First Look: Larkin District's Filling Station
Christa Glennie Seychew
While most of Buffalo wasn't paying attention, Howard Zemsky and his team have been transforming a long-forgotten neighborhood. The Larkin Building restoration made news several years ago, but I am guessing most Buffalonians largely dismissed it, only casually observing the beautiful building from a speeding car while cruising past on the thruway.
Zemsky's project has many stages, the most recent being the completion of the most outwardly evident and playful component—the popsicle-colored outdoor community gathering place located at the trisection of Swan, Seneca, and Emslie streets. This area, dubbed Larkin Square, features a covered picnic area, an outdoor grill station, raised bandstand, a well designed cafe, and an immobile Airstream trailer outfitted to serve up sandwiches.
The cafe, known as The Filling Station, is a well-appointed and concise eatery, something I wish we saw in abundance in our region. The menu is just the right size and there appears to be no detail, decor-wise, that wasn't carefully selected. The building itself—closed in on its two longest walls by multiple retractable glass-paned garage doors—means that uninhibited sunshine pours into the neat space.
Dining room at The Filling Station (photo courtesy of LarkinFillingStation.com)
Two recent visits allowed me to sample a bit of the menu. It's missing most of the trendy qualifiers we would expect to see: vegetarian, farm-raised, gluten-free, etc., meaning anyone with dietary concerns or interest in the provenance of their meal is left to consult the waitstaff, but both of our servers were friendly and perhaps that will come later.
Throughout the meal I found that the clean lines of the dishes, silverware, fixtures, and general surroundings influenced everything. Every moment seemed tastier, brighter—fresher, even. It all came together to provide a sun-warmed, contemporary frame which set and maintained the tone for entire experience. (This could, of course, be said of any good design, but when it comes to restaurants most of WNY's do not take this aspect of their business as seriously as it clearly has been taken here, at The Filling Station.)
On my first trip a large bowl of fresh, springy soup served as an excellent starter ($4). Crisp asparagus and a few delicate meatballs added great texture and flavor to the herbacious broth. It was a large portion and quite good.
The soup required only a small salad as accompaniment and I selected the beet salad ($6) to round out my meal. The roasted beet was still a little crunchy, and with assistance from the crispy toasted bread slices it provided a necessary textural contrast to the generously portioned and creamy "cheesecake" of chevre. The microgreens added a seasonal and grassy flavor to the otherwise rich salad.
On my second visit I took a friend who didn't mind photographing his meal or spending the afternoon's conversation dissecting it. We started with a pizza ($10), a real test of any kitchen's merit. It emerged thin and crisp and brown in all the right places. I also have to point out that while I love truffles, I largely loathe truffle oil, but here, coupled with the pizza's roasted mushrooms, it was used sparingly and worked nicely. Also of note was the lack of excess moisture that usually leaches from poorly prepared mushrooms, sure to ruin any pizza crust. Whether they actually roasted the mushrooms or simply sauteed them, the manner in which they were sliced was ideal for this application. This was one of the best pizzas I've eaten in Buffalo. The picture doesn't do the pie justice as the slices are laid out a little haphazardly, obscuring any picky-pizza eaters view here, online.
A simple burger and the house steak sandwich came next. Each was full of beefy flavor and more than adequate in size for anyone's lunch. They were both good, but our hearts were really won by the modest bean salad side dish served in miniature white takeout containers. It's not easy to make a very simple bean salad taste really good, so most homecooks resort to over-salting or drowning it in some type of vinegar-based dressing. This was not that salad. Instead the beans gave way to a smattering of crunchy celery and carrot bits, and all was well-seasoned while still allowing the flavors of each ingredient to play a role.
The burger ($11) was juicy, but cooked past the temperature requested. It became extermely difficult to eat due to the size and heft of the accompanying onion and tomato slices, and both the delicacy of the croissant-style roll and the fact that it had been split in a way that rendered the bottom portion too small to properly perform its duty made the whole thing a multi-napkin affair.
I am not really a steak sandwich sort of gal, but the menu listed red onion jam as the main condiment ($12), so I thought I would give it a try. The steak was cooked well, and much to my relief, it came as an open-faced offering rather than a whole steak on a monstorous roll. The roll was toasted until crispy and the sweet and savory red onion jam was very flavorful without being over-powering. It did need salt, which was sadly not imparted by the cheese used, rendering the cheese completely unnecessary, but otherwise it was better than average and I would certainly order it again.
I truly enjoyed both of my meals at The Filling Station, finding the staff to be polite and eager, the cafe to be a good example of form and function, and the food to be quite good and fairly priced. Hours are limited for now, seeing as how the critical mass required to keep a restaurant running is largely there during business hours, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't visit the District itself. Even without the promise of a fresh salad or bowl of soup, it is a great little bike ride for city denizens and easily accessible from the 33 and the thruway. Take a book and soak up some sun at this gorgeous example of what vision, a sense of community, and good design can accomplish.
The Filling Station
745 Seneca St.
Buffalo, NY 14120
For a look at the opening festivities, see Newell's posting over at BuffaloRising.com.