The triple-diamond hotels that spend big on their restaurants – hiring chefs with recognizable names, designing a striking dining room with architecturally provocative wine storage structures – are in short supply in Buffalo.
Despite the 2017 arrival of Sear and Patina 250 a block apart on Delaware Avenue, little has changed in that regard.
To its management’s credit, the Wyndham Garden hotel in Williamsville has been trying to do better than cookie-cutter chain eateries since opening in 2013. It started with Brioso by Butterwood, cast as South American, which meant blue potatoes and lots of nonstandard corn.
Then came MTK Prime, a shot at luxe steakhouse, which failed to thrive. Now the building at Main Street and South Forest Road offers Hooked, a seafood-leaning effort led by Angelo Canna, a partner in Southtowns success Lucia's on the Lake. With Canna giving chef Anthony James the lead, Hooked has started offering the sort of lush plates that might lure more than lodgers for dinner.
The first-floor space off the lobby has its own bar and has been redecorated with chrome fish statuettes, keeping the copper-topped tables and robot/spiderlike lighting fixtures. The brunch-and-dinner restaurant serves breakfast, from egg-and-pancake basics to a butter-poached lobster omelet ($15) or a kale smoothie ($7). There’s weekend brunch until noon, but no lunch.
The dinner menu is tidy, one side of a card, with drink offerings including a brief wine list and custom cocktails, and beer dominated by domestic bottles.
A basket of warm ciabattalike rolls and whipped rosemary cinnamon butter arrived while we waited for appetizers. At a new seafood restaurant this far from the ocean, the minutes before the plates show up is always suspenseful. Will it turn out that the operator was raised on frozen seafood TV dinners, thus considering prefab breaded calamari out of a freezer bag fit for an upscale establishment?
Not at Hooked. From the beginning, the bivalves, crustaceans and fin fish were presented with care. A prawn and crab cocktail ($17), three shrimp thick as my thumb and a healthy handful of fresh crabmeat came perched atop a martini glass of cocktail sauce. But when the fixings are this fresh, sauce is superfluous.
Calamari ($12) gets a Greek seashore spin, with delicately crusted rings and tentacles served over lemon-dressed arugula that was fortified with pickled banana pepper rings, Kalamata olives and feta cheese.
The Buffalo standard stuffed pepper got a seafood-centric makeover as crab stuffed peppers ($12). A long, yellow chile was split, roasted and filled with what amounted to crab dip, blistered under a broiler. It’s not going to replace the standard version in my dream menu, but its balance of rich and spicy made it a solid snack.
Mini lobster rolls ($16) served with decent fries, were two half-hot-dog-sized toasted rolls filled with some of the best lobster salad I’ve had this season. Chopped chunks of lobster, augmented with light mayonnaise, celery, red onion, mustard seed and parsley, was a sweet way to wrap up summer.
Bang-bang shrimp ($15) wasn’t nearly as satisfying. A half-dozen medium shrimp were lightly fried, then painted with spicy-sweet mayonnaise, on a squiggle of red pepper sauce. The shrimp were dressed with sesame seeds and microgreens, but seemed stingy alongside other offerings.
Lobster mac ($27), on the other hand, registered as generous, with plentiful bites of lobster with gnocchi in an ocean of smoked Gouda sauce. Toothsome pasta dumplings and crustacean meat were joined with sautéed onions and scallions for a gutsier version than usual.
Brussels sprouts with prosciutto ($9), albeit a side dish, deserves a shoutout, too. The mini cabbages were well trimmed and fried to a slight crisp, studded with nubs of aged Italian ham and crowned with a dollop of rousing tzatzikilike garlic yogurt sauce.
Bouillabaisse ($32) was chock full of fish and shellfish, with loads of clams and mussels, but its broth was lacking the usual tomato and fennel notes. It also needed salt.
Blackened fish stands among the most tragic culinary trends of the 1980s, too often a vale of sorrow because the line between spice-crusted and spice-ruined is quite narrow on tender filets.
At Hooked, blackened swordfish ($26) was spot on, with a seared crust made of just enough black-pepper-centric spices, hiding a moist interior. The two-centimeter thick slab arrived on creamy corn grits, an apt change of pace anchored in Southern style. Traditionalists would have used Velveeta or American to enrich them, but Gouda works, too.
A land-based entrée, lamb Bolognese ($29), won favor for its husky charms, with ground lamb, pork and veal simmered to tenderness in a milky tomato sauce and tumbled with pappardelle pasta. It was excellent even without the mint pesto the menu promised.
If you like bountiful plates of seafood served with a touch of Southern style, you might get hooked.
Hooked – 8 plates (out of 10)
Location: 5195 Main St., Williamsville (hooked716.c0m)
Hours: 6 to 11 a.m. and 4 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 6 to 11 a.m. and 4 to 10 p.m. Friday, 7 a.m. to noon and 4 to 10 p.m. Saturday, 7 a.m. to noon and 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday
Prices: Brunch, $5 to $17; dinner appetizers, $8-$23; entrees, $22-$41
Atmosphere: calm hum
Gluten-free options: many choices