The Review / Dobutsu
A chef shows off his second passion
Photos by Eric Frick
500 Seneca St #119, Buffalo, NY 14204
Restaurants I find most compelling are ones that strive for authenticity. We often think of authenticity as a product of hard work, not cutting corners, and staying within the tried and true traditions specific to a cuisine. But what if we expand the definition to include chefs’ personal culinary paths and how true they stay to themselves? When chefs harness the twists and turns of their paths, these become their signatures, lending originality and personal authenticity to their cooking. Chefs like David Chang, Ivan Orkin, and Danny Bowien spring to mind.
James Roberts, by opening a second restaurant, provides an additional taste of who he is. His first endeavor, Toutant, showcases his culinary roots, which arise from the countryside of Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. Roberts’ second foray, Dobutsu, continues the story by plumbing the rich traditions of Asian cuisines he learned as a young chef working in sushi and traditional Japanese restaurants. Before opening Toutant, Roberts regularly flashed his skills around town with ramen popups and an underground supper club named Omakase, after the Japanese tradition of leaving meals in the hands of sushi chefs. On the surface, Dobutsu and Toutant may seem polar opposites, but both share Roberts’ DNA, with approachable food and commitment to quality ingredients—including impeccably sourced seafood.
Dobutsu, filling out the corner of 500 Seneca, is on the outer fringes of Larkinville, but with Tommyrotter Distillery and Winkler & Samuels wine shop in the same building, and Beltline Brewery just around the corner, it’s also a micro entertainment district. Dobutsu’s interior space is open and industrial, but sound dampeners hidden above the exposed ductwork keep noise levels manageable, even on busy Friday nights.
The most noticeable interior feature is the glass-fronted, refrigerated case prominently located at the restaurant’s entrance. Front and center, whole sides of pristine fish gleam gemlike on a bed of pebbled ice. With a good sushi shop’s ethos of nothing to hide, Dobutsu displays its daily offerings that are then read off the specials menu. A large board behind the raw bar provides additional details on sourcing, for those concerned with sustainability.
Pan-roasted Hawaiian tuna with shichimi spice rub, celeriac puree, charred bok choy, confit shallots, chile miso
Caribbean jerk snapper with crispy spiced potatoes, candied carrots, sweet pickled onion, habanero vinaigrette
Seafood largely drives the menu. Dobutsu translates from the Japanese for animal, and the animals most associated with Japan live in the sea. The raw bar serves coldwater boutique oysters from around the country, depending on availability, either raw or broiled NoLa style. It also typically features a nightly crudo special (think sashimi with modern accompaniments). On the night of our visit, the crudo selection was tombo ahi (albacore tuna), a meaty fish typical of tuna, but blushing pink instead of deep red. The milder fish is nicely complemented by an artful assortment of sour apple puree, citrusy oil, sweet and earthy beets, and herbaceous micro parsley. Raw fish also makes an appearance in a pair of poke bowls, and grilled fish makes up a big part of the entrees. We opted for grilled bigeye tuna, which is closer to the typical yellowfin tuna served at reputable sushi restaurants. Here, it’s presented with a well-browned exterior surrounding a cool center and seasoned with sprinkle of flaky sea salt, offering a bite with both grilled and sashimi elements. Served with a bit of sticky, short grained rice, and a pair of sauces—avocado and citrus miso—the final dish has that addicting quality of a futomaki roll, only deconstructed.
Hamachi crudo with citrus, avocado emulsion, charred poblano, nori, ginger, shiso
At Dobutsu, sea creatures aren’t the only animals on the menu; there are plenty of beef and pork offerings, sourced with a similar commitment to quality. Bao buns, a traditional Chinese steamed dough similar to Wonder Bread, are cleverly dressed with caraway and salt and filled with roast beef, creamy horseradish, and pickled onion, an undeniably fun mashup of Asia meets 716. Twice-cooked pork, a classic Szechuan dish, gets similarly Buffaloed. Sweetened a touch with lightly caramelized peppers and onions and light soy sauce, it triggers memories for me of county fair grilled treats in a delightfully unexpected way. And for those meat and potato types, chef de cuisine Dustin Swaciak and his kitchen crew do not disappoint with their grilled ribeye. A decadent slab of beef is thoroughly seared on the robata grill and laden with black garlic butter. A side of roasted oyster mushrooms with the steak lands a one-two umami punch that’s indisputably pleasing. Homemade tater tots, dusted with a traditional Japanese spice blend of togarashi, dare to steal the show, their fluffy interior surrounded by golden crust, forming perfect cylinders.
Big eye tuna poke with sticky rice, sesame soy, chiles, furikake, taro chips; Marinated Atlantic salmon poke with sticky rice, ginger miso, scallion, sake sauce, arare, taro chips
The bar program, with craft beer, cocktails, wines, and spirits, covers all the bases, but a few features nudge it past the mainstream. The tap list, while not extensive, is refreshing in that it routinely showcases beers and breweries that aren’t commonly represented elsewhere, with a wider variety of styles, limiting the ubiquitous hazy IPAs to one or two. A tight list of interesting bottled and canned beers that complement the cuisine is also available. The bar also showcases a nice variety of sochu (Japanese whiskey) and, for the curious, the bar staff will happily run through the attributes of each.
While maybe not authentic in the strict use of the word, the cuisine of Dobutsu is deliciously authentic to chef Roberts.