Take One: Bistro Europa
There is a live, beating heart in the center of Buffalo’s foodie culture. And it is Bistro Europa.
Hearts of palm salad tossed in pesto and sesame seeds
More so than any other locale in the city, Europa is the home of the sensual, the wacky, the raw, the sinful, the fresh, the stinky, the weird—and it’s won the heart of every truly passionate eater to cross its doorstep, one order of pork belly at a time. In fact, if you’re a foodie in Buffalo, you don’t need to be told to eat there. You probably know that the restaurant’s homey bar, where dishes and passions get shared between strangers (the first time I ate there, someone sent me an order of head cheese across the bar instead of a drink), where chef Steve Gedra has been known to appear with a jar of some insane ingredient from some faraway land that he wants you to touch, is the best-kept secret in town. And if you haven’t been there yet, Bistro Europa probably doesn’t need you. No matter. They’ll make you feel right at home just the same.
My dining buddy and I arrived to discover a packed Thursday night crowd that included Dan and Jane Oles of Promised Land CSA, one of Europa’s local produce suppliers. Seasoned Europa veterans already, we knew that the menu was too creative and too consistently delicious to rationalize limiting ourselves to an entrée apiece, so we committed to splitting a series of dishes.
We began with a beet terrine; the gorgeous and brilliantly colored layers were topped with watercress and a sprinkle of macadamia nuts. An ideal combination of creamy and fresh, the layers of crisp beet and cheese were luscious and benefited from the nutty crunch of the macadamias. Visually speaking it was the dish of the night, but as far as plant-based dishes were concerned, what came next blew us away.
A hearts-of-palm salad tossed in pesto and sesame seeds contained a most delightful mix of sweet, tangy citrus fruit, earthy herbs, crunchy root vegetables, and the meaty umami flavor of sesame. The dish was bright, fresh, and healthy yet so sensual that it felt positively decadent. At this point, it’s worth noting that while Bistro Europa’s wine list is certainly eclectic and nothing to scoff at, it is the beer selection—mostly hard-to-find European imports with several notable domestic bottles—that deserves real credit for perfectly complementing the rich, lively menu. I enjoyed an Ayinger Brau-Weiss with my meal and was once again convinced that certain dishes beg for beer. This perfection-on-a-plate salad would have brought most wines to their knees, but sang in perfect harmony with my floral, yeasty, highly carbonated German brew.
Roasted Sheephead fish with fregula salad
From the vibrant, life-giving vegetarian dishes we had just enjoyed, our evening transitioned seamlessly into the other side of Europa’s fare: unadulterated carnivorous hedonism. Seafood was in order as an appropriate segue. A plate of buttery, melt-in-your-mouth bay scallops was soft and nutty, but with a jolt of killer blood orange drizzle and chewy hominy grains to sop up all that saucy goodness. Mussels were next—fresh and tender, with a subtle broth of seaweed, fish stock, lotus, Asian cilantro, and Thai basil that was as good as the dish itself. My date, a Boston native, was transported back to Massachusetts upon his first bite, and began to wax nostalgic with clambake stories from his childhood as he dunked toast points in the luscious broth.
The next dish snapped him out of his reverie. Duck cassoulet is the sort of thing you can only get at a place like Bistro Europa—there’s something about the luxurious debauchery of duck that just begs for a chef like Gedra to make it his own. The dish combines hunks of duck sausage, bacon, and a breadcrumb and nut topping for a one-dish meal that could turn a vegetarian to binge meat-eating (followed by self-flagellation). There’s a flaky, nutty texture throughout, and the bacon lent a heavy smoke note with flashes of pepper that made it a great match for a glass of Grüner Veltliner. Crispy and crunchy where it needed to be and tender everywhere else, the cassoulet was an epicure’s comfort food.
You may cross the Bistro Europa threshold planning on skipping dessert, but this is the sort of meal that demands it—not for a taste of sweetness so much as for emotional closure. The special of the day was homemade churros with chocolate sauce. Out came the wafting scent of ridiculously indulgent fried dough and chocolate. The churros, each the size of a large banana, were oh-so-delicately sugared and fried on the outside for a crunchy shell that folded into a creamy center with each bite as if submitting to gleeful self-destruction. And this is before they were dipped in chocolate. The sauce was rich and bitter and tasted like the best cocoa money can buy.
If you care about food and haven’t eaten at Bistro Europa yet, you’re missing out on the best food appreciation experience in Buffalo. Don’t stress over what to order—just sit at the bar and ask the person next to you what he or she is eating. You’ll be a regular in no time.
Cherry melon mousse, cardamom shortbread, and roasted pineapple
484 Elmwood Avenue