Off the rails

I get a fair amount of crap for saying my consort’s birthplace (and environs) has a pretty great food scene, but then I appear to be among the minority in this center of the universe who has actually eaten there, and often, over more years than some of those skeptics have been alive. On our last train trip, though, we got to put my belief to a pretty good test. We ate there, then went to world-class Toronto for three meals, then ate there again.

Our first stop was the highly recommended Bistro Europa, where we landed after a “Fully Committed” encounter with Tempo that has put that pretentious joint off the table. By contrast, Bob called Europa and the chef called him back and said he’d hold space for us, on a Saturday night. My in-law equivalent was rather freaked at the tight quarters and flea market decor, but Bob and I felt privileged. Not least when our wine landed, glasses nearly brimming for $7 apiece. He and his mom loved the fried pierogis even though they were made with potato rather than the arugula and mushrooms on the menu, and even though Bob’s aunt makes the best pierogis ever. All of us were quite taken with the beet appetizer, laid out like a painter’s palette with beets pickled, mousse, tartare, carpaccio and in pistachio vinaigrette, with a nice top hat of fried Manchego over half the plate. I eat beets to be polite at friends’ houses. These I scarfed, but contemplatively. Aside from the over-the-topness, this would be a first course in a restaurant at the level of Gotham.

We could have stopped there, but I ordered one $4 wild boar slider that turned out to be the size of a Manhattan burger; as great as it tasted, it was a classic case of too muchness. (Pickled cardoons made an interesting counterpoint, though.) Bob’s big slab of porchetta was juicy, perfectly cooked meat, but with too much of a good thing as sauce. And the I-LE’s pappardelle bolognese probably kept her fed for a week afterward, not least because it was blanketed with pancetta.

And then we come to the duck egg. It was shirred over salt cod brandade with bechamel, then teamed with a rosemary popover: a marriage in a commune among too many egos. Every element was seductive. But sometimes layering is smothering. It says everything that Bob hates anything resembling brioche. Yet he was most impressed by the popover.

WIGB, tho? Absolutely. Eating there was like stepping out of a time machine into Center City Philadelphia in the late Seventies, when all that mattered was the daring with the food.

Next day Bob had the bright idea of checking out the world-class Albright-Knox Gallery and taking in sustenance while we waited for my angst turn at Nickel City Chef, and we had a near-perfect lunch in the nearly empty AK café. Our table overlooked the sculpture in a courtyard, a flatteringly lit setting for my panino and his special salad. The former sounded predictable (tomato-mozzarella-portobello-pesto) but was elevated by yellow tomatoes rather than the anemic cotton balls I was expecting. And his plate sounded like a tweaked Cobb but tasted much jazzier: Gorgonzola, grape tomatoes, hard-cooked eggs, fried artichoke fritters. Points off only for the fatigued mesclun.

Later I was full from the contest that lured us there, but Bob was totally ready for a real dinner, especially after comped wine at Sample. And even though we walked in around 9 on Sunday night, Caffé Aroma was busy and in top form.  We split a superb Caesar, one transformed by grilled/smoky croutons, before a New York-level pizza topped with prosciutto, roasted mushrooms, caramelized onions, Fontina and truffle oil.

On our return, we headed to the Delaware near the boyhood home, and we scored first when Bob let me out in the packed parking lot as soon as he saw a couple of large apparent locals lumbering in and told me to beat ’em to the host stand. They were not happy, but we scored a great table near the bar, under the big screen teevee, with surprisingly snappy service. The waiter was a wine seller extraordinaire and also dealt well with our second-most pressing need: sandwiches for the long ride home on Amtrak next day.

We split an order of “asparagus fries,” more like tempura, with two great dipping sauces. Then I tried to restrain myself with a Caesar upgraded with Spars bacon, from the butcher everyone was drooling over at Nickel City. But Bob forced me to share his special, very tender ribs and their accoutrements. Somehow we were still ready for lunch by 11 next day, somewhere past Utica: a superb to-go Reuben yet again plus a B.L.A.S.T. sandwich (“bacon, lettuce, avocado, grilled salmon and tomato on a ciabatta roll”) that held up quite well.

Final note to the FCC: In return for embarrassing myself, we were treated to two nights at the Mansion on Delaware Avenue, which was — I’ll shamelessly admit — a big reason I agreed to break out of my digital dart den. The place really is a refuge; you can see why locals check in when they need a vacation. It’s designed to feel like staying in the house you deserve. There’s also happy hour with free, very good wine; otherwise there’s an honor bar while you check your email next to the fireplace downstairs. You can’t bitch about free luxury, so I’m assuming they remembered me from my gimp days in giving us a bathroom with a shower you could drive a wheelchair into.

The best news: Breakfast is better. Not perfect. But much better. Fewer crappy pastries, more savory choices (although I can’t imagine who would be tempted by roasted Brussels sprouts at 9 in the morning). And while the coffee was good even from the thermal carafes, we Illy junkies were surprised by the lack of a cappuccino option. Machines have replaced workers. Invest, please.

Bistro Europa, 484 Elmwood Avenue, 716 884 1100
AK café, 1285 Elmwood Avenue, 716 882 8700
Sample, 242 Allen Street, 716 883 1675
Caffé Aroma, 957 Elmwood Avenue, 716 884 4522
The Delaware, 3410 Delaware Avenue, Kenmore, 716 874 0100
The Mansion on Delaware Avenue, 424 Delaware Avenue, 716 886 3300

http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2011/04/civility-and-lying