Second Helpings: Oliver's
Ask anyone who cares about food and fine dining to list the best restaurants in Western New York: Oliver’s will almost always rate a mention in the top three or so. We have certain expectations from our institutions—but that is not the same thing as saying that our institutions should be boring. Oliver’s is not boring; it is consistently excellent, a restaurant that prepares the best ingredients with skill and imagination, and presents them with panache and wit in surroundings that are comfortable and elegant. A meal at Oliver’s is a grown-up treat, an opportunity to dress up and enjoy something special, even when there is no special occasion. It is a comfortable space, attractive and lit in a flattering palette, with what might be the most attractive bar in the city.
Allow yourself a little time to peruse the wine list. Merely reading it is a delight. There are vineyards in locations you’d like to visit, varietals that you’ve always wanted to try, and prices that range from the quite reasonable to the thrilling (contemplate spending that for a bottle). It is a bit like sitting down with a big, colorful world atlas: you will see the familiar and the exotic, and your imagination can run away with you for a moment. But don’t worry; the staff is knowledgeable and well-equipped to counsel on wine choices, and will cheerfully discuss varietals, food pairings, and details about your selection. The wait staff, efficient and attentive in their long white aprons, is nearly as important to the overall Oliver’s experience as the food.
Most French-influenced restaurants will have something like warm duck confit salad available as an appetizer: only the best will do it this well. Served with roasted shiitake mushrooms and cranberries over baby spinach with charred peach vinaigrette, the greens were perfectly wilted, the cranberries a tart offset to the rich duck. The dressing added a smoky sweetness that balanced the entire dish.
The roasted asparagus app presented a different challenge. On its face a simple enough dish—asparagus roasted to a proper al dente, served with fresh mozzarella, crispy prosciutto, basil, and balsamic vinaigrette—the dish was remarkable because of the mozzarella. Made in-house, it was exactly what fresh mozzarella should be: creamy, with a clean dairy flavor enhanced by a touch of salt. The corn bisque, with lump crab salad and tarragon oil, was a pretty composition; the flavors paired well and the crab—which can be as flavorless as styrofoam in lesser hands—had a refreshing sweetness.
Restaurants always show their best stuff with the starters, but the entrees here are just as excellent. Roasted wild salmon, served over beluga lentils with poached fennel and basil-citrus relish, was a well-executed balance of flavor and texture. The beef short ribs, with white cheddar grits and apple-caraway slaw, were somewhat less exciting. The braised beef was not quite as unctuous as it could have been, but the slaw redeemed the dish, furnishing a bright synthesis of flavor to the umami-packed ribs and grits combo. The grilled pork tenderloin was a fine example of what a professional kitchen can do better than most home cooks: the meat was perfectly done, served over a sweet potato puree and wilted Swiss chard with a chipotle demi-glace, a clever variation of a classic preparation.