2022 seems so recent & so distant


Wrote this for my pals at Buffalo Eats, who always generously include this outsider in their insider roundup. Holds up almost halfway into 2023, I think:

This procrastinator and her consort actually ate better in 2022 than we ever did in the Before Time, mostly because we were much more discriminating as restaurant prices had to go up but also because I did research and made reservations. Winging it really doesn’t work when you have to scope out which places have tables outside in this tridemic, and which are worth braving indoors when COVID case counts are down. 

 Interestingly, our real standout meals were not mostly in the alleged food capital of America but farther afield (at least in Amtrak distance). Our favorites in Manhattan included Llama San in the West Village, a Peruvian/Japanese spot where every dish is exquisite, and which might be the only place anywhere where brunch is better than dinner. Steelhead trout ceviche with togarashi, avocado and crispy squid was sensational, as was duck confit with egg, rice and the Peruvian chile sauce huancaina.

 At Wildair on the Lower East Side, we had four-star food (and killer wines) in the street, like jerk prawn skewers and pissaladiéclairs, the traditional pastries turned savory with a filling of anchovies, caramelized onion, tapenade and cheese. We went out for Mexican maybe 50 times this year, and while Fonda in Chelsea and in Tribeca always turned out classic queso fundido perfection, two meals from more innovative kitchens were most memorable: Arctic char aguachile with caviar, and a tlayuda layered with the unlikely but sensational combo of celeriac purée, beans, figs and endives on a crisp tortilla, at Atla in Noho, and roasted kabocha squash served over charred cabbage with sour orange mayo and pepitas at Empellon Waterline on the Upper West Side. Laser Wolf in Brooklyn was vaut le voyage for the salads and pickles alone, although the whole trout was one of the best fish we ate all year. (All meals comprise the platter of 10 salatin, a grilled main and a dessert of soft-serve “ice cream” with pomegranate and date molasses for one price.) 

Our saddest favorite meal was at Rebecca Charles’s Pearl Oyster Bar in the West Village on one of the last nights before it closed for good, after an impressive 25-year run. The crab cake and the smoked salmon on johnnycake were, as always, stellar, the whole grilled pompano impeccable and the shoestring fries — the only shoestring fries worth eating — good to the soft/crunchy last bites. 

 For one of our rare eating expeditions outside the city, I picked the Washington Post’s restaurant critic’s brain before heading to Baltimore, which guaranteed we ate phenomenally well.  Tom Sietsema was right about Alma, Charleston (“fine dining,” for sure), Cindy Lou’s Fish House on the waterfront overlooking the Domino’s Sugar sign and especially about the tennis ball-size jumbo lump crab cake at Faidley’s in the total-trip Lexington Market. But our blowaway meal was at Clavel, which did Mexican even better than New York, with masa made in-house that was so great we bought a bag to schlep home. Tostadas, tacos, tamales and mixtas (a twist on quesadillas) were all fabulous.

Because Philadelphia is only 80 minutes away by train, and because we have good friends there who loan us their houses, we made five treks south and had dazzling meals almost everywhere every time. It’s a seriously underrated food city. Fiorella, aKitchen, Parc, Kensington Quarters (now with a seafood-centric menu), Cantina La Martina, Barbuzzo, Pera, Pizzeria Vetri, KPOD (new-wave Korean), Down North Pizza, Via Locusta and Le Virtu were just a few of the greats. Even the Mike’s BBQ cheesesteak we had to eat on a park bench in the cold was a revelation. 

Our favorite meal, though, was outside at River Twice, one stunning dish after another, with the most personable service. The charcoal-grilled soft-shell crab covered in golden Osetra caviar was just one bit of brilliance. Close seconds would be our two dinners at Gabriella’s Vietnam, starting with the water fern dumplings and ending with the justly celebrated shaking beef. 

Finally, even I have to concede our trip to Maine was worth braving maskholes on crowded planes and airports. Eventide in Portland again produced many sublime dishes, like a crab roll with yuzu mayo, squash tempura with pickled mushrooms and wondrous bluefin tuna pastrami. In Biddeford, the “new Portland” just outside the bigger city, everything was fried right at Fish & Whistle, dinner at Magnus on Water was a revelation (not least for the Japanese turnips two ways with caviar and creme fraiche) and even the hipster Palace Diner was worth the crazy-long wait for the over-the-top bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich with jalapeños.

Maybe the most memorable meal of 2022, though, was with friends in Boothbay Harbor. We had planned our Maine trip to stay with them, but a heart attack got in the way. We booked hotels and used the plane tickets anyway, then a medical miracle happened: Our host was sent home early and felt well enough to have us over for super-fresh raw oysters, corn chowder, perfectly broiled oysters, one of his wife’s gutsy salads and her signature dessert, sliced oranges dusted with cardamom powder. As with every meal in a streetery, it was reassuring to realize it’s the food and company that matter more than the setting in this weird age of uncertainty. 

A kitchen

I promised a very promising chef I would honestly describe the menu he chose when I was treated to a mega-dinner by my hostess while doing my judging boondoggle up to the consort’s hometown. So, belatedly, here goes:

I had not been in a hostage situation since the illegal war began, and my stomach shrank when I saw 12 courses listed, each with a booze pairing. But thanks partly to the lively company and largely to the smart cooking/pouring, I had no Mr. Creosote outcome. And even managed to truncate this recollection:

My definition of breakfast radish is a bit different, but that might be because I live in Frenchytown. The “cultured butter pudding, porcini soil” amuse did elevate the ‘ish on the plate, and more power to all of them.

“Grilled oyster, smoked butter, guanciale, menthol,” however, was the early peak, not just because the Belgian Delirium Tremens beer paired so perfectly with the shock of the chemical mint against the salinity of the oysters. My notes show a garlic poundcake was also involved, and how can you go wrong with that? I knew right then not to eat the second oyster, because next came . . .

“Wagyu tartare, truffled yolk, nasturtium” with St. Michael-Eppan gewurtztraminer from Alto Adige. I dipped a tiny fork in only to see how the red meat went with the white wine and loved the pourmaster noting the difficulty of doing tasting menus when guests think they’re springing for big reds but whites are more suited to the food. With the next course, I learned a new word: Lacon, for lamb bacon. I am neither a lamb nor a scallop person but still enjoyed “seared bay scallop, lacon lentils, pickled ground cherries, sumac yoghurt” with Alsatian pinot Auxerrois from Trapet. Judging by the moans around the table, it was the husk tomatoes that stole the dish, though. The same wine went with the striped bass with calamari, finger limes and shiso, and there the finger limes were stars, as good as the rest of the dish tasted.

Speeding up, as my mind soon did: You can’t go wrong with seared foie gras, not least when it’s laid against wild rice popped like popcorn (and served with Elio Perrone Moscato d’Asti). I’m no lamb fan, as you might have read, but I actually could have finished the tender little chops if four more courses were not headed my way. The meat was beautifully cooked and perfectly matched with Roagna nebbiola. “A traditional ratatouille” with it was pretty wild as well, with the traditional pepper converted into almost a pepper roll-up. I’d be impressed if it landed on my plate closer to home, but this was closer to the boyhood home.

Thank allah our room was only an elevator ride away, because next came “meat butter:” Kobe beef strip steak with molti accoutrements that really didn’t matter because the meat really was so buttery (almost disturbingly so). Although I will give extra points for the smoked potato puree, Robuchon alchemy taken in a different direction.

As an intermezzo, we had a lemon sorbet with pine-scented limoncello (the adjective referring to foraged spruce), then a sliver of intense Winnimere cheese with apricot mostarda and Armagnac paired with a cocktail called Grammas Meds: apple-spiced rum, hot cardamom tea and orange-flower honey. And we all happily scooped up the “aerated Gianduja, blueberry, cured yolk” washed down with Malmsey Madeira, a dessert made for a town that knows from what I keep describing as “a party on a plate.”

I saved the one misstep for last here, not to leave a bad taste but to highlight its ambition. Onion soup really is one of the most misguided traditions, and it deserves reinvention. Reconceiving it as a sort of soup dumpling was pretty clever. Unfortunately, the “croquette” casing was too dense, the brodo inside too thick, the Emmentaler espuma too little, too late. But pairing it with amaro rather than wine cut through the overreach. And the dish illustrated why protracted tasting menus are so seductive for chefs if not diners: When else do kitchen geniuses get to experiment on human guinea pigs with trained palates?

WIGB? Absolutely. Buffalo will only get better as hometown boys migrate back from world-class restaurants to build world-class restaurants.

Mike A’s at Hotel Lafayette

Bus drivers on a plane

Not to rewind a tired tape, but once a year I actually enjoy schlepping to The Consort’s hometown. I half-pay for our two free nights in the nicest hotel in town with a stressful hour as a judge at Nickel City Chef, and I ain’t complaining. This time the hotel was the new @Lafayette, a 1900s-something lodging brought back to get-with-it-Kimpton status (my bitching about the lack of a bathrobe ended when I found the iron had a retractable cord). This is the Ace of Buffalo, with a very cool gift shop, especially if you want a plate imprinted with a photo of the photo in your room, one from the Pan-American Exposition.

And the place is stocked with restaurants — one the best in town — and bars — one the best for cocktails. I’m behind in my work and will post more later on both, but for now:

We started eating on this getaway with my biggest fan in the ladies’ room, at Bacchus, where our early-bird reservation and, I suspect, some intercession snared us a corner table with my in-law equivalent where we could actually hear each other talk. She didn’t freak at the prices, and we were all happy with the food/service/setting. The seasoned olive oil that came with the good bread would have been circus enough for Gloria (a container upended with herbs/spices), but her halibut over asparagus and Bob’s shrimp-encrusted mahi (more toast than seafood) were just as dazzling for a new Panera aficionada. I ordered two apps, a beautifully balanced spinach salad with portobellos and other accouterments that have escaped my cranial sieve plus an overwrought lobster crepe with dill, and was glad they didn’t have to be packed up at the end. As always, the wine pours made Manhattan’s usuals look like trickles. And the list validated the restaurant name.

We were a little cranky at the hotel on wandering downstairs on Morning One to find a Holiday Inn Express-style breakfast awaiting in the lobby, when we were accustomed to a Mansion-style spread, but Bob was smart enough to Yelp when the desk attendants suggested Tim Horton as an alternative (even though it is not open on weekends), so we drove. His filters led us where the desk clerks could not, to Betty’s, where I ate this and he had the “meat lover’s breakfast plate,” so we could try the Spar’s bacon and sausage we’d heard so much about last trip. Not sure which was the best part of that stop: the Philadelphia-in-the-70s nostalgic perfection of the decor/menu. Or the zaftigs at another table who looked to be my age and actually cleaned their heaped-high plates and about whom Bob noted: “At least their skin is supple.” Or the young girls to my left who were socking back Bloody Marys when we arrived and Bailey’s as we left. Blunch, indeed.

Not to bore with minutia, but I can recommend all our other food stops: White Cow Dairy’s cooler-than-Brooklyn shop, where we split an excellent fig-tea yogurt outside while lamb’s tongues and eggs were being negotiated inside. Spar’s, for some of that great bacon plus some sausage for Gloria along with some new/old cultural harmony (Bob’s dad grew up near there, now kiddles rule the meatery). The new Premier, bigger and better out in Amherst, with a wine store so huge and well-stocked it has to offer a map as you walk in. And Nickel City Cheese, a tiny shop with big ambitions. I always wish Bob’s dad was still alive, but I wish it most intensely when we go back to his birthplace and have the kind of experiences he always came to NYC to savor. (Hey, there’s an essay in there . . .)

Lunch that day was at Black Rock Kitchen, a perfect stop for a bite between sausage gravy and biscuits and a gazillion-course dinner (more TK). We split a surprisingly restrained Caesar with crispy Parmigiano and some pork&mushroom spring rolls and one glass of superb Alsatian wine in a smart setting. Breakfast next day was in the hotel in the sleepily opened cafe and was better than we had any right to expect (I put together my plate from the sides — eggs, potatoes, bacon, toast — rather than risking the specials although Bob did quite well with his Tequila Sunrise with spicy poached eggs over a biscuit). Lunch was at our favorite artsy pit stop, the cafe at the Albright-Knox, which as always had outstanding shows to stroll through to work up something of an appetite for a Caesar and a half-sandwich of BLT with enough of the B to make a meat lover’s lunch.

Dinner that night was at Cantina Loco, whose owner in that owner-magic way magically found a way to find us a table after the judging. And now I think all the Mighty Taco jokes about the boyhood birthplace are done. We needed no food at all at this point but nearly chip-dipped the dish clean of a chile con chorizo and then had to force ourselves to stop eating the kimchi-short rib tacos and the special brisket enchiladas. Alcohol was also involved, including outstanding margaritas. (Both should be called Go Back to Using a Notebook. Good comes with no details.)

For our short last day, we first trekked around downtown Buffalo in search of sustenance and bailed on the closest “cappuccino” cafe on seeing its options were kinda processed, then bailed on the cafe in the public library(!) on learning its espresso machine was busted, then bailed on Tim Horton’s on walking in and seeing huge lines waiting in a smell so foul you could almost feel it (no wonder a big puke splat was right outside the front door). Luckily, Bob remembered Spot Coffee, so we schlepped there for respectable cappuccini and a shared wrap filled with scrambled eggs. Later, his mom wanted us to teach her Chipotle as a Panera alternative, so we did it, and did I ever learn. Portions were Buffalo-insane. But if the mission was meant to leave her refrigerator stocked until next year’s visit, it was definitely accomplished.

My work, however, is not done. More to come on dinner at Mike@HotelLafayette. Plus drinks.

Special place holder

I’m paving another few miles of the road to hell with my good intentions to write more about the amazing high points of our last superb trip to The Consort’s birthplace, but for now I’ll just recount our independent eating. We had a perfect lunch in the cafe at the Albright-Knox Gallery after the underwhelming “Wish You Were Here” show on the art scene in the Seventies: mushroom-Gorgonzola soup and a half-BLT for me; curried lentil-chicken soup and half-turkey/sage Cheddar/cranberry mayo sandwich for Bob, complete with a waitress with a good eye and a sharp edge. We had a thank-allah-for-wine lunch at the Eagle House in Williamsville with the in-law equivalent, who was polite enough not to object when we chose it out of the Buffalo Spree listings as something very old (1828) but new to us. (This was encouraging, though: She noted that her BLT was made with iceberg while she’s become accustomed to romaine at Panera. Chain change for good?)

And we had a surreal dinner at Mother’s, which we’d heard was a favorite of local chefs and was only a block and a half or so from our sublime lodgings at the Mansion on Delaware Avenue*. It felt like a speakeasy, and we both wanted whatever our waiter was ingesting, but the food was pretty good, especially what we ordered for the Amtrak ride home the next day (hummus platter with roasted peppers, olives and pepperoncini for breakfast, trout-potato-spinach-tomato salad for lunch). Bob’s fried oysters were beyond any I ever encountered back when I reported a piece on cooked oysters for the NYT — the breading was crunchy, the centers almost creamy — and they didn’t even need the spicy dipping sauce. His grilled St. Louis-style ribs with molasses-mustard barbecue sauce were better just-made than on the train the next day, but the coleslaw with green onions held up. The same was true of the special I ordered, banana peppers stuffed with “three Italian cheeses” (and lots of bread crumbs); we should have left those behind rather than clogging the Amtrak trash chute. And I was happy enough with my portobello stuffed with sausage and laid over a tomato-cream sauce although it lacked the finesse of everything else we ordered. As always in Buffalo, the wine was cheap and generously poured. Mostly, though, I’m very glad I was the one who insisted on Anderson’s in those 2 1/2 days. A baby size of black-and-white frozen custard is always an essential ingredient.

*The Mansion is not just the best hotel in Buffalo but one of the best we’ve stayed in anywhere in the world, and I’m saying that even though we had to pay for only one night of the three there thanks to Nickel City Chef. The rooms are exquisite, but you’re encouraged to treat the whole place like home. We could work by the fireplace in the parlor in daytime and catch up on email with a glass of wine from the honor bar in the billiards/dining room at night. Unusual wines are poured for free from 5 to 7 every night, and the “butlers” are, without exception, both super-attentive and very human. Plusgastre I’m happy to report the weakest link is now much stronger: Breakfast was a good mix of savory and sweet, and the pastries have been upgraded, big time.

http://www.mansionondelaware.com/ (turn off your sound, tho)

Beyond pierogies

My in-law equivalent refuses to learn how to navigate the wonderful series of tubes, so I can be quite frank in reporting I prodded my consort to do the right thing and head home for xmas only because I knew I would get a few good meals out of it. Along with a lovely ride up the Hudson and along the Erie Canal on Amtrak, now with real WiFi.

Lunch at Sea Bar downtown was totally vaut le voyage, not least because we got so much food for so little money. I had the BBQ and smoked salmon rolls in a bento special for all of $9.95: miso soup, sesame noodles and cucumber salad plus nine rolls (enhanced with avocado and spicy sauce). Bob was pretty blown away by his sashimi special, with no salad but five types of fish and otherwise the same accoutrements plus tea. We split a mega-pour of white and walked out with a tab not much more than two glasses of wine go for at Fatty Crab.

That night we followed a chorus of advice for dinner, with Bob driving through a wet and dark night to Lewiston to try Carmelo’s. This old bitch was the happiest of the three of us at table, because the menu hit all the right notes, but it was hard getting the other two excited, Gloria because unfamiliar is intimidating, Bob because he was still gut-shocked from a bad meatball back in the center of the universe. We happily shared the superb crispy squid salad with house-cured coppa over arugula with roasted peanuts and chile-lime vinaigrette as an appetizer and also the dessert with maple-bacon ice cream (more texture than taste). But Bob’s potato gnocchi with pork ragu and citrus-herb mascarpone needed something to pull all those elements into coherence, and G’s pork chop was well-flavored but too huge both for her to slice with arthritic hands and for us to appreciate the accompanying and overwhelmed roasted spaghetti squash, apple chutney and “spicy balsamic gastrique.” My “grilled bavette steak with roasted mushrooms, creamed artichoke, shallot puree and natural jus,” though, was just what we wanted to divide in half and tuck into DiCamillo’s (substandard) bread for our Amtrak ride home next day.

I’ll give big points for the huge wine pours and take none off for the ditzy service everyone retroactively warned us about. (Well, maybe one point off for “artesian” where “artisanal” was meant on the menu.) Carmelo’s is a fine restaurant, and its heart is in the right locavore place despite the jet-lagged barramundi. But is it Buffalo’s second coming? J’doubt it. As Bob said, the cooking starts with big flavors and finishes small.

Our other dinner, at Trattoria Aroma again, after a matinee of “Hugo,” turned out to be a travesty and a triumph. Just after we ordered, and Bob’s and my glasses of good/well-priced wine landed, the I-LE realized she was missing her wedding rings, the ones she has not taken off in 56 years. At one point we had three servers under the table searching, with their phones as flashlights, before I took the waiter’s suggestion to have the food wrapped to go while we sped back to the theater to comb the ladies’ room. As I anticipated, we were thwarted there and walked into her living room to see the diamonds glittering right by the chair where she’d been sitting with gloves on to keep warm earlier in the day. While she took Tylenol and reveled in recounting the drama to her sister by phone, Bob and I uncorked a bottle from Premier and marveled at how carefully the kitchen had packed our food so that everything was very nearly as good as it would have been on-site. Both the sausage on polenta and the special pizzette with soppressata and caramelized onion were nicely balanced, and my special gnocchi with peas and mushrooms rated A for both lightness in texture and richness in flavor. Even our salad held up. Plus the kitchen threw in a container of the excellent bread, regular and rosemary. I don’t know that I’ve ever had such a sense that a restaurant cared so much, not just about keeping the customer satisfied but showing pride in its food. And, obviously, it was a hard act to follow . . .

Big — a sequel

Once again, doubters, the trip to Buffalo was made bearable because of the food. Which was a good thing because we had to fly rather than take the train because my consort, once again, overbooked himself and fucked us both. (The security kabuki was totally ridiculous — at LGA I actually told the bureaucratic groper “this is bullshit” and was lucky she must have been well-medicated.) We had an over-the-top dinner the first night at the Delaware, with fried calamari wings-style, complete with the hot sauce and the blue cheese dip, plus that great, huge Reuben. Bob, though, made the mistake of ordering something relatively healthful, some take on roast chicken, which was pretty wan. In a bar, order bar food. As always, though, bonus points for Buffalo-size pours for about half what those wines would go for in Manhattan.

(Next day I regretted not noticing the soup of the day at Joe’s Deli, the joint Bob remembered for rye bread when he was a kid, was essentially a liquefied Reuben. Instead I had a decent muffuletta while he gloated with a superior Cubano. Either was enough to feed a small village if not a medium suburb.)

Dinner the next night was cooked by us at the boyhood home and all from the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers’ Market, which was cranking on Saturday morning. We got an insider’s tour and culled outstanding beef, corn, tomatoes, squash, basil, wine and of course that killer White Cow Dairy yogurt. On our own we found the most amazing potatoes; they looked like Yukon Golds but the women selling them said they were a local variety “but just as good.” Holy crap — they were 10 times better when mashed. Christa also snared us a free hefty cinnamon roll from one stand, so we headed to the bakery where it was made, in a hard-knocks neighborhood also home to a really impressive urban farm with greenhouse and tilapia ponds. The Five Points people grind their own grains and, it turns out, have the best idea for iced coffee: make coffee ice cubes, then pour hot coffee over them. It’s pure coffee to the last sip, with no dilution.

We should have stayed at the boyhood home and finished that $40 worth of Niagara wine, but we needed a walk before the monsoon and so set off for the closest bar. Which was right out of Stephen King — locked up, lights off in the dining room, teevee on over the bar and lights on in the kitchen but not a soul in sight. (Maybe this is more a Pacino script.) So we forged on to Torches for a thoroughly unimpressive experience. I mean, really: Bar napkins printed with an ad for a bartending school? When the guy slapping them down needs a refresher course? If you don’t have the hospitality gene, maybe you should live on straight wages.

But we lucked into Sunday brunch at Trattoria Aroma, walking in with no reservation and snaring a table in the bar — who knew it was such a happening place? (I guess everyone who knows $10 includes coffee and a pastry buffet.) And I doubted sandwiches could get any more gargantuan, but the special panino must have had half a steer in the “meatloaf” in it (quotes theirs). Plus it was also loaded with spinach, Fontina and a sunny-side-up egg. Bob’s special pasta looked almost dainty by comparison but was actually a big bowl of good rigatoni with sausage, green and yellow beans and sun-dried tomato pesto, all topped with an oozy egg. Calling Mae West . . .

Over at the Epi Log I noted that the scene at the farmers’ market was almost a parody of the clichés of designer dogs and show babies and shining, happy faces. But as at all markets, the food keeps it real. And that’s how I wound up with half a steer between the bread: I saw Hanova Hills on the menu, and Bob pointed out that that was the same farm that had sold us the outstanding grass-fed beef the day before. We’ve come a long way from the days of esoterically sourced ingredients only on fancy menus. Now what’s good enough for a Ste Alice is accessible even to the woman who was buying corn next to us using food stamps. That corn, BTW, was three for a buck. At Wegmans, ears were five for $2.

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


Slow train to Buffalo

Thanks to a sudden death in the family (11-year-old cat), we just had to make yet another trek to Buffalo (or, as the purists would have it, suburban Buffalo). And I wasn’t surprised my worst eating experiences were on the way there — I’m opting out of the cancer boxes and groping at the airport, so I had to brave Amtrak. Which was beyond great: I walked into Penn Station as the train was boarding and stepped off at the Depew station eight hours and 20 minutes later, about double the time it took my consort on the train to the plane, the Airtrain, in the miserable security line and on JetBlue. But my trip was mellow all the way, a beautiful ride up the icy Hudson and across snowy New York State. I read, I worked, I read some more. (There was no wifi, but I did have an outlet for my MacBook.) I didn’t leave enough time to pack or buy food, though, so I had to settle for the least scary things in the cafe car, first a sawdusty muffin and later a little frozen pizza that the sweet barman managed to nuke to rubber on one side while leaving the other side cold.

Fortunately, my grieving in-law equivalent was up for going out to dinner and even willing to brave SeaBar, despite the fact that she would eat duck’s blood soup before raw fish. Happily. She was the only one of us who knew to dress appropriately; Bob and I were chagrined to see all the other patrons in their Friday best in that very stylish room. The menu was almost overwhelming, but the chef himself stopped by to explain the specials, and Bob had to have the New Zealand salmon he was selling, with a chorizo and smoked paprika sauce swiped from Le Bernardin. The I-LE was sold on the pulled pork, which was pretty amazing, the tender meat crusted with panko, fried and served in blocks over a poblano puree and Chinese-style noodles, an absurdly huge (read: Buffalo-size) portion for $17. I was glad I went for the appetizer size of the sublime glazed duck breast with a corn pancake and mango salsa; it would be a generous full in Manhattan. The meat was beautifully cooked, and the corn cake soaked up the juice (which sounds so much better than blood).

As starters, we shared the bizarre-sounding, too-filling miso caramel crab roll, with cream cheese and mushrooms in tempura, at least half a dozen fat slices. And a seaweed salad, to introduce the I-LE to that sensation. And the great unagi BLT handroll, stuffed with avocado and tomato along with the eel and bacon. We overindulged and had to kitty-bag our main courses, so dessert was out of the question, but the waiter said we were getting after-dinner drinks on the house. Which is when I learned Bob had reserved in my name although I had checked in as Sacha. I’d recently used the chef for a magazine piece, and he knows I’m coming up to help judge the Nickel City Chef next spring. But he’d nicely said nothing until after we’d eaten.

A note about the alcohol: Of the many wonderful things about Buffalo (and, for the purists, its suburbs), you can always get a big pour for very little. I had two sauvignon blancs for $6.50 apiece. The comped late-harvest Riesling (which sounds so much better than ice wine) was excellent. And the teetotaling I-LE swore she got soused on her Bailey’s.

As a result, next day she was in no shape for brunch out, so we set off in search of anything but eggs, heading for Duff’s as a default after scouring the internets. She had suggested Marotto’s, so we swung by to find it closed but the Delaware just opened, the “gastropub” I had just read about, on Buffalo Spree.

We wanted to get to the Burchfield-Penney Art Center and almost fled after walking in and finding one table of three sitting unattended, with no host or waiter in sight, but the bartender laid menus out in front of each stool, so we took a look and a chance. And it was so worth it. The $8 pastrami sandwich was excellent there, but the second half was even better on the train ride home next mid-morning. (Buffalo does have great rye bread.) And this thickly cut meat was pretty sensational, as was the balance of cheese and sauerkraut and Russian dressing. The fries with it seemed sad, though, soggy and limp, but still less flaccid than the “thinly cut fries” mounded over Bob’s outstanding hanger steak — I mistook them for onion shoestrings gone greasily bad. The meat (for all of $14) was really tender and perfectly cooked, though. We also shared the $5.50 artichoke-Cheddar-Gouda rarebit, too, a gooey-good mess with rye toast points for dunking.  The bartender was old school, attentive and chatty and very efficient. And it made for an out-of-Manhattan experience for sure: a football game on the big screen teevees with Sarah McLachlan on the sound system, and every other patron at the bar wearing the same North Face fleece. . .

Amtrak home was a gorgeous ride even though we were delayed an hour by a freight train in front of us and a single track near Utica, I think. But from Depew to Rochester I had an entire car to myself to watch the snowy countryside glide past, the ultimate in luxury. I’d take it again; the fare was $140 round trip, and there could not be a more soul-reviving way to travel. All those “real Americans” out in fly-over country should get behind some serious, China-level infrastructure investment — high-speed rail would open up their world to us “elitists.”

SeaBar, 475 Ellicott Street, Buffalo 716 332 2928
The Delaware, 3410 Delaware Avenue, Town of Tonawanda 716 874 0100

Beyond wings

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.

Rust, not sleeping

It was more than a little depressing to tackle my taxes and realize I spent exactly $0 on travel last year — my last big trip was Tuscany/Arles/Languedoc two summers ago. So maybe I was more mellow than usual on flying off to Buffalo for a fast weekend for my in-law equivalent’s 80th, because I thought we ate quite well despite a first stop at Panera (Where the Large Ones Go) Bread. For fast food, it was not awful; chipotle mayonnaise redeemed the few slices of smoked turkey with lettuce and red onion between asiago bread on my half-sandwich, which came with a cup of decent broccoli-Cheddar soup. And the mood was certainly much mellower than at Wegman’s, where we headed not long afterward to pick up punch and paper products for I-LE’s party — there was cart gridlock right inside the door, with all these frantic people on their cells, and I soon realized why. My consort went one way, I another, and I actually had to call him to find him again. As Kurt Andersen detailed in Time the other week, we have been wallowing in way, way too much in this country. Then again, Bob ordered a cake for 12 to 15 at Sweet Beginnings and got a two-layer beauty with chocolate mousse and chocolate buttercream for all of $17. (What’s that, the price of two cupcakes here?) 

It took some effort, but we extricated the birthday girl for dinner at Shango, described as “seriously underrated” by Mike Andrzejewski, probably Buffalo’s best chef, who owned Tsunami until he had a horrific accident and lost a leg. He now runs two SeaBars, but their sushi-worshiping menu looked way too rigid for octogenarians. Shango turned out to be a Manhattan-worthy restaurant not far from the old Tsunami, with very flattering lighting and commodious booths. I was quite happy with my Creole meatloaf, which had a log of andouille embedded in the center of the pork-beef-veal blend, with okay garlicky mashed potatoes and decent “Cajun corn” (with peppers). Bob’s mom ate more than I would have anticipated of the sirloin that came with a portobello stuffed with spinach and blue cheese plus Parmesan/rosemary-crusted fries. And he might have done best with tuna-avocado spring rolls over cilantro-cashew pesto etc., a shrimp cake on Cajun remoulade with corn salad and a good Caesar loaded down with fried oysters. A basket of bread (corn, regular) was accompanied by a sort of muffuletta olive salad and a little bowl of flavored olive oil. Not surprisingly, we had no room for dessert but did keep our glasses refilled with gruner for me and a red from Austria for him. 

High point of the flying trip was the Broadway Market, not least because it was the liveliest I’ve ever seen it, with special booths opened to take advantage of the throngs shopping for butter lambs and hams and chocolate for Easter. The horseradish roots for sale at one stand looked better than I’ve ever seen in Manhattan, and they were being ground right there and ladled into jars, as was a nasal-blasting mustard. And we scored two types of kielbasa, from producers whose names both ended in ski. If you smell smoke, it’s probably the clothes those links traveled home with. 

After meandering around sadly deserted downtown in search of somewhere, anywhere for lunch, we wound up on Elmwood Avenue looking for old reliable Le Metro, only to find it had become Mode, recently reviewed. Inside looked the same, but the menu was more imaginative. My consort had the “sea biscuit,” a big one topped with shrimp, scallops and andouille sausage in a light sauce; his mom ate pretty much all of her stuffed french toast with strawberries and mascarpone, and I got a special that sounded like home cooking — cheese grits, bacon and scrambled eggs — but was actually brilliant: the three elements were stacked, so that each bite was a cascade of flavor and texture. Or maybe that was just the huge glass of Domaine Lalande sauvignon blanc talking. 

On the way back to pick up our bags and speed to the airport, we passed the new Burchfield Penney art museum, just across from the always amazing Albright-Knox. For what the I-LE insisted is America’s third-poorest city, Buffalo has rather a wealth of attractions. All it needs is a high-speed rail link and Brooklyn would empty out. 

Sweet Beginnings, 3759 Delaware Avenue, Kenmore, 716 875 1431.

Shango, 3260 Main Street, Buffalo, 716 837 2326. 

Broadway Market, 999 Broadway, Buffalo, 716 893 0705.

Mode, 520 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo, 716 885 1500.