficiently grill-transformed to be heard through the mouthful of soft milky cheese.
Lamb belly BLT ($18) was a finger-licking flavor bomb, lamb belly cooked for 24 hours, smoked, seared and piled onto bread with tomatoes, lettuce and a coarse herb mayonnaise.
Slips of hamachi ($16) swam in vibrant emerald aguachile with a lick of verdant jalapeno heat, punctuated with red radish and more corn kernels to pop milkily between my teeth. Light, fresh and radiant.
A whole branzino ($26), Mediterranean sea bass, was perfectly cooked, perched on a cheesy fresh corn salad and corn puree. To my surprise, I was getting corn fatigue.
Strawberry shortcake ($9) was good because the strawberries were perfect. Twin cannoli offered shatteringly crisp shells filled with orange liqueur-flavored ricotta. Surprisingly, there was no decaffeinated coffee.
A little raunchiness, a lot of lush flavors, and the most interesting weekday lunch in Buffalo has made the Crescendo Loft building a place regulars come home to roost.
Roost – 9 plates (out of 10)
Location: 1502 Niagara St. (259-9306)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday through Tuesday.
Prices: lunch, $11-$27 and dinner, $11-$75.
Atmosphere: from a whisper to clamor.
Gluten-free options: many options.