As usual, I went bitching and whining to Buffalo and am now here to half-argue, again, that it’s the most overlooked destination in New York State, and not only when it comes to eating and drinking. If only someone would realize Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s fantasy of a high-speed rail line from here, half the hipsters in Williamsburg would be settling down in great houses with access to music, art, parks and, especially, food. Already the city is allowing urban gardens to be planted on abandoned lots, and those are becoming tourist attractions — while we were checking out the hoop house on Wilson Street on Saturday, a car inched by with other sightseers, who could very well have been former residents of that block. Detroit gets all the buzz on the Re-Greening of Urban America, but Buffalo never fell as far. And it has richer history; the beautifully designed new park at the Erie Canal terminus explains the earlier parts artfully.
We always start with a stop at Premier, the food shop and wine megastore very near the boyhood home. Eons before Holy Foods tried to skirt NYS law on separation of booze and food at the dread TWC, this place knew you could provide almost one-stop shopping with separate entrances — so you enter on the left to buy kitchenware and gifties and cheeses and everything else edible, then you check out and can walk right into the wine store, which is nearly overwhelming. Premier carries labels I have never seen in Manhattan, and definitely at prices you won’t see here.
Our first meal was a hookup with Bob’s aunt, uncle and cousin-in-from-Spokane at a quintessential Buffalo family restaurant, Marotto’s. Like so many QBFRs, it looks like nothing special from the street, aside from the neon TRIPE sign in the window, but the chef is dead-serious about his food. Of course many jokes were made about that tripe, so Bob ordered it and most of us tasted it, and I could see why it’s in the window; it was surprisingly tender, and really enriched the superb red sauce with it. It would be amazing over pasta.
As usual with QBFRs, salad came with the meal, except with my choice, the special fish fry — a Friday tradition we have somehow never tried in 27 years of eating there. I got two huge slabs of haddock, but the batter they were fried in was nearly burned; luckily, the macaroni salad and coleslaw were above average, and the day’s potatoes were over-the-top rich and creamy. Rick said the problem was that the batter should have been made with beer, which would have lightened it, but I had another suspicion. The broiled haddock was $5 more, so draw your own conclusions.
We had lunch at the Lake Effect Diner, despite the awful Fieri connection, because I kept reading that the owners, the Curtin family, are so into local ingredients now. Unfortunately, my getting swept up in the hype enticed Bob to order a beef on weck, only to finish the gray meat on soggy bun with tame horseradish and ask: “Why do I never remember these are never very good?” My pulled-pork sandwich, though, was surprisingly great, the meat smoked seven hours and nicely sauced, enough so that the processed American “cheese” in the bun was imperceptible aside from its color. And the poppy seed-flecked coleslaw, which the waitress had warned us off, was outstanding, crisp and not overly mayonnaised. We all shared the special “carrot gazpacho,” which was more like a mise en place for minestrone with a shitload of Tabasco. (The diner itself, moved to Buffalo from Pennsylvania, looked medium-cool, but the bathroom was more like a truck stop’s. Yikes.)
Between meals, we checked out the little farmers’ market in Kenmore, near the boyhood home, then the one on Elmwood, which was New York quality with New York prices. White Cow Dairy was the only stand to get us to open a wallet, with its France-level yogurt in glass jars in unorthodox flavors (like rhubarb), its fascinating lemon drink (made with whey and maple syrup) and its spiel (soon to expand to what sounded like a Chelsea Market North).
Our last overindulgence was at Hutch’s, after getting screwed at The Stillwater trying to use the $75 gift certificate we had given the I-LE last March, and after trying to figure out what in holy hell had inspired us to buy it. We left a message to reserve and heard nothing back so proceeded downtown, only to be informed the kitchen was closed until after Labor Day. If we had been alone, we would have stayed to drink the bar dry, because I kinda doubt the place is gonna last long enough to redeem that certificate.
Too late I remembered Seabar as a backup, so we headed to nearby Hutch’s, where we’ve happily eaten before. Good Chilean sauvignon blanc and Argentinean malbec for $7 a glass changed our moods fast. And I can forgive the otherwise world-class waiter less for screwing up my order than for referring to me as “the young lady” who might be persuaded to share her good portobello fries — when they have to lie, you know you look old.
The beet salad with heirloom tomato, blue cheese and walnuts was impressive, as was the watermelon gazpacho we started with. I didn’t try the I-LE’s calf’s liver, but it was sliced thin, grilled rather than fried and pretty effectively camouflaged under crisp bacon strips and caramelized onions alongside superb mashed potatoes. Bob had the special soft-shell crabs, which were almost whales but perfectly fried and laid onto a super-rich sauce, with a side plate of green beans and potatoes. Three were way too many, though. Rather than my ordering the excellent crab cake appetizer for $15, we should have paid the $3 charge to have the kitchen split his entrée to share. And I’m writing that just so I hope I remember next time.
As always, we left the I-LE’s refrigerator crammed with kitty bags when we happily flew home. You will never stagger out of a Buffalo restaurant hungry.
Premier, 3465 Delaware Avenue, Kenmore.
Marotto’s, 3365 Delaware Avenue, Kenmore, 716 873 0551.
Lake Effect Diner, 3165 Main Street, 716 833 1952.
Hutch’s, 1375 Delaware Avenue near Gates Circle, 716 885 0074.