By Ann Blask
A memorable dining experience has as much to do with aesthetics, camaraderie, and timing as it does with food. Some of my most enjoyable meals have been particularly appealing, I suspect, because they were shared with good friends, or maybe because it was a glorious day, or because the setting and the service were exceptionalwhatever the reasons, here are five of my best memories from the past year of dining:
Dinner at the Rue Franklin is a joy. Not only is the food superb, so too, is the atmosphere, the attitude, and the oh-so-French flair of owner/hostess, Andree Lippes. Whether she’s escorting you to your table, checking to see if you need more bread, or swapping stories about Paris, her inimitable, upbeat personality is infectious.
We began at the small bar, which divides the main dining room and the garden room. In keeping with the authentic, French-country motif, fresh flowers are everywhereon each table, on the side servers, in the foyer, and on the bar.
At the other end of the bar is a large ice-filled bowl, which is used for displaying the day’s wine selections. I took the bartender’s advice and opted for the Lauretan, a white French Bordeaux. Along with it, I munched on small Nicoise olives, a little treat to whet your appetite.
Our choice for dinner was the Garden Room, with a wall of glass doors that open onto a pretty back garden, of flowers, and vines, a brick patio, and small café tables.
The menu at the Rue changes seasonally, and, thanks to the artistry and imagination of Andree’s husband, Joel, who is the Executive Chef, and Head Chef, Bruce Bain, the choices are tantalizing.
For a starter I chose the Phyllo Napoleon, layered with crabmeat and mango. This crispy, light-as-a-feather pastry creation, is served on a bed of greens, garnished with diced tomatoes, and finished with a drizzle of olive oil.
Then I switched cuisines. Since Andree grew up in Morocco, before moving to France, I wanted to sample that part of her culinary offerings as well, so I chose Lamb Stew with Couscous, flavored with apricots, coriander, cumin, and pine nuts.
Prepared the traditional Moroccan way, the meat and vegetables, in this case zucchini and summer squash, were stewed, tajine style, in a lamb stock. A perfect combination, the tender meat and juices are presented over a round of the fruity, savory grain.
When it came time for dessert, I went right back to my French mode and, without a split-second hesitation, chose the Raspberry Gratin. If you like raspberries as much as I do, this is the ultimate treat, with a caramelized, brown sugar topping adding crunch to the velvety custard and whole, fresh raspberries.
I don’t know how to say it in French, but in English the word for this is “awesome.”
341 Franklin St.
open for dinner Tues-Sat 5:30 p.m.- 10:00 p.m.
2 sheets Phyllo pastry
1 cup sour cream
zest of 1 lime
juice of 1 lime
1 tbls minced cilantro
8 oz whole crab meat (leg meat)
1 mango, peeled and sliced into 3 inch by
half in slices
12 thin asparagus spears cut in half, blanched
and refreshed in cold water
1 ripe tomato, peeled, seeded, and diced
extra virgin olive oil
brunoise of diced red onion
(very finely diced red onion)
Brush 4 sheets of phyllo pastry with melted butter. Sprinkle each with chili powder. Stack one atop the other. Fold all together in half. Cut into 3 x 2 rectangles and place on non-stick cookie sheet or parchment. Cover with a second cookie sheet and bake at 375 or 15 minutes, until crisp and brown.
In a small bowl, mix sour cream, lime zest, lime juice, and minced cilantro. Set aside.
Spoon small amount of the sour cream mixture onto center of plate. Place 2 ounces of whole crab meat on the sour cream. Spread small amount of the sour cream mixture onto the crab legs. Sprinkle with the Brunoise of red onion. Place a phyllo rectangle on top, add a small dollop of sour cream mixture, 4 asparagus halves, a bit more cream. Add another phyllo rectangle, sour cream, and 4 mango slices. Add another dollop of sour cream and another piece of phyllo pastry. Top with another dollop of sour cream, sprinkle with diced tomato. Garnish with cilantro leaves, a sprinkle of ground cumin, and a drizzle of olive oil.
A friend invited us out for a “bite to eat, and a get-together with a few friends.” Both were misnomers. The “few friends,” turned out to be a string of tables for eighteen, and the “bite,” was more of a smorgasbord than a light meal.
The somewhat unlikely spot for this feast was DiTondo’s, an unassuming old restaurant on Seneca Street, in the shadow of downtown. At first glance it’s hard to believe that this nearly 100-year-old haunt has a reputation for being a power-lunch spot for business people, politicians, and a score of “regulars,” who have standing reservations.
The homespun ambiance is not an accident. Owners, Al and Rosemary Rohloff, enjoy a first-name rapport with many of their customers. And the foodwell it’s as down-home as it gets. Rosemary, along with her mother, Mary DiTondo, who has been making the spaghetti sauce for the past fifty years, know what people like, and work diligently at maintaining the quality and the cuisine they are famous for.
The night I went, we ordered our desserts first, because we couldn’t risk a sell-out on the homemade lemon meringue, banana cream, or fresh strawberry pies. Rosemary held these for us until we were ready. Once that was taken care of, we delved into an array of appetizers, which were passed around the table: Clams Casino; eggplant stuffed with a ricotta cheese mixture, and baked with a mozzarella topping; hot peppers stuffed with bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, and various spices; and the Calamari Salad, a DiTondo’s specialty, that is tasty, tangy, and always freshly made.
The dinner menu has three basic categories: spaghetti, baked fish, and grilled meat. The spaghetti can be ordered with your choice of meatballs, Italian sausage, chicken Parmesan, or braciole, a thin, stuffed steak roll. The other pasta option is Linguine with White Clam Sauce.
The grilled meats, which are served on Friday night only, vary, but usually they have steak, chicken, pork tenderloin, and lamb chops. These are served with roasted peppers, and a side of spaghetti.
My choice was the Spaghetti and braciole. I generally bypass this on most menus, knowing that no restaurant can possibly make it as well as my mother did. But this time, I was pleasantly surprised. Even Mom would have given it a stamp of approval. Bruce ordered the baked fish, which I sampled as well. Flaky and wonderfully seasoned, it is prepared with lemon seasoning, fresh tomatoes, and topped with breadcrumbs. Now I know why this is considered by many to be the best fish dish in Western New York.
370 Seneca St.
open for lunch Mon-Fri
11:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
dinner Friday only
5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
DiTondo’s Calamari Salad
10 lb fresh calamari boiled,
cooled, and cut into rings
2 carrots, finely chopped
3 stalks celery, finely chopped
1 can black olive slices
half cup of green pepper rings,
packed in vinegar
one quarter of a small onion,
salt and pepper to taste
fresh lemon juice
(4 or 5 lemons)
Mix together with 1 cup of olive oil. Add a touch of wine vinegar for more zing.
Marinate overnight, serve chilled.
My love affair with San Marco began years ago when owner Frank Grimaldi, and his wife Nancy, the head chef, introduced me to their incomparable Bruschetta. Though bruschetta is now a staple on many appetizer menus, San Marco made it before anyone even knew how to pronounce it. (Just for the record, it’s bru-skett’a)
What’s so great about chopped tomatoes on little pieces of bread? Maybe it’s the special olive oil San Marco uses, or maybe it’s their deft touch with seasonings. Just a hint of garlic, a smattering of fresh basil, and I don’t know what else, because they won’t tell me.
The San Marco experience is not just about food. Equally satisfying is the stunningly beautiful décor. In the main dining room, and the small back dining room, a collection of hand-painted plates and vases, add a striking touch to the white and pastel linens and walls. The wine room, a cozy alcove, is just the opposite. Here, the few tables share space with huge racks of wine bottles.
We chose a table in the main room, and got down to the serious business of studying the menu. In addition to daily specials, there are five appetizers, a few soups, various pasta courses, and a good variety of main courses, which include meat, fish, and wild game, such as Cinghiale Alla Brace, a tenderloin of wild boar, marinated in extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar and juniper berries.
You can mix and match, choosing an appetizer or soup with a main course or a pasta course, or all three, if you’re really hungry. I decided on soup, with an appetizer-size portion of pasta for my entrée.
The soup, Minestra Di Funghi, is a wild mushroom bisque made with variety of mushrooms, and Linguine Allo Scoglio, (which means “pasta from the reef,”) a seafood trio of grilled shrimp, scallops, and squid, in a white wine sauce, topping the linguine. What makes this dish a winner is that the light sauce does not overpower the delicate taste of the seafood.
A winner among the dessert offerings is Chocolate Soufflé, served with hazelnut gelato.
San Marco Ristorante
2082 Kensington Ave
open for dinner daily
5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Mushroom Bisque San Marco
1 quarter pound butter
4 tbls truffle oil
2 cups diced shallots
fresh ground pepper
salt to taste
4 tbls flour
4 cups water
4 pints heavy cream
8 cups Portabello mushrooms,
sliced and cut into bit-size pieces
1 cup dry Forest Blend
of porcini, shitaki,
crimini) soaked, then
1 half cup Marsala wine
Lightly sauté shallots in butter and truffle oil. Add fresh ground pepper. Add portabello mushrooms, cover and cook on low head to soften.
Add flour and mix. Add water and cream. Mix and cook to reduce liquid a bit.
Add mixed mushroom blend and wine. Cook one hour, adding a bit more water if needed.
Remove 2 cups of mushrooms and blend in a food processor. Return to pot and continue cooking and reducing to desired consistency. Add salt to taste. Garnish with fresh-chopped parsley.
Lunch with the girls is usually on a Wednesday. The restaurant may vary, except in the summer, when the vote is unanimousthe deck at Rodney’s, on Lake Shore Road in Hamburg. This is al fresco dining at it’s best, with hanging baskets of flowers adding a summery touch, and a constant lake breeze, which can make even the hottest day refreshing. The deck is open daily until midnight, and, as you might imagine, is in demand well into fall. When the season ends, the crowd just moves inside to the main dining room, or to the always-busy bar, where there are another half dozen or more tables.
Fish is a favorite here, Friday or not, with fish frys and various seafood platters. So too are the Build-Your-Own burgers, and popular finger-foods, such as BBQ Shrimp Orleans, a house specialty, which is large shrimp, sautéed in a seasoned BBQ sauce, and wrapped with bacon.
Since it was a hot and hazy day, with record-breaking temperatures, I concentrated on the salads. There were half a dozen to choose from, including spinach, tuna, julienne, and Cajun chicken. My choice was the Tropical Chicken Salad, with almonds and pineapple, atop a bowl of lettuce and cucumbers. It was cool and crunchy, nicely sweetened by the pineapple, and lightly topped with ranch dressing, which I asked for on the side. Nancy chose the Rodney Burger, with mushrooms, bacon, and cheddar, and Betsy opted for fish, served with Rodney’s homemade potato salad and coleslaw.
It was too hot to think about dessert, but we lingered over a few more iced-teas, and chatted the afternoon away.
The dinner menu features several more seafood entrées, as well as various steaks, chicken and a huge surf and turf, which includes a half-pound lobster tail and New York strip steak.
4179 Lakeshore Rd.
open daily 11 a.m.-midnight
Rodney’s Chicken Salad
8 chicken breasts, cooked
half cup diced celery
1 tomato, diced
1 cup mayonnaise (Hellman’s)
half cup fresh pineapple, diced
Mix the chicken, celery, tomato, pineapple and mayonnaise together. Sprinkle in fresh pepper and garlic powder to taste. Scoop onto a bed of greens. Sprinkle with sliced almonds on top. Serves 10-12.
Romance is the byword at Daffodils. Subtle lighting, soft music, and the infusing glow of a fireplace set the stage. Three dining areasseparated by bookshelves, and partial wall dividesenhance the feel of intimacy.
Executive chef, Scott Donhauser has put together a menu of at least a dozen appetizers, and at least as many entrées. But most famous is their much-heralded Rack of Lamb. I chose the half rack, which consists of four chops, crusty and browned, and still sizzling on the plate. Served with a rosemary demi-glace, made with honey and Dijon mustard, this dish is the benchmark for any lamb you will ever eat.
Bruce’s Chilean Sea Bass was a thick, snow-white piece of fish, baked in a pineapple wedge and drizzled with a Thai chili-lime sauce.
I did manage dessert, after a leisurely break and a few sips of wine. (They don’t rush you out here. The table is yours for the evening.)
The dessert was Grilled Pound Cake, for which they were awarded the Best Food Award at the 1996 Taste of Buffalo. It is rich, unique, and positively scrumptious. The slice of cake is first grilled, to give it a light, smoky flavor, then topped with fresh-sliced Granny Smith apples, whole pecans, a bourbon-caramel sauce, and finally, a scoop of French vanilla ice-cream.
930 Maple Rd.
Daffodils Bourbon Caramel Sauce
2 and a half lbs brown sugar
2 lbs unsalted butter
1 and a half cups Bourbon
half quart heavy cream
In a heavy gallon size sauce pan, melt butter on a low flame and allow it to boil. Slowly add the brown sugar and stir to dissolve. Remove from heat. Cool for about 10 minutes, then slowly add the bourbon. Slowly add the cream, whisking continuously, until smooth.
Ann Blask is a freelance writer and partner of Visions Travel in Orchard Park.
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