Best of WNY 2012: Eat this!
This is year seven for Buffalo Spree’s best of WNY. Each year, we determine the area’s finest by combining the deliberations of three expert panels with the votes of our readers. Each year, the categories change, just to keep it exciting. Agree or disagree? Be sure to let us know by posting here or on any of the other Best of categories we post this week on BuffaloSpree.com.
Best chef to watch
No one thought that a guy who co-owns and cooks for a taco truck could take on—much less defeat— Chef J.J. Richert from Torches in a Nickel City Chef competition held this past April, but that’s exactly what happened. It underscores that Lloyd’s Taco Truck isn’t just some taco stand on wheels, but a unique and innovative pioneer that has come best to symbolize the local variant of the nationwide food truck movement: good, unique food served up by talented chefs from a kitchen that happens to be mobile. Dorsaneo’s truck-based menu is great, but watch for bigger and better things as the Lloyd boys bring a second truck online, and perhaps turn street food from a beater truck into genuine cuisine.
Chef who should get a book deal
Mike Andrzejewski (Cantina Loco, Mike A at Lafayette, Seabar)
It is not inconceivable that Russian author Leo Tolstoy was aware of the motorcycle during his lifetime. After all, he lived until 1910 and the first motorcycle was introduced by Otto Daimler in 1885. The point being stretched here is that a Tolstoy, so deft at describing the hopes and aspirations of his subjects, seems perfectly suited for the role of biographer of chef Mike Andrzejewski, owner of the iconic Seabar, hot spot Cantina Loco and the recently opened steak house bearing his name at the newly-rejuvenated Lafayette Hotel. Of course, the motorcycle reference is necessary since a pivotal event in Andrzejewski’s life is the serious motorcycle accident that nearly cost him his life and did cost him a leg. The event and its aftermath left him with a deeper perspective, restarting and refocusing his long rise from busboy to the status of being singled out by the late gourmand R. W. Apple, Jr. of the New York Times, as “Buffalo’s only celebrity chef.” No doubt others have joined him in that category (see the Nickel City Chef cooks-offs for some good culinary names, including rising stars and established celebs), but as life stories go, few could be more redemptive and as satisfying as that of Mike Andrzejewski.
Best power lunch
291 Seneca St., 716-856-9187, ilovechefs.com.
Come to Chef’s for lunch on any given weekday and you’re bound to see someone you recognize, whether it be someone in the media, a politician, or a group of local apparatchiks being feted by someone who wants to bend their ears. The room has everything you’d want from a power lunch joint: great, iconic, cheap food, attentive service, the ability to sit there unrushed, and a large dining area where you can’t help but scan the faces of people who have positioned themselves in such a way that they can easily be scanned. Overhear jobs being won or lost, deals being made or broken, and witness the engine that propels our struggling burg wheezing its way towards tomorrow.
Best workday lunch
1 Lafayette Square, 716-858-7127, fablescafe.com.
Some may say Downtown’s Central Library was revived by the addition of this streamlined café several years ago, and we couldn’t agree more. The line moves quickly (but not so quickly that you can’t snag one of their addictive peanut butter brownies before paying), so don’t let the popularity of this hotspot send you elsewhere. Fresh, made-in-house soups, sizeable and boldly flavored sandwiches and salads, and a good assortment of drinks, sides, and desserts make us wish there was a Fables closer to our offices. We’d probably sample the entire menu eventually, but it would be tough to move beyond the imaginative and satisfying list of daily specials.
95 Perry St., 716-200-1798, lagerhaus95.com.
You know it’s good when an entry like “African peanut soup” wins Best in Taste over a few hundred interpretations of chicken noodle, broccoli cheddar, and pasta fagioli, which is just what happened at this year’s Soupfest. Lagerhaus chef Jamie Zynda has built a menu around fresh ingredients and simple preparations, and her dedication to making delicious soups is no different. Where many restaurants use powdered stock bases, or simply thaw and reheat “pre-fab” soups, Lagerhaus makes everything from-scratch in-house, and you can taste the difference. Whether it’s hearty, well-loved comfort classics, or inventive and masterful presentations of lesser-known recipes, Lagerhaus is the place to go for a satisfying soup experience. (The vibe, proximity to downtown, and the killer egg and caramelized onion-topped “Hindenburger” don’t hurt, either!)
Best spa/healthy menu
298 Main St., 716-572-3247, liquidenergyjuicebarcafe.com.
Liquid Energy is known mostly for its juices. This is the downtown place to get smoothies (glorified milkshakes with added nutritive features), raw juice drinks, and wheatgrass shots. It’s a tiny little stand, nestled away in the Cathedral Square building downtown facing Main Street that also supports a Subway and the Globe Market’s downtown location. If juice-as-lunch isn’t for you, try one of the healthy wraps, rice bowls, or quesadillas made fresh from wholesome ingredients. The turkey avocado wrap on whole wheat has pure honey, dried cranberries, and comes with a fresh salad. It makes for a satisfying and healthy lunch.
2829 Niagara St., 716-873-0757/716-873-5981, suzy-que.blogspot.com.
The best barbecue in Buffalo is served up in a small, nondescript building tucked away just north of Riverside, near the Tonawanda Powertrain plant. Bob and Suzy will make you want to nap all afternoon with their Piggy Pie: fries, pork, salsa, and beans. They’ll also tempt you with delicious, smoky BBQ ribs accompanied by homemade sides. If you want to try something truly outstanding, order a 2 meat heap—hold the bread—and ask for the pulled pork and the smoked Polish sausage. That sausage should rightfully be a culinary destination in its own right. The creamy, delicious cole slaw goes great with it, and—unlike other places—Suzy Q’s respects you enough to let you sauce your own meat, rather than deliver it with a massive glob of liquid brown sugar.
307 Bryant St., 716-881-7592, thearomagroup.com.
Taste the difference that locally grown foods make at Trattoria Aroma. On a relaxed Sunday morning, you can indulge in the flavors of eggs from Alden, pork from Dayton, and lettuce from Massachusetts Avenue. Composed entrees are available, but it’s fun to mix the nearly dozen sides and free pastries into your own thing.
414 Amherst St., 716-881-2022, delishblackrock.com.
Delish gets its coffee from Stumptown, a Portland, Oregon-based company known in equal parts for acquiring the world’s finest coffee and for demanding it be prepared and served properly. That means that Stumptown signed off on Delish only after vetting its storing, turnover, brewing, extracting, and cleaning protocols. All of which would be pointless if the coffee itself wasn’t great, but it is. The espresso drinks have more actual coffee punch than most, and the coffee itself hits a lot of notes beyond “dark” and “hot.”
Available at Zillycakes and Nickel City Cheese Mercantile, 716-638-0317
Sarah Walley’s mission is not just to sell macarons, which, in her capable kitchen, turn out as impossibly light, crisp-shelled, almond-tinged meringue cookies, holding a bit of rich filling that creates a rewarding 5-layer texture. Walley must also differentiate her creations from double “o” macaroons, the coconut and chocolate hunks that live on the opposite side of the subtlety table. But she doesn’t take it too seriously. Among the limoncello, strawberry rhubarb, “Thin Mint,” and vanilla bean, there’s a “Macaroon macaron,” which blends coconut, chocolate, and a sense of humor.
Best new restaurant
Black Rock Kitchen & Bar
491 Amherst St., 716-551-0261, blackrockkitchenandbar.com.
There is a nice midpoint between experimentation and crowd-pleasing, and Black Rock Kitchen seems pretty comfortable there. There is bone marrow, minimalist beet-and-cheese plates, and duck confits, but there is also a solid beer list, a burger that’s just “as you like it,” and a really simple, comfort-food-focused dessert menu. It’s both a destination restaurant for a changing neighborhood, and a comfortable place to try some new dishes.
Elm Street Bakery
72 Elm St., 716-652-4720, elmstreetbakery.com.
Elm Street Bakery makes artisan breads using simple ingredients and traditional leavening techniques. “Fresh, Wholesome, Local and Seasonal” is the motto of this family-owned business housed in a warm and rustic renovated mill. The breads feature a fermented starter, which provides easier digestion and a sophisticated flavor you won’t find elsewhere in the region. All breads are mixed, shaped, and baked by hand, and their brick oven uses 10,000-year-old technology—conduction, convection, and radiation in one. Some of our favorites include sourdough, caraway rye, ciabatta, sesame semolina, vollkornbrot, and grandma’s feather (cinnamon-raisin). Grab a loaf to go, or sit and enjoy your bread as part of a sandwich or accompaniment to soup. The bakery also offers pastries, freshly roasted coffee, salads, pizzas, granola, and a host of local goods.
Best Asian restaurant
Tie: Peking Quick One and Sun International Foods
359 Somerville Ave., Tonawanda 716-381-8730.
Peking Quick One is a relative newcomer to the Asian restaurant scene in Western New York, but food lovers across the region are embracing the “secret” homestyle menu at this unassuming Chinese restaurant. There’s not much better than going for a meal in a surprising location (in this case, a strip mall in Tonawanda) and finding food that transports your tastebuds to another continent.
1989 Niagara St., 716-447-0202, sunfoodmarket.net.
The availability of outstanding Burmese food is one of the West Side’s many culinary treasures, and there’s no better place to experience it than tiny, unassuming Sun International Foods. There’s unbeatable Thai on the menu as well, plus enough Chinese and Korean fare to offer something recognizable for everyone. Add low prices and great service, and it’s easy to see why Sun is one of Niagara Street’s most beloved spots.
475 Ellicott St., 716-332-2928, seabarsushi.com.
The sleek bar, impeccable and colorful lighting, modern furniture, and chic clientele make Seabar a gorgeous dining and drinking environment. It’s a destination. It’s upscale and approachable in one. It's what we’ve needed in the downtown area for years. Quality meals, skillfully made cocktails, and outstanding service add to the energy that turns first-time patrons into regulars. Experience Seabar from all angles: sit at the sushi bar, partake in the dining room, and gaze across the bar to see who just strolled into the hippest place in town. And don’t be shy about ending the evening with sake JELL-O shots.
Best seasonal menu
484 Elmwood Ave., 716-884-1100, europabuffalo.com.
Working with local farmers, such as Dan Tower Farm, Painted Meadow Farm, and Native Offerings, Bistro Europa’s owners, Steve and Ellen Gedra, incorporate European philosophies of using the freshest, best quality ingredients to make simple and delicious dishes. Each plate is made with care, from appetizer to dessert. Bistro Europa embodies the notion that when the details are minded, it makes a tremendous difference in the flavors you encounter. With regular menu additions to suit the availability of ingredients, there are as many old favorites as there are playful and enticing specials.
Best wine list
33 Virginia Pl., 716-882-2989.
There are many ways to judge a wine list: by its size and scale, the depth of cellared or aged wines, and the markup on prices. It is static, or ever-changing? Does it have an extensive by-the-glass selection? Is the list following current trends or is it stuck in the last decade’s fashionable grapes? (California Merlot, anyone?) Mother’s in Allentown gets straight As in all of the above. The restaurant has a thoughtful by the glass selection with prices that can go toe to toe with other restaurants who serve inferior wines named Cupcake and Barefoot. But with the depth and value of its bottle list here, there’s an excuse to buy in bulk. Here’s how the restaurant’s bottles break down: there are 2 lists: one for “everyday” bottles (that is, if you drink Chateauneuf and Brunello every day) and another “Stash” list, which includes rarer, older, and more selective offerings. A Super Tuscan called Crognolo that retails for $42 is listed for $49, an ’01 Barolo goes for just $78 and a truly wine-geek-approved ’99 Musar red blend from Lebanon for $57 are just a few reasons why Mother’s wins hands-down.
Arrowhead Spring Vineyards
4746 Lockport Town Line Rd., Lockport, 716-434-8030, arrowheadspringvineyards.com.
This Cambria winery makes some seriously delicious wines on the Niagara Escarpment. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Chardonnay are all grown on Duncan and Robin Ross’ farm, and the winemakers spare no expense when it comes to crafting wines they like to drink.
Patience is the key with Arrowhead’s reds, as barrel aging can last anywhere from 12 to 24 months depending on the variety and vintage. The Rosses like their Chardonnay in oak and their reds blended. Their red Meritage blends are their most recognizable labels, but they’ve also made a case for Niagara Syrah and affordable pinot noir.
While Arrowhead isn’t alone in making this style or level of quality in local wine, the winery is the most successful at getting its wines out there to the public. The winery enjoys wide distribution in WNY, and can be easily found in wine shops and restaurants. If you want to taste great local wine, chances are Arrowhead will be an option no matter where you dine or buy.
Best beer selection
727 Elmwood Ave., 716-882-6665, bluemonkbflo.com.
Blue Monk regularly posts what’s pouring from their 32 tap lines on their Facebook page, and lists their bottle collection on their website. That alone could make it the best browsing spot for beer. Knowing what’s there, you can plan out a night that travels from smoky malts to citrus-tinged hops, or starts at Tipple Dark Norse Ale and ends with San Francisco’s finest craft brews. But it’s the adventurous choices and rare finds that make the Monk the place to really enjoy an actual beer—a Brettanomyces Lambicus Special Edition from Bayerischer Bahnhof might never come around again.
Best new bar
253 Allen St., 716-240-9359, dukesbohemiangrovebar.com.
What we want from a bar can vary from day to day and person to person, but there are a few “staples” (pun intended). Great service. Great drink selection. Great music. Great vibe. DBGB’s satisfies on every level with friendly, attentive bar staff; a wonderful selection of microbrews as well as standard drinks, and even an assortment of stemware for the beers; outstanding music with a separate dance area and fantastic DJs; and an atmosphere that somehow manages to balance down-to-earth with unassailably cool no matter what time of night.
220 Lexington Ave., 716-551-6262, verapizzeria.com.
The bartenders at Vera have taken it upon themselves to elevate cocktails back to their former art form, starting with the best ingredients available (ask them about their vermouth) and employing an encyclopedic knowledge of mixology, a chef’s creative instincts, and technique perfected with a flair for showmanship. Order a drink here and your Vera experience will begin before you even open your tab; the bar staff’s pre-Prohibition-era attire, dapper facial hair, and easy banter as they toss around glasses and garnishes with the ease of circus performers combine for a trip back in time. Sip, and you’ll understand why these folks are so passionate about bringing that back, and why Vera’s become the hottest watering hole in town.
Tie: Louie Leone at Oliver’s and Drew Love at Cantina Loco
2095 Delaware Ave., 716-877-9662, oliverscuisine.com.
Belly up to the bar at Oliver’s and you get the sense immediately that the entire customer base is there for one reason: Louie Leone. He’s a bartender in the classic tradition: white shirt and tie, a genial gift of gab as well as a gift for remembering names, professional down to the bone. Leone may not be the reason the bar is curved in a U-shape with him at the center, but it certainly suits him.
191 Allen St., 716-551-0160, catinaloco.com.
Drew Love, on the other hand, manages a bar often four-deep with thirsty Allentown pub crawlers on the hunt for tequila, and amid flashy food and a loud crowd he’s still an attraction all his own. Formerly the best thing about the Old Pink, Love is in his element amid the supercharged energy at Cantina, lending his prowess to phenomenal cocktails and the kind of impeccable service that saves a hot spot like Cantina from feeling inaccessible.
3105 County Line Rd., Corfu, (585) 599-3462, promisedlandcsa.com.
Oles Farm, located in Alden, is a family endeavor. It’s the home of Promised Land CSA, one of the most popular of the Community Supported Agriculture programs in Western New York, and also the home of Daniel and Jane Oles, farmers extraordinaire. The combination of bountiful land, wonderful personalities, and delicious produce makes Oles our pick for Best Farm.
Best kids’ menu
The kids’ menu at Pizza Plant (with locations on Main Street and on Transit Road) is a great deal. For only $3.69 at lunch or dinner, children can choose from perennial favorites like mac & cheese, spaghetti, chicken fingers, or pizza. But they can also get one of Pizza Plant’s specialty pods, in mini form. These pods come with a plethora of options for type of crust, sauce, cheese, vegetable, and meat (or meatless). These choices will accommodate even the pickiest of picky eaters. And Pizza Plant’s atmosphere is completely kid-friendly. They’ll even give your children an individual serving of dough to play with (à la clay) while you’re waiting for your meal.
Best steak sandwich
Tie: Hutch’s and 223 Allen St (aka The Old Pink)
1375 Delaware Ave., 716-885-0074, hutchsrestaurant.com.
We have talked about both of these delicious steak sandwiches before; they are so good people remember them long past their most recent visit to either of the institution’s that serve them. Hutch’s beloved version takes its cue from the Pittsuburghian pioneers, Primanti Brothers, by adding coleslaw and crispy fries to its ingredient list—just when you thought it would be impossible to improve upon the combo of toasted roll, perfectly grilled NY strip steak, and melted mozzarella cheese. It’s a house favorite and you’re likely to spot several folks at the restaurant’s quaint backroom bar, indulging in this sweet, salty, and savory flavor combination.
223 Allen St.
Down the street in Allentown, Buffalo’s best dive bar serves up a steak sandwich that once landed the joint in GQ magazine and has a devoted following on Facebook (really, check it out under “Old Pink” Steak Sandwich). When wine enthusiasts speak of terrior, (the flavor inherent in wine based on the natural conditions in which the grapes were raised) you might not think of an Old Pink sammy, but the flavor imparted by the tavern’s well-worn grill might be considered the sandwich’s secret ingredient. A whole strip steak tops a roll of ideal density, augmented by the smoky-sweet condiment of flame-licked peppers and onions. Rounding out this edible experience requires little more than the addition of an ironic can of ice cold PBR.
Tie: Sinatra’s and Bacchus
Increasingly, restaurant guests are crafting their own experience by making meals composed of many appetizers, as opposed to the more traditional 3-course event. It allows them to sample more of the chef’s work, and to taste a wide variety of things—even sharing with others to enjoy a more communal dining experience.
56 W. Chippewa St., 716-854-9463, ultimaterestaurants.com/bacchus.
At Bacchus, guests make selections from an appetizer menu that changes with the season, showcasing chef Brian Mietus’s understanding of flavorful, contemporary dishes that marry particularly well with the restaurant’s extensive wine list. Better yet, if you fall in love with a particular dish, it can be sized up to an entrée, and all of the menu’s entrées can be sized down, making it simple to devise a meal suited to your individual preferences.
938 Kenmore Ave., 716-877-9419, sinatraswny.com.
Sinatra’s app menu reads traditional Italian-American, with classic offerings like stuffed peppers and antipasto. But what sets them apart is that the execution of these recipes is always on-point, making some of them the best examples of their all-too-often poorly copied counterparts. Take, for example, Chef Sinatra’s sautéed fava beans, painstakingly peeled and seasoned deftly with just the right amount of garlic, or the Artichoke Francaise, crunchy and flavorful from its delicate egg and breading treatment. But readers shouldn’t feel obliged to order either of these to understand Sinatra’s inclusion here—it’s nearly impossible to go wrong with any of the selections on Sinatra’s proven and perfected short list of classic appetizers.
Best small plates
242 Allen St., 883-1675, samplerestaurantbuffalo.com.
Since opening, Allentown’s Sample has earned a reputation for its inventive hors d’oeuvres-sized edibles, but a recent reworking of the menu includes a full-tilt offering of tantalizing small plates and larger platters designed for sharing. We suggest you check out the menu, which includes drool-licious lobster poutine, fluffy ricotta gnocchi, and crispy melt-in-your-mouth slow braised pork belly accompanied by mustard caviar and braised cabbage. A creative approach to salads introduces warm asparagus with roasted mushroom chips, or the “Bacon & Egg,” with frisee, pickled shallots, lardons, and a fried duck egg. Since none of the above-mentioned dishes are priced at more than $11, stopping in to sample an assortment of Sample’s new, tricked out small plates seems like a necessary addition to any foodie’s dining schedule.
341 Franklin St., 716-852-4416, ruefranklin.com.
Anyone who has dined at “the Rue” will not be surprised to learn that the well-appointed French restaurant has taken this Best of catergory 2 years in a row. The service is informed, formal without being stiff, and attentive without hovering. But the true test of any front-of-the-house staff may just be how well they react to the unexpected. A recent arrival of 5 guests, without a reservation, at 7 p.m. on a weekend theater night clinched the deal—tables were quickly pushed together and dressed, our party was seated with no wait time, and the waiter did not treat us as if we had crashed a private party. The Rue Franklin has a long-standing sterling reputation for excellent service and they’ve earned it.
Best place to dine with a large group
Salvatore’s Italian Gardens
6461 Transit Rd., Depew, 716-683-7990, salvatores.net.
Few establishments in Western New York have the capacity to successfully serve food of good quality to large groups, and Salvatore’s tops that list. Whether your party is 15 co-workers having a holiday meal or 1,500 celebrating a wedding or anniversary, Salvatore’s—with its approachable menu and over-the-top décor—provide ample comfort and entertainment no matter the occasion or diversity of your group.
Best dessert menu
Tie: Shango and Carmelo’s
There is no question that WNYers have a serious sweet tooth. The sheer number of chocolate makers and ice cream stands provide ample evidence to back our observation, but sadly this obsession doesn’t always translate to the restaurant industry, where desserts take a back seat to nearly every other aspect of the business. That isn’t the case with these 2 fine dining favorites.
425 Center St., Lewiston, 754-2311, carmelos-restaurant.com.
Lewiston’s Carmelo’s is a bastion of sumptuous Italian dishes and cured meats, but the restaurant’s seasonal approach to simple, well-made fresh desserts is notable. Take, for example, the delicate and ultra-creamy tarragon and pink grapefruit panna cotta, served with a housemade lemon biscotti, or the traditional tiramisu, upgraded with a scoop of housemade Nutella ice cream. We encourage you to enjoy the full dining experience at Carmelo’s, but whatever you do, save room for dessert.
3260 Main St., 837-2326, shangobistro.com.
Shango—the New Orleans-themed bistro and wine bar located in University Heights—has won the accolades of many since opening. Best gumbo, best brunch, best beer offerings—it’s tough to keep track of them all. And their commitment to offering consistently tempting and delicious desserts is no less well-played, with classics like molten chocolate cake, a divine Southern pecan pie paired perfectly with housemade coconut ice cream, or the made-to-share Bananas Foster, that marvelous age-old pairing of hot, sweet, and aromatic fruit with cold vanilla ice cream and a rich caramel sauce.
Best candy shop
Watson’s Chocolates of Distinction has been a family-owned and operated business in WNY since 1946. With 8 retail locations across the area, it’s easy to feel like a kid in a candy shop at Watson’s. From their renowned sponge candy to their Buffalo-oriented chocolate confections, Watson’s has something to satisfy the cravings of even the most discriminating sweet tooth. Their storefronts harken back to the candy shops of old, and many Buffalo expats make trips to Watson’s a regular part of their routine when home for a visit.
Thanks to Spree’s panelists and writers: Bruce Adams, William C. Altreuter, Nina Barone, Alan Bedenko, Julia Burke, Don Burtless, Bryan Calandrelli, Rachel Fix Dominguez, Bruce Eaton, Jana Eisenberg, Seamus Gallivan, Donna Hoke, Cheryl Jackson, Meg Knowles, Elizabeth Licata, Darwin McPherson, Jane Mogavero, Barry A. Muskat, Nancy J. Parisi, Kevin Purdy, Christopher Schobert, Maria Scrivani, Christa Glennie Seychew, Joe Sweeney, Margaret M. Toohey, James Walkowiak, and Ryan Weaver.