The Review / CraVing
Photos by kc kratt
1472 Hertel Ave, Buffalo, NY
What is the worth of an ingredient? What is the merit of cooking if it isn’t applied to the best ingredients? Do we crave cooking or what is cooked?
These thoughts start swirling through your head about an hour into a meal prepared by chef Adam Goetz at his Hertel Avenue bistro, CraVing. It’s a quirky place with dark wood, wall-sized slate chalkboards announcing an endless list of local produce, and barroom decorations that connect strongly with these farms. Upon entering, bare bulbs emit a warm, candlelike glow and provide immediate contrast to the bustling street activity outside.
If CraVing needs to be defined, its commitment to ingredients and preparation provides the bulk of the definition. The chalkboard list of farms is not just window dressing or an obligatory nod to the current farm to table trend. These are real connections that result from the pursuit of superior ingredients. There’s humility in a kitchen that recognizes that cooking technique can only do so much, and the rest needs to come from the raw materials. It’s quite apparent that Chef Goetz recognizes his limits and seeks out producers of the highest quality ingredients and forges ties with them, encouraging them to grow specialized produce to keep his menu inventive twelve months of the year.
Despite a tiny kitchen, the quest for quality includes local, humanely raised pork, beef, lamb, chickens, and even veal. Sourced from Erba Verde, calves are pasture raised and remain with their mothers, affording them a healthy, natural existence that also results in a superior product. Production is quite limited, with CraVing being one of the few spots in town that regularly feature this treat. During one of our recent visits, we happened upon a special that uses the veal in a pasta dish. Veal breast, moist and so tender it yields to the slightest pressure of your fork, is mounded on curled tubes of fresh crepe-like pasta, and brightened up by diced fresh tomato and a pleasant blast of herbs.
As with the veal breast, the choice to work with whole animals means that the kitchen tends to use fewer high-margin cuts like chops and steaks. It makes for some interesting limited specials and allows the kitchen room to be creative. Pig tails might not be for everyone, but from CraVing’s kitchen, they are enjoyable bite-sized nuggets, slow cooked so it’s easy to extract the rich meat from the bone. Heavily browned and served with a glossy pan sauce on top of an earthy puree of celeriac and draped with translucent fennel shavings, these humble parts are elevated to haute status. Belly ribs off of a T-Meadow heritage breed hog are another magical discovery. Requiring a whole side of the animal to extract a single rack, this monstrous piece of meat is not for the faint of heart, as it combines two much-loved cuts: pork belly and spare ribs. Rubbed with a bit of five-spice powder before being slow smoked, the meat is triumphantly served on a hefty slab of wood and paired with a bit of mustardy Asian greens.
CraVing’s kitchen also does its own curing. A recent specials list was peppered with house-cured pig cheeks, better know as guanciale. The cheeks are similar to bacon and add incredible savoriness; their rendered fat offers unique body to sauces. The ephemeral nature of these treats makes them all the more craveworthy, like a recent all-too-brief offering of housemade capicola (or, as it is affectionately referred to on the menu, gabagool). As is traditional, pork neck is packed in a spicy cure and cooked like ham. Here it’s shaved thin and piled decadently high on an airy roll. The assertively cured meat is close to perfect, soft, tender, and braced by piquant pickled peppers.
CraVing’s take on s’mores
While desirable specials, like lobster poutine (with housemade cheese curds), tend to overshadow the regular menu, solid dishes from the daily offerings should be acknowledged. The fried chicken dinner is actually a nice little appetizer of lightly battered, boneless breast, fried until crisp, yet retaining all of its moisture. Accompanied by a spoonful of cheddar grits and wilted greens, it’s just enough to scratch that itch but leave room for the rest of your meal. For the more adventurous, the roasted bone marrow is a must. Split lengthwise, the beef bones offer up rich marrow for spreading on slices of toasted foccacia. Mushroom duxelles, slicked with dark demi glace and garnished with parsley chiffonade complete the presentation. Salads are large and are best shared. The simple Caesar is a clear standout, with snappy spears of Romaine brushed with a dressing fortified with whole grain mustard rife with floral notes. The kitchen puts a deck oven, inherited from the previous occupants, to good use turning out very respectable pizzas. The crust is impossibly thin, providing a formidable crunch and a satisfying wheat flavor that holds it own against toppings like thick-cut pepperoni. Housemade pastas come in various shapes and preparations, and can be made in both appetizer and entree portions. The handkerchief pasta is exceptionally light and fresh when sauced with a peppery arugula pesto with cut asparagus and mushrooms in the mix. Finally, there is at least one craveable dessert. The house s’more is a confectionary masterpiece. A scratchmade marshmallow brick, melted by a light bruleeing, puddles up to conceal a buttery graham cracker, liberally smeared with chocolate-peanut butter fudge, and a bit of caramel peanut brittle.
The entire staff, from the husband-and-wife Goetz team to the friendly bartenders and professional waitstaff, make CraVing a warm and welcoming place. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a visit from Goetz, who is usually willing to strike up a conversation regarding his blatant love of local ingredients and preparations.
CraVing at its best is a perfect example of what cooking can be when prime produce from WNY farms meets practiced hands.
Jeff Biesinger is Spree’s fine dining reviewer.