Take One: The Delaware
The Delaware is a former Carvel outlet transformed into thoroughly modern restaurant masonry, with an overly familiar name that’s nearly impossible to Google. It gives you the sense the restaurateurs behind this place enjoy a challenge. It makes you hungry with anticipation, before you’ve even heard about the asparagus fries.
Even though the Delaware is off the well-worn restaurant rows, you might have to park a good block or two down neighboring Kenview Avenue or Westchester Boulevard on a weekend night, or even on a surprisingly popular Monday. Word has gotten around. The cuisine, which you might call “gastropub”—or, as the chef puts it, “fine diner-ing”—is fairly new to the area, but, this being Buffalo, spirited eaters have rushed it in a way that you wish the Bills’ defensive line could emulate. That also makes the restaurant’s decision not to take reservations on weekends a bold one, the kind that ... well, the bad Bills comparisons could go on forever.
It’s a good thing, then, that the menu is very friendly to those waiting out their tables on the simple, elegant central bar. The bar staff have a good eye for a hungry eye, and they are quick to hand out the menu. It’s a single sheet, styled like an inventory request form into “bins.” Like most things here, it’s simple and clean, rather than minimalist for the sake of some design ideal. While there are divisions between the small plates, the burgers and sandwiches (your doctor hates when you call this “lighter fare”), and the entrees, you could easily pick an amount you are willing to spend and fill the bill a lot of different ways, walking away sated each time.
We ordered asparagus fries at the bar one busy night, one of many appetizers offered for $4 or less, and at least three different patrons told us we’d made a good call. They were right. The spears were nicely firm, the beer batter held tight when you bit in, and the chili/garlic/mayo and buttermilk dipping sauces were perfect—and they weren’t bleu cheese, which can make any night out feel special. Another night, in the upstairs loft area, we ordered deviled eggs and a nearby table audibly mocked our pick, round-robin style. Perhaps they hadn’t noticed how much closer the ceiling is up there, and hence how far their voices carried. Maybe they weren’t aware of the appetizer’s burgeoning popularity on far snootier menus. Then again, maybe that’s just how the other half of the Deviled Egg Divide conducts themselves. In any case, the wife and I are on the side of smoked paprika and creamy fillings, and these were excellent carriers of the banner.
Despite the notable-but-manageable din on the first floor, and the decently long stair climb to the second, the staff seemed aware of everything they were assigned to, all at once. The bartenders make democratic rounds for orders, the wait staff picks up quickly on face-down menus and pulled credit cards, and even on a wall-to-wall night, nobody makes you feel as if you’re part of the problem. Orders were confirmed, specials were explained, and unexpected shortages were announced, apologetically, right away. The only slip-up was a wine list that never arrived on our second visit, so we pulled from the solid on-tap choices: Southern Tier IPA, Victory Donnybrook Stout, and Sam Adams Winter Lager. The wife enjoyed a classic martini during our wait at the bar, and the bartender didn’t embarrass anybody—he just used gin, speared three olives on a sword, and delivered a smoothly mixed, shaken, well-made libation.
Back to the food. The Delaware’s wedge salad hit its mark with a tangy bleu cheese and Spar’s bacon—not enough bacon, but what was there was good. The wife’s garden salad was almost a teaching template for assembling a simple greens dish, but she felt a bit shorted on the promised hearts of palm. On another night, I was in the mood to smile at the grilled cheese “fingers” half-sunk into the tomato-basil soup, and the Caesar across the table won praise for its full leaves and smooth but not overly heavy dressing. The croutons, made from a baguette and punched up with asiago cheese, would have also been enjoyable blessed with some soup, but I was allowed just one editorial sample.
The Delaware's "Radiator" Pasta
What does a Pretzelweck Burger taste like? More than one friend raved, but I wouldn’t know, because the kitchen was out of the pretzel rolls that surround a half-pound burger, horseradish mayo, caramelized onions, and pepper jack cheese—but, as stated, at least I knew that up-front. Same with the shiitake/bacon/brie “Umami Burger.” I downgraded to the house burger, with chuck and brisket ground in-house, and it tasted, well, like a big burger from a bar, with a flaky bun. I’m a sucker for the 2:1:1 sirloin/brisket/chuck mix, flat-pressed and served up to huge lines at Shake Shack in New York. I’m also an annoying dinner guest who evangelizes about the benefits of DIY meat mixing. So while there was nothing wrong with this burger, and the toppings were crisp and skillfully stacked, it just didn’t inspire the usual reverie of a nondrive-thru burger. The fries arrived just barely not warm enough, which is somehow more disappointing than definitely, erroneously cold. I wager they’d have fried a fresher batch if I’d asked, but it’s striking how much better the asparagus fries turned out. Wonders never cease.
So my fancy burger prayers didn’t pan out, but when it comes to simple, honest food, the Delaware fares better. Their “Radiator” pasta came at a nice texture and consistency, decked out with mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes, but perhaps too much oil. On another visit, I found that there are few things more satisfying than a bowl filled with Guinness-braised short ribs, mashed potatoes that saw some real whipping, braised bits of carrot and celery, and crisp, garlic-flecked snap peas. Short ribs, meatloaf, and other fancy home cooked menu items are simply cliché at semifancy restaurants, but pretend you’ve never seen it before and eat this “Grog and Gruel.” It’s $12, it’s not laden with sauce or overpowered by red wine or garlic, and with everything else priced so similarly fair, you’ll have leftovers your coworkers will absolutely hate you for.
The dessert list is small and straight down the middle, but there are no tossed-off frozen pies or rice puddings. We opted for a hot fudge sundae, which smelled like vanilla beans, looked like someone had cared about the spread of Spanish peanuts in fudge sauce, and tasted like the simple mixture of flavors and textures—hot and cold, crunchy and smooth, gentle and bold—that a good dessert should aspire to.
The Delaware doesn’t fight in the same weight class as most other restaurants you’ll see featured in Spree, and doesn’t charge customers title card prices. My wife and I ate a four-course meal, with one beer apiece, for $50 on the nose one night. You can do that at a lot of places around here, but it’s different, tasty, and compellingly pleasant to do so here. You can understand the menu, the staff is good at what they do, and when the food falls down, it’s more earnest shortcoming than fancy-named fiasco. Given some time to shuffle a few items in the “bins,” you’ll want to take stock of the Delaware a few times, with a few different friends.
3410 Delaware Ave., Kenmore