The Review: The Black Sheep
The Black Sheep's incredible smoke pork chop is sourced at T-Meadow Farm in Lockport, a farm dedicated to raising heritage pork on pasture.
(Editor's note: This is the first fine dining review in which Spree offers a rating. Please see Reviewing the Review for details on how Buffalo Spree's new rating system for reviews works.)
The Black Sheep is a completely reworked tavern on Connecticut Street. It opened in late August, and sits adjacent to Horsefeathers Market and Pud Thai Asian grocery, lending some critical mass to its emerging West Side neighborhood. The renovation of the former Golden Key into a fine restaurant appears to have been quite an undertaking—the Sheep’s opening date was pushed back several times during the process. But now that the doors are officially open, it’s clear why it took so long.
Other than the tavern’s facade and the brick wall that backs the bar, everything is new. Dark, heavily grained wood dominates the interior, which is offset by soft, pale yellow walls. Decorations are minimal. The front room retains a tavern atmosphere and is mostly occupied by the large bar and a few small tables. The dining room is in the back, with cozy seating. The biggest difference between Sheep and its owners’ previous restaurant, Bistro Europa, is its size. The new restaurant seats more than two times the number of guests as the tiny Elmwood bistro. The back wall of the new dining room frames large glass doors that lead to a courtyard, a space we can only imagine will make for ideal al fresco dining once the weather warms.
The professional and knowledgeable service staff is particularly unpretentious and friendly, which makes navigating the menu and the list of specials—that is often longer than the menu itself—an enjoyable undertaking. Hearing cheerful praise from amiable staff on the merits of skin fritters and whipped lard is the perfect antidote to hesitant or novice palates.
The menu is presented in a fairly straightforward manner, divided into two sections: small and large plates. Small plates include shareable appetizers, salads, and single portion entrees. Large plates are generally heavy on the protein and are often best shared. Bar snacks make an appearance from 10:00 p.m. to midnight on weekends, including an occasional burger that is worth noting: it’s scratchmade with fresh, coarsely ground chuck and short rib, topped with melty aged cheddar, and served on a housemade English muffin with a side of perfect handcut fries. In addition to the regular menu, an extensive list of daily specials is always available, and, in the tradition of Europa, the specials reflect seasonality and usually help to bolster the standard menu with an assortment of fresh seafood offerings.
Seafood manages to plays a large role at the Black Sheep, despite chef Steven Gedra’s noted affinity for pigs. It seems spending his early career in New England has left a deep impression on him. There are Maine belly clams—which, along with paper thin slices of lemon—are expertly breaded and fried. They taste of the briny sea and the coating crunches with each bite, rousing thoughts of Cape Cod. The presentation of this simple sea snack is elegant—the clams and bright fried citrus are served in a pouched linen napkin. Gedra’s use of bluefish is also significant. Bluefish, common in New England waters, is strong in flavor and best handled with care. Here, the chef’s smoked bluefish dip is a good example of a standard preparation; however, he also manages to pull off a flawless bluefish ceviche, made with a simple citrus marinade, cherry tomatoes, and pink peppercorns. It’s a feat of sorts, as the bluefish is transformed into something remarkably light and fresh. Both of these delicacies, along with other preparations like smoked salmon, are part of the chef’s fish plate, a rotating trio of preserved fish items that appear on the small-plate portion of the menu.
And then there is the pork. The Black Sheep crew is known for its use of heritage hogs, in this case pigs that are pasture-raised in Lockport by T-Meadow Farm. This sustainable approach opens up many avenues for the kitchen, forcing it to operate a little like a traditional butcher where odd cuts are turned into value-added products. Ultimately the diners benefit, as we get to enjoy not just prime chops, but trotters and tails—prepared in a manner that renders them just as desirable.
Black Sheep’s charcuterie board is the best manner in which to see and appreciate the kitchen’s skill with pork. The kitchen is currently serving classic, aspic-capped terrines, head cheese, creamy, luscious rillettes, and pâté, all of which pair well with Sheep’s housemade pickled vegetables and mustard. A copious amount of slow-cooked pork also finds it way onto the menu in the form of breaded, barbecued pork nuggets and Gedra’s signature pierogi, a favorite holdover from Bistro Europa.
As a kitchen that processes at least one two-hundred-pound pig every other week, there is not only a lot of meat to contend with, but also a lot of skin. For those not in the know, properly prepared pig skin is as good, if not better, than the crispy, browned shell of juicy skin any Thanksgiving turkey wears. I’ve yet to find a chef who can peddle skin in more interesting and delicious ways than Steven Gedra. The skin fritter small plate combines ground skin that has been cooked until tender, mixed with a fritter batter, and fried until crisp and golden brown. It’s an intensely porky experience that is nearly outdone by the riotous, Jackson Pollock palette of chow chow, chimichurri, and romesco that surrounds it.
Finally, there is the T-Meadow chop. Sheep’s are hand cut, double thick, and replete with generous amounts of pristine, white fat. Each chop is lightly brined and gently smoked before being seared, dusted with fennel pollen, and garnished with dill fronds. Ours was perfectly cooked to its requisite blushing pink (good quality, expertly cooked heritage pork should never be anything but pink inside, particularly if it’s been smoked), and so moist it only requires its accompanying red eye gravy as another flavor layer.
The kitchen talent doesn’t end with Gedra and his diligent hot line crew. His partner in crime and life, Ellen, is an exceptional pastry chef, whose work bookends the Black Sheep experience. The restaurant’s complimentary breadbasket is packed with her skilled offerings, including crusty slices ranging from positively tangy sourdough to those laden with the heady aroma of rosemary. The hearty crust and chewy, dense crumb are perfect for a smearing of the Sheep’s magical burro di Chianti, a whipped, herbed lardo served in lieu of butter. And there is no better way to end the meal than with freshly ground coffee and dessert. The selection of sweets varies, but due to demand, the one constant is sticky toffee pudding. For the sake of this review, we decided to see what all the fuss is about, and I can say, with confidence, that the praise is justified. The dessert is righteously presented in a lion crested, footed bowl. Nested inside is a warm square of rich cake, obscured by a froth of cream. Diners should prepare for the sauce, which offers immensely enjoyable salty sweet waves of warm brown sugar and browned butter.
Black Sheep’s scratchmade ethos stretches beyond the menu descriptions, and its dedication to seasonal and local sourcing is genuine. It is truly a refreshing change from the norm, since these two formidable culinary choices—which are often used as marketing ploys—are instead hardly boasted about. There is a commendable commitment to local, pasture-raised meat, nose-to-tail cuisine, and use of sustainable seafood. Sheep offers improved attention to detail, with its custom cocktail program, tight selection of taps featuring local beers and sparkling ciders, and a comprehensive coffee service.
It’s clear that Black Sheep aims to be one of Buffalo’s top dining experiences. Does it succeed? That’s a question only you can answer for yourself, but I suggest you gather as much evidence as possible before rendering your decision. Pass the pâté.
The Black Sheep
367 Connecticut Street; Buffalo
blacksheepbuffalo.com or 884-1100
Spree's fine dining review allows food and service to carry twice the weight of ambiance, cleanliness, and drinks. All ratings are added and averaged for the convenience of our readers. For a look at Spree's Review Policy, Visit Reviewing the Review.
Jeff Biesinger is a food enthusiast who cooks with his wife and daughter in their WNY home.