Restaurant Week 2015

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And here we are at the start of another Restaurant Week. An opportunity for folks to try some new dishes and establishments at discounted prices,  while restaurants hopefully win some new patrons before winter starts.

If you are the type of person who likes to go downtown for the New Years Eve ball drop, goes out for steak and lobster tails on Valentines Day, and has never met a Mothers Day Buffet you didn’t like, then you will likely thrive on Restaurant Week. If you order party pizzas at halftime during the Superbowl, you will have no issue on Restaurant Week.

But for the rest of us, please make sure your expectations are properly set, because Restaurant Week is churn em and burn em time. Success during restaurant week often requires a bit of shifting from a quality to quantity mode, as the business ramps up to meet the increased demand. Some places can pull off high quality at high volume, but those places are killing it both on and off Restaurant Week so we already know who they are.

It is no secret that restaurants often shift to an Outlet Mall version of regular dishes to keep costs in line as well as better please and attract a wider range of patron. After all, while people enjoy their Applebees prices combo meals, the goal of the restaurant is to get them to come back for a real meal, at real prices someday.  If you’re getting  $20 meal at a steakhouse that would usually cost you $100, don’t be surprised when your beef isn’t dry aged prime and your shrimp cocktail is served in a shot glass.

Everyone participating gets crushed during restaurant week. The kitchen staff is slammed from open to close, and the waitstaff is running nonstop. If you’re attending one of these meals please tip well. 15% on $44 at a fine dining restaurant sucks and is disrespectful.

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Here are the people who should not go out on Restaurant Week:

  • People who are shitty tippers. You shouldn’t be eating in restaurants if you don’t tip anyway – but especially now.
  • People who have huge dietary restrictions. You are respected by the kitchen staff, but now is not the time to ask for a paleo bread basket.
  • People who are picky and want variations. The Restaurant Week menu was chosen to appeal to a broad audience. If you don’t like the way things are prepared during restaurant week, you will probably hate their regular menu.
  • Assholes. No one wants to listen to you complain. And they don’t have time.

Here is how to be successful during Restaurant Week:

  • Go to a restaurant you’ve never been to before. Why go to the same old Italian Joint you always visit and get the same meal for $2 cheaper?
  • Try a cuisine you’ve never had. Buffalo is blowing up with delicious foods right now. Be exotic. Thai, Pakistani, Indian, Japanese, Burmese foods all exist 34626.story_x_largehere now. The International standout on this list for me is probably Sun Restaurant on the West Side. Go try something different. You can sort the online restaurant list by cuisine type.
  • Be understanding. Its going to be crazy. They’re going to be tired. They’re going to run out of things. Bear with them.
  • Go to a non-participating restaurant during Restaurant Week. After all of this, could you blame a restaurant for not joining the Restaurant Week program? A lot of places, for various reasons – don’t do Restaurant Week. If you have a favorite, go there for dinner. It’s likely to be much quieter as the masses sweep through restaurant week and your business will be appreciated.

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Osteria 166

 

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Citrus Beet Salad

For our 4 year wedding anniversary, we decided to finally visit Osteria 166 for dinner. My wife had never been, and I’ve only had lunches there. It has been on our radar, so it was great to finally get in there for a meal.

We went in with the expectation of a classic Italian red sauce joint with some elevated dishes. I knew that it was a pretty close family management team and that Chef Jeff Cooke was dialed in on the local and seasonal food movement. We wanted to go out for our anniversary, share some comforting dishes and a bottle of wine, relax and not feel rushed, and just enjoy each other.

I’m not always right, but my selection for this evening hit the nail on the head, so when we got home, I decided to open another bottle of wine and write this all down before I forgot about it.

The restaurant is right on the corner of Franklin and Mohawk St., across from the convention center. It was pretty full for a Thursday night when we walked in, but we had reservations and were seated immediately. The ambiance was very warm and relaxed. The volume of the place were not loud, but lively and active, the way a good Italian restaurant should be.

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House cured charcuterie board with toast, hummus, and olives.

Our server came over to greet us with a tear off bag of bread and a dish of dipping oil with cheese and hot peppers sprinkled in it. What a great way to say hello. The bread was warm and soft with a great crust and the oil and cheese were heaven. We couldn’t help tearing hunks off and mopping up the spiced oil while she introduced the menu. We selected a bottle of Chianti, and got back at the bread while we read the menu.

Speaking of the Chianti… lets talk about the wine menu. We like wine, but we don’t know a ton about wine. I think a lot of people are like this, and that tends to intimidate a lot of folks from looking at a wine list and ordering a bottle of wine. “What if I spend $90 and I hate it?” Osteria has a pretty decent run of about 30 wines under $30. The chianti we had was $28 and it was great. This is a high point for this restaurant. It goes out of its way to be accessible to everyone.

Osteria 166 has a really nice daily menu with a lot of traditional Italian classics, as well as sandwiches, pizzas, soups, and salad. They also offer a pretty extensive specials menu. This makes this restaurant very accessible for virtually everyone, as its impossible to not find something appealing.

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Massive Meatball with ricotta and marinara

At this point, it sounds like every other “red sauce” Italian place in Western NY – but Osteria has a trump card.  There is a tremendous amount of skill in that kitchen – starting with Chef Cooke,  so I’ll use the overused word elevated again to describe what sets this place apart.

Chef Cooke has managed to maintain the integrity of the family’s old recipes while showcasing local purveyors and seasonal foods, and bringing another level to traditional family based Italian cuisine. He excels at subtlety, which I think requires a lot of security in ones self as well as maturity in the role of a chef. It is somewhat easy to punch someone in the face with Italian food. So many places dump a pile of cheese over some overcooked pasta, throw it in the broiler, and bam. Parm City. That’s not happening here. I don’t cook a lot of Italian food, but I find it to be one of those cuisines where its is extremely difficult to engage in subtlety and restraint. It is easy to be heavy handed because you’re dealing with such rich and wholesome flavors and textures. Pastas, Beans, Meats, Cheeses…  respect is due to the cook who has all of these resources at hand, and yet plates a beautiful burrata cheese on a simple piece of toast with a few gorgeous basil leaves serving as boats for fresh cherry tomatoes… all dressed with a little balsamic and oil.

So lets talk about Burratta Cheese.

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House pulled Burrata with tomatoes, oil, basil, and balsamic

The first time we had Burratta cheese was at a restaurant called Kampa Park in Prague.It was served in much the same fashion. Cheese, some greens or a bit of fruit, and a drizzle of oil and balsamic with a pinch of crunchy salt. Having this dish today brought us back to that awesome trip. It was so nice and clean.

Chef sent out a plate of charcuterie to get us started.. Three house cured meats, presented simply on a board with some olives, a bit of bread, and some home made hummus. I haven’t been to Italy yet, but when I go, that is the experience I want. A bottle of wine, some meats, some cheeses… maybe wrapped up in a cloth napkin. The meats were simple and well executed. I’ve cured some meats in my time, and its one of those cases of “less is more.”  Something savored and enjoyed in small bits, spread on bread, or eaten with fruit or olives. The three we were given were cut ultra thin, and were a bit salty – which is how I think charcuterie should be seasoned. I believe that charcuterie should almost be a condiment. The olives on the charcuterie plate were excellent. I have to assume they were house cured or at least house marinated.

Lets get into the entrees.

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Carbonara with bucatini

I got the carbonara, and Summer ordered the Veal Parm. We weren’t messing around with our entrees. We were going all the way. carbonara is one of my favorite Italian dishes, and I order it whenever I see it. The server we had was great, and she gave the requisite “this has a raw egg with it” warning. I joked and said “I’ll take extra eggs.” Wouldn’t you know it – an egg yolk sidecar showed up with my dish. So my pasta had 2 egg yolks with it. The carbonara was made with house cured pancetta, and was velvety and creamy with the right bit of black pepper. I loved the use of bucatini noodles for this, as I think a thicker and heartier noodle is required to stand up to the egg and cheese sauce, lest the pasta get lost. I believe Chef Cooke breaks some traditional rules with his carbonara, but he made me a believer.  I ordered a meatball on the side because I love the meatballs here, and it came out topped with some ricotta and sitting in a pool of marinara.

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Classic veal parm

The simplicity of the marinara sauce lets the food shine. I had it with my meatball and my wife had it with her veal Parm. I think a sauce like marinara should be an accessory to a meal, not a glue. I once again appreciated the restraint at making this simple tomato sauce clean and fresh, so that the flavors of the meatball, and the veal could come through. The veal was hammered thin, fried crisp, tender, and not greasy.

We finished up with a dessert plate that the chef sent out for our anniversary. Simple berries with cream, a lemon ricotta cheesecake, and a house made charlie chaplin. I thought we were stuffed, but we managed to find room for a few bites of each. I really liked the cheesecake. My wife doesn’t usually eat cheesecake but she enjoyed it as well. The ricotta and lemon is a classic pairing, and the texture was more rustic, which I appreciated vs. a regular silky cheesecake. The charlie chaplin was great. This is one of my dad’s favorites and it makes me want to bring him in there just for a pasta fagioli, meatballs, and charlie chaplin.

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Happy Anniversary to us!

The service was fantastic. Attentive and knowledgeable without being overbearing. The menu is large, so it helps to have a server that can help diners navigate it and zone in on some favorites. I appreciate guidance without someone being in my face. We were checked on multiple times, from the chef, our server, the front of house manager, and even the owner Nick Pitillo came by our table. Everyone seemed genuinely interested in how our experience was going. I want that in an Italian restaurant. I loved it.

I feel like this is where you can meet an old friend from high school, share a few bottles of wine, and feel completely comfortable. As we walked out, a band was setting up outside and had we not needed to get home I would have happily sat on the patio, gotten another bottle of wine, and just hung out a bit longer. The warmth of the place makes it somewhere you want to hang out for awhile. The breadth of the menu made us want to come back soon and try something else. Maybe a pizza next time. Maybe a sandwich for lunch.

If there was one phrase  that could have come out of the chef’s mouth that didn’t it was “what took you guys so long” and he would be correct. I’m sorry it took us so long to come in, and we won’t let it happen again. Until then, we’ll send lots of friends…

I’m also very excited that they will be opening up soon in Ellicottville. You can read more about that here: http://buffalo.com/2015/08/12/featured/osteria-166-spreads-wings-to-ellicottville/

Osteria 166 is open every day but Sunday. They can be found at www.osteriabuffalo.com

Here is what BuffaloEats had to say about it: http://www.buffaloeats.org/2013/07/01/osteria-166/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marble and Rye opens

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Pinzimoni – Seasonal vegetables with green goddess tonnato

Marble and Rye opened this week on Genesee Street as the newest addition to the “Restaurant Row” downtown that now includes Seabar, Toutant, “Dog e Style (sp?),” Washington Market, and the omnipresent Eddy Brady’s, with Marcos right around the corner.  It is owned by Christian Willmott and Michael Dimmer of The Black Market Food Truck, and puts an emphasis on thoughtful cocktails and seasonal, local ingredients.

With all of the restaurants opening in the past couple years, we’ve manage to hit either the pre-open or opening week for just about all of them. It is our hobby. Its what we do. Visiting a restaurant (or any business) when it first opens requires some understanding while the kitchen adjusts, the wait staff gets used to the flow, and the bar dials in their program, so we go in with a very open and observational mind.

The development of Marble and Rye has been interesting to watch. Somewhat overshadowed in our world by the launch of our friend Chef James Robert’s much anticipated restaurant Toutant, they’ve been quietly and diligently cranking along right around the corner at building out this 75 seat establishment. The project really started to grow legs and get interesting to me when some of the top young talent from around Western NY began jumping ship from some of the more established chefs and restaurants and signing on to the Marble and Rye team. Both the kitchen team and front of the house teams read like a who’s who of the next generation of food in Buffalo – fitting, as the owners themselves are young, energized, and have jumped in with both feet into their restaurant.

And I think that is great. Because that is how this great food momentum we have in Western NY keeps going and growing. As we sat there, I joked that we were among the older patrons in the restaurant with most of the diners of the millennial generation, be-speckled with lush beards (why doesn’t my beard grow like that damnnit?) and a refined palate for craft beers, whiskey, and locally sourced food.

Anyway, on to the visit. We got there 45 minutes early and grabbed a drink at the bar. It was nice to see familiar faces there, and we opened up with a Bourbon and Tea for Summer and a drink called “The Coaster” for me. The Bourbon and Tea was delicious. A little on the sweet side, but as I mentioned earlier, this is where the restaurant dials in their program. The bar staff checked on us, and wanted feedback on everything, which I appreciate. I am a big fan of mezcal, which is Tequila’s smokey, unemployed cousin, and I can always appreciate the rare bar that keeps it and has the courage to put a cocktail on the menu. The Coaster is a great gateway cocktail to mezcal, with the right bit of sweet and dry to balance off that smoke and punch. I recommend it to anyone who wants to try something different, with a little push behind it. They also make their own soda mixers, and they had lemon-lime and watermelon sodas on tap.

We sat for dinner, and started off with a couple of appetizers. There is a pickled onion ring with garlic aioli dish that was great. The red onions had a light pickle for some bite on them, and they were hand battered and fried. They were light and crispy and reminded me of every good thing I ever had fried at Crystal Beach. They even smelled like that. That aioli was so good and garlicy that I wanted to finger sweep the inside of the bowl. I want to rename this dish “not on the first date” because there is no way anyone not established in a solid relationship would get a good night kiss after eating this – but that stands true for all good and tasty food. I will order these every time I go here.

The other appetizer was a departure for the norm. I love the hype a lot of places get (see: Burger in a few paragraphs) but there is usually a lot of skill behind the door that gets lost and doesn’t have the opportunity to come front and center. So I try to seek out the dish or two that may not seem very exciting at first, but offers some sort of peek into where the kitchen wants to go, and what they really want to show you, given the opportunity. We ordered the “Pinzimoni” which was simply labeled as “daily farm selection; green goddess Tonnato.” – translation – raw veggies and dip.

For starters, the plate was beautiful. The photo at the top does not do it justice.  Just absolutely stunning in color and depth. The vegetables were presented in a very simple fashion, either completely raw or with a light pickle, and I believe dressed with a bit of good olive oil and some salt. Each one was cut to give the best mouth of texture, and was just a bite. Its the type of dish that makes you appreciate being in the dead center of our really short summer, driving in with the windows open, and recognizing the huge abundance with have at this very moment, that will be gone in a few weeks. I spend an awful lot of time and money at local farmers markets, and I put in a lot of effort trying to figure out what the hell to do with some of these veggies I buy. I appreciate the lesson in restraint and took that home with me.

Also – their green goddess tonnatto (dressing? dip?) ? I’d eat a lot more veggies if I had a huge jar of that laying around.

On to entrees…

We knew we would want the burger. Just like you get Fried Chicken at Toutant, and a Pork Chop at The Black Sheep… this is the place that has been setting us up for “THE burger.” Instagram and Facebook have been blowing up with photos of this burger. So we got the burger. I did not take a photo of the burger. Unless you’ve given up social media this month -you’ve already seen it.

We were pleased with the burger. The effort of house ground meat shines through this burger and is what sets it apart. The sesame bun has a nice chew to it, and held up to the juiciness of a medium rare patty. I like medium rare burgers, but I don’t often trust the kitchen, because most of the time it comes out almost completely raw and sopping through the bun, or hammered to well done. Not the case here. I asked our server how confident she was in their medium rare and she was 100% on-board with the kitchen. It was cooked as ordered, a perfect medium rare. The sauce was present without being overwhelming and the whole package went together really well. We chose to add a sous vide egg to the whole deal and that was a pro-move and highly recommended, as mopping up egg yolk with bread is one of my favorite food experiences ever. The accompanying fries were European frites style, so thick cut, hot, soft, and salty. As I dipped fries in the errant smears of egg yolk from our burger drippins, I dreamed of a place that served egg yolk as a dip for french fries… then realized that this is probably why Belgians use mayo instead of ketchup.

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Carbonara with peas and mushrooms

Our other entree was the Carbonara. This is one of my favorite pasta dishes. Simple and rustic, it stands up really well with homemade pasta. Their carbonara was a pretty traditional egg yolk prep, with the addition of peas (peak season right now) and some delicious smoky mushrooms. The pasta was well cooked and was coated with the velvety sauce. The dish felt a little heavy handed on the salt, but as I said, just small twitches that get worked out and dialed in as a restaurant opens. I liked the dish a lot, appreciate the vegetarian approach as I would never knowingly order a vegetarian dish – and would order it again.

We didn’t think we would stay for dessert. We were full, and beignets around the corner beckoned us, but the Butter Block macaroons filled with Marble and Rye goodness and bourbon apple pie made us hang out. The apple pie is a single serving crumb top, finished with goat cheese. It was a good pie. The goat cheese was a nice compliment to the apples. My dad always put a slice of cheese in his apple pie, and I forgot all about how much I liked that as well. I wanted a lighter representation of goat cheese, as it felt a little texturally heavy, but the flavor was great. Can it be whipped? Or maybe goat cheese ice cream? Could just be because I was so full from dinner already.  I could crush this on its own, but after a big meal it was a lot of delicious goodness. I look forward to eating this in the fall when its chilly out, with a hot coffee and a little sidecar of bourbon.

Those macaroons though… I believe Dan Borelli is the genius behind this assembly. We got the “number 2” which had toasted marshmallow ice cream with a spiced strawberry jam. I could see us driving there just for these and following the seasons as they change up. The Macaroon was huge, with a delicious flavor on its own and a great chew to it. The ice cream was delicious. Not too sweet – which was surprising for a marshmallow ice cream, and it held up in the 80 degree heat for all 2 minutes it lasted on our table. The spiced jam was a great addition to meld the flavors together and balance off the sugar and cream. We took the liberty of telling all of the tables around us to make sure they ordered it. GET THE MACAROON

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Macaroon Number 2 – Butter Block Macaroon with marshmallow ice cream and spiced strawberry jam

The service was good. I say this because, as I mentioned above – there are always systems to be figured out and bugs to be worked on – and to a diner you’re most likely to see this in the front of the house because its right in front of you. But I really didn’t see any evidence of this.  You wouldn’t know that they opened last week. Our server knew the menu inside and out, was able to make suggestions and answer my odd questions I always come up with. I wanted wine but didn’t feel like a big cab, which is what I usually get – and asked for something “the opposite” of a big cab. She brought me Leonard Oaks Reisling – and it was perfect and very much the opposite. Thanks for tolerating my indecision. Christian, one of the owners, was working front of house, bouncing around from table to table, and checking in with the kitchen and wait staff constantly. His presence was known and gave the entire dining room the air of efficiency and confidence.

We ran into Donnie and Alli from Buffalo Eats, and ended up meeting for a cocktail around the corner after our meals. I mentioned how young I noticed the crowd to be – not just at Marble and Rye, but at a lot of restaurants we’ve been to lately. I’m only 38, but when I was in my 20’s, I loved food, but going out to a nicer restaurant was something that only happened every couple months. This seems like a regular occurrence for this next generation. Donnie made a good point that this generation is all about the experience, not possessions, and have no problem dropping some coin on a good meal and a great bottle of wine. I have to concur. And I’m kind of jealous of these people in their 20’s, because it took me a long time to learn that lesson of experience over possession.

We’ve recently seen a glut of new restaurants opening up as the latest round of local chefs have stepped up and hung their shingle. Chefs that have 20+ years in the business that built it up over time. Its pretty remarkable to see a well run establishment come out of such a great group of young talent. This is exactly what Western NY needs to continue the growth and momentum we’ve seen over the past few years of food. Congrats to everyone at the Marble and Rye, and best of luck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elm Street Bakery -Brunch

I’ve been going to this joint since it opened. Before I knew all these cool local chefs.  Before I cared about artisan or local anything.  I just liked good food and knew it was here. I would hit the East Aurora farmers market Wednesday mornings when it opened at 7 AM, and then grab an ESB breakfast sandwich and coffee and read the paper before heading into work.

And then the place blew up.

It went from an amazing bakery, to a lunch bar, to brick oven pizzas, to swiftly expanding to an amazing program…. and now the circle is completed with brunch… all leveraging some of the best food talent in Western NY with a simple and clean approach to putting out some really complex and impressive pastry and meals.

I may have gone to high school with one of the lead cooks.
My 2 year old son has a big crush on the pastry chef.

ESB will continue to grow and shine. While all of these great restaurants are popping up and running the gauntlet of who reigns supreme in the urban dining scene, ESB, staffed almost entirely by soft spoken and reserved cooking staff, will continue to be the vanguard of the suburban-rural restaurant program. The innovation coming out of this place. As humble as an appearance as it gives off, right down to the squeaky screen door when you come in, this place is anything but simple.

ESB is primarily counter service except for dinner, so you put your order in at the (delicious) bakery line, and then wait for your food to be called.

Can raise an Amish barn and fill it with food the likes of which remind us of travels to Seattle and San Francisco.

This is the type of place that all of a sudden puts out a cookbook

For our most recent visit, we hit the Brunch program all the way, ordering everything on the Brunch menu.

The first dish out was the Raspberry & Rhubarb Strata. It came with a sourdough dough and had raspberries, rhubarb, and maple syrup. A really simple and rustic dish that was a great opener with a cup of strong black coffee.

Next up was the Croque Madame. As a self-proclaimed connisouer of breakfast sandwiches, THIS is something I can comment on. It was very traditional French preparation with on Brioche bread with smoked ham and gruyere cheese and a fried egg, and a bit of mornay sauce. This was a great sandwich. Beautifully prepared and served elegantly, as it should. It was delicious, but I wanted something ESB unique from it. For a shop that does so much in house work – right down to pickling and curing, I would love for this to have been made with house cured or smoked ham. I know that when ESB does something, they go all in and do it right – so I can only hope and anticipate that there is a meat curing program down the road. Don’t get me wrong, this was a great sandwich – but I want to see ESB ham on it someday, because that is what I’ve come to expect from them.

The third dish was the ramp kimchi fried rice and egg. THIS.  This is the dish I was most looking forward to. My California roots mixed with my desire to quell a hangover with food makes this a most attractive dish to me. It did not disappoint. Sour and funky house made Kimchi fried with rice and a soy aioli set the base for two perfectly fried eggs which I believe were cooked to perfect texture in the brick oven. Give me this and a couple of slabs of ESB Sourdough and I can sop up a night of bourbon and make it to church in time to hear the Gospel. What a great play on breakfast and comfort food. This was my favorite, and the simplicity of the design in the dish is genius.

I love this restaurant. I loved it since the day I walked in, and I wanted to keep it my little secret. I got a little sad the morning I pulled up and every parking spot was full. This was the place I took people and blew their minds. It was MY secret, and now everyone knows about it. But Elm Street Bakery deserves that. They deserve to be known. In a community where the city is the culinary hub, and people only think of Applebees and Pizza/Wing joints when they thing of the suburbs, Elm Street Bakery represents the Southtowns in spades.

My wife and I recently traveled to Seattle and got to eat our way across the town for a week. Our favorite places were these cool, chic breakfast joints and lunch counters that just did a few things, and executed them perfectly. Whenever we went into these places, we would say “This is like Elm Street Bakery!” and eagerly order something cool and obscure off the menu (like smashed avocado toast with cumin oil. Can we get that ESB? Please?).

I’m so proud to have something great like ESB in our umbrella of fine culinary establishments. Andrew Garleanau of The Buffalo News once used the word “simple” in his review of ESB. I don’t think simple is the right word. Understated maybe… like an all black Hugo Boss suit.

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Fast Bite: My first SC Biscuit Sandwich

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Bakehouse Charleston
Charleston, SC

So this was bound to happen.

If there is one thing our friend James Roberts taught us, it is a pure appreciation for #hotbiscuits. And I love my breakfast sandwiches. 

We hit this little place on East Bay Street for iced coffee and breakfast. A fresh, hot, buttery and flaky biscuit with a fresh cooked egg and a spicy house sausage inside, topped with a thick slice of sharp cheddar. 

Nailing the proper balance on a biscuit sandwich is tough. Too few accoutrements and the biscuit dominates your mouth, where even the most perfect biscuit becomes dry.  Too many, and you have a sloppy, doughy, wet mess. These folks did a great job.

Speaking of biscuit sandwiches… keep an eye on those Toutant #hotbiscuits. There are some rumors that they might be getting treated with more than gravy down the road 😉

Back to our trip…

Fast Bite: Matties Breakfast Sandwich. BUF Airport

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Breakfast Sandwich at Matties in the Buffalo Airport

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out my go to meal when traveling from the Buffalo Airport.  Matties, located at the far end of the terminal near the last gates, is a WNY institution for quick meals.  Originally owned and operated by dethroned former Chair of the Erie County legislature George Holt… this joint can put out one hell of a breakfast sandwich.

Bread options are English muffin, hard roll, bagel, biscuit, or crossiant and you get your choice of bacon, sausage, or ham.  The preformed egg rounds and meats are microwaved to order … as is the case with 90 percent of most breakfast sandwich joints. Each breakfast sandwich gets a double hit of egg rounds.. which makes this a bonus sandwich.

Service is fast and friendly, the sandwich is cooked to order, and it’s one of the few local businesses in the Buffalo Airport.

And you can’t beat the price.  With airport restaurants often running at a 200 percent markup “just because they can” these breakfast sandwiches start at just under four bucks. 

ProTip: they also have the cheapest bottled water in the BNIA.

Next time you’re flying through, I highly recommend this breakfast sandwich.

The Souvlaki Project: Athens

wpid-20150422_131045.jpgAthens Restaurant
2801 Harlem Road
Cheektowaga, NY 14225

Wow did this one sneak up on me.

I frequented Athens around the age of 10, when I used to go to baseball card shows with my brother in law Cliff (Rest in Peace). We would hit the show, and more often than not, end up at a greek diner of sorts where he would get an open roast beef sandwich with fries and gravy and a Pepsi.

Other than that… I can’t remember the last time I went here on purpose. I popped in on a whim because I was driving by, it was lunch time, and I was starving. There is a huge “Try our $7 meal specials” banner on the window. The restaurant was filled with mostly senior citizens. They do decent Quickdraw business with a bunch of folks playing while they ate, and the requisite spinning carousel of deserts looked fresh and ready.  As busy as they were, I was immediately seated, and given a menu and told about the specials. The service was excellent. I ordered an unsweetened Iced Tea and a cup of Beef Barley soup while I perused the menu, and they showed up almost instantly. There is an intuition that these old school servers have where they just know when to interrupt and check in, and when to stay back. Their entire team looked well seasoned, and most seemed able to call the patrons by name.

Lets talk about Beef Barley soup for a second. This is a soup that everyone’s grandma or mom made. I ate it so much as a kid that I would never wpid-20150422_130218.jpgconsider ordering it until my mom ended up in assisted living and no longer has access to a kitchen. I make it sometimes, but its a pretty decent sized undertaking. One thing about this soup though, its almost always homemade, because Beef Barley doesn’t tend to sell well in the canned food world. Maybe its a regional thing. Anyway, the server brought my soup, and it was awesome. A great peppery broth with plenty of beef, it was served with oyster crackers, it was steaming hot, and all of the veggies were hand cut. Perfect for this endless winter. I will go back there just for this soup.

Now on to the Souvlaki.

First off, for $8.95 it was enormous. The salad was hand cut iceberg lettuce with sliced red onion, green peppers, and tomatoes. There was tons of feta luxuriously crumbled over the top. There was at least a pound of chicken, hand cut and cooked to order. It was well flavored, juicy, and had a nice char on it from the grill. The pita was hot and steaming and was definitely oiled before it was toasted, giving it a bit more of a crisp on the outside. This was a quality Souvlaki – someone cared about making it. They even gave me a steak knife. One pepperoncini and one Greek olive, as expected.

wpid-20150422_131058.jpgAs one should be able to expect with any Chicken Souvlaki, it came with a dill dip, but I like to cross the streams and leverage the Greek dressing in the cruet as well. This dressing is where Athens parted ways from most Souvlaki, and it will be make or break for most folks. The house dressing is a heavy vinegar dressing. It was almost an Italian dressing with Greek herbs like oregano added in. Now, I love a vinegar driven dressing so I really appreciated it, but this is NOT the standard Greek dressing, and some purists might be turned off by this counter-option on the classic oil and herb based accouterment.

I was NOT expecting this level of Souvlaki when I walked in the door but I was instantly impressed. I wouldn’t hesitate to take my mom or some other elderly person there to play QuickDraw and have some soup and Souvlaki. In fact, I daresay that this would be my moms favorite place, because she would love that vinegar dressing. I am now committed to taking her here. Couple this with great service and a pretty decent looking menu, I’d hit this place, and send my friends there. It is bound to be someone’s favorite. And if that isn’t enough – they have an Assorted Appetizer Plate that includes Pizza Logs, Mashed Potato Crisps (?), and Fried Veggies with Assorted dipping sauces for $5.99. Who isn’t going to hit that?

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The Souvlaki Project: Milton’s

wpid-20150420_140441.jpgMiltons
3425 Union Road at Walden
Cheektowaga, NY
www.miltonswny.com

 

 

 

Interesting Fact
Miltons is the fast food nephew of the Altons family. The name “Altons” comes from the merger of the names of the two original brothers that own the restaurants – Al, and Milton. I can’t prove any of this, but someone told me it once, and it sounds very plausible.

Order – Open Chicken Souvlaki – $7.95 (Beef and Gyro are also available)

Chicken – Herb marinated, most likely in the Greek dressing. Not charred, and somewhat flaccid. Probably cooked en masse, and then pulled from a heated bin as salads are ordered.

Pita – Standard half-cut pita – warm,  but not grilled or toasted.

Greek Dressing – Tastes like it is house made, heavy oil and herb with a little vinegar mixed in – probably 80/20 which I find to be the standard at most of these places.

Salad – Iceberg – probably bag-o-salad style as I noticed little flecks of red cabbage, and no one really goes through the effort to add red cabbage to a salad on purpose. Some cubed green peppers, red onions, chunks of tomato, and crumbled feta get put in the mix.

Greek Olive/Pepperonchini: One of each. This is the bare minimum for a souvlaki in my opinion.

Bonus: Dill Dip. It is delicious.

Experwpid-20150420_140509.jpgience: Since this is the closest Souvlaki joint to the 2 places I’ve worked at since I moved back to Buffalo 15 years ago,  I’ve probably had a thousand souvlaki meals of various types at Milton’s. One could safely say that the Miltons Souvlaki program is about as standard issue as it gets when it comes to this dish. Its not amazing, nor is it horrible – it just tastes like normal Souvlaki.

Milton’s is all counter ordering, and then they bring your meal on a tray to your table. They also do Roast Beef, and have Dogs and Burgers on a char pit.  They are very consistent in their otherwise unremarkable Souvlaki. I almost wish they would put the chicken on the char-pit to hit it up and give it some depth instead of just keeping it warm in the marinade as they seem to do, but thats just a preference thing. I also find it interesting that while they are part of the Altons family of restaurants, their souvlaki is markedly different from the one at an Altons Restaurant. Altons review forthcoming.

As I stated earlier, I’ve eaten here a gazillion times. Its not my favorite, but it is solid and convenient. For the sale of The Souvlaki Project, I recommend for a quick, inexpensive meal when you’re near the Galleria Mall, or getting your car oil changed across the street at Delta Sonic as an alternative to Subway.

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Buffalo Souvlaki – A very important scientific study

Chicken Souvlaki Salad 500 9521Souvlaki.

There aren’t many things I eat with much regularity, but souvlaki is my go-to standard for lunch.

I probably eat souvlaki at least once a week.

I find the prevalence of Greek diners in Buffalo to be a reflection of our appetite for quick food that is inexpensively priced, and tastes good.

I eat enough souvlaki to consider myself an expert.

I’m now an expert.

So I’m going to start evaluating local souvlaki plates in an effort to find the best one, and build a list of standards we can rely on to get a good dish. I’ve already started, but I went on vacation so these posts are delayed.

Meat: I’ll be discussing all meats offered depending on what I feel like eating at the time. Chicken, Beef, Gyro, Lamb? How is it cooked? How is it seasoned? Quality? Quantity? Is the meat skewered or sliced?

Salad Fixins: Romaine? Iceberg? Bag-O-Salad? What other veggies come with it? Are they stingy with the greek olives and pepperoncini?

Pita: Is it fresh? Is it grilled, warm, or cold? Is it a standard pita, grocery store pocket bread, Lebanese flat style?

Plating: Is it on a Styrofoam plate that your knife cuts through when you tear into your chicken? Or is it one of those thicker black plastic ones that you get really good Thai food take out with?

Feta: Is it generous? Did they flake it out or is it lazy chunks?

Greek Dressing: Traditional oil and herb, or is there a vinegar bonus? Serve yourself cruets or portion control? Is it real olive oil?

Do you get Tzatziki or Dill Dip?

Whats the vibe of the place? Is it a greek diner? A greek diner trying to be fancy? A hot dog place that makes greek salads? A food truck?

Stay tuned. I’ve already got a lot of R&D poured into this. Also, if you have a favorite souvlaki spot that I need to try – please let me know. Maybe I’ll even meet you for one.

Tom

Goulash vs. Goulash

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Anyone who grew up in South Cheektowaga – and probably most of Western NY- knew exactly what “Goulash” meant. 80/20 generic ground beef, fried in a busted non-stick pan with some tomato paste and then mixed with some diced green pepper and onion. Throw that mess all together with elbow macaroni and heavily dust it with dried oregano. You could smell your mom cooking it as soon as you came in the house from school as disappointment met you in the front door. That acrid cooked green pepper odor mixed with the images (1)corpselike sickly sweetness of unchallenged pure tomato paste. Macaroni noodles left to boil for hours on the stove until they can barely hold their own little pasta tunnels open, let alone stand up to the weight of the original skillet meal of the 80’s. And I’m the one that always choked on the errant bay leaf.

So imagine my chagrin when my girlfriend (now wife) had me over for dinner for the first time and said she was making “Hungarian Goulash.” Now we South Cheektowagans aren’t easily fooled. Hungarian Goulash just means regular crappy goulash with a sprinkle from that ancient can of paprika into the mix.

And I got scared.

I’d thought she was the one.

I had money down on an engagement ring.

She’s eaten with me before. Hell, she’s introduced me to some amazing local restaurants. She introduced me to Steve Gedra!  Is she messing with me? Is this a test? Who the hell would serve someone they loved freaking goulash?

When I entered her apartment off of Hertel Ave on a cold night where every step put my shoe in some semi-frozen puddle and my coat gained twice its weight with frozen precipitation… I smelled it instantly. And it wasn’t green pepper. Something was cooking… all day. Earthy… Maybe a little spice… is that Caraway? Paprika? Whats going on here? This isn’t goulash.

I walked in, grabbed a Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks, and submitted. Something I rarely do in a kitchen. But I knew I had to.  This was not my moms goulash. Something sacred was happening here. As I sat down, the dutch oven on the stove was merrily bubbling this rich crimson broth while a large batch of long grain rice finished up in another pot. There was no ground beef to be found. The lack of hyper-boiled macaroni was the next clue that something unique was about to go down. It was so hard for me to not test, taste, poke, and try to see whats going on. But I submitted, and I sat down at the table like a proper guest and sipped my scotch.

The rice was brought to the table and spooned into our bowls. Steaming and aromatic, it set the stage for the rest of the plate. Next, the cover was lifted off of the dutch oven, and inside was the most gloriously tender shoulder of pork. As she scooped hunks of pork over my rice, she explained that the broth is the heat control. The more broth you put in your bowl, the spicier it is. Got it.  I went 3 stars on this one for heat and balanced my bowl off with enough liquid to just cover the rice. I noticed a great variety of peppers in the broth that I later learned was a mixture of fresh bell peppers, roasted sweet peppers, and Hungarian hot peppers. She spooned these over my pork and I could smell them mingling with the caraway, heavy handed measures of Hungarian paprika, and rich pork aromas. It was intoxicating.

I was set with rice, meat, and peppers but then she brought out another bowl that was a simple sour cream with lemon zest for the top. I added a healthy dollop to my bowl teeming with all of these flavors and dug in. My first bite was magical. Perfectly slow roasted pork, with a bit of sweet and hot pepper on my fork, a cooling lemon sour cream, and rice to bind it all together. It was a well balanced combination of flavors. The next, and all subsequent bites only amplified the quality of this dish. I didn’t look for crusty bread to sop anything up with, I didn’t require any sort of condiment. This one bowl held everything I love about a well thought out dish of food. It was simple, elegant, straight forward, to the point, and sexy as hell. If you know my wife, you’ll see the resemblance.

Over the past few years, she has made this dish for me several times. Usually when its wicked cold out, and often when I do something nice. I just had it the other night, and that’s what prompted this blog post. I’m always tempted to deconstruct it. To try and make it myself. To play with the broth thickness or the pepper ratios. To somehow take this recipe and enhance it. But then when I eat it, I realize that it is exactly what its meant to be. That her execution of it is so pure, that it would be a sacrilege to taint something that works so well, and impacts me so much.

No, This is her dish. She owns it. It is beautiful. And it is perfect. She gives it to me as a gift, and its one of the few times I’ll stay entirely out of the kitchen, letting her do her thing, and only assisting when asked. And I always do the dishes and clean the kitchen after this one.

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Summer’s Hungarian Pork and Pepper Goulash served over basmati rice with a lemon sour cream dollop.