The diners packed into Bistro Europa didn't know what to expect -- other than the unexpected.
On this May night, that meant being greeted by an amuse bouche of a "foie gras PBJ" sandwich and a maple-bacon milkshake. Followed by scungilli with moon snails. A 25-pound Mexican grouper roasted whole, was paraded through the dining room for "oohs" and "aahs" and served with giant Peruvian lima beans, mint and shrimp oil.
Then came the most exacting dish of the evening: a locally raised piglet that was deboned and stuffed, then rolled up and roasted in its own skin.
For about $65, the evening's eaters got a one-time-only meal, crafted by chefs challenged to take risks and reach beyond their everyday menus. It's a monthly series called "Dinner With Danger," and it's attracting a following of mostly younger eaters who enjoy a bite of adventure with their meal.
"In Buffalo, you don't always get the best of the best," said Robbie Gianadda, a legal photographer and frequent restaurant customer. "But there are some unbelievable chefs here. [Dinner With Danger] is a way for chefs who've been pigeonholed by their menu to really shine."
Given their wishes, chefs like Bistro Europa's Steve Gedra would operate differently. "I like cooking whole animals," Gedra said. "If I could do that every day, that's what I'd do."
Why doesn't he?
"I don't have the space," he said. "I don't have the money. I don't have the audience."
But a new generation of Buffalo chefs is building a following. So far, Dinner With Danger has given participants the chance to enjoy things like seared sea scallops in popcorn sauce at Torches, braised pork cheeks and free-range veal tongue at the Wine Thief and "seven fishes salad" at Marco's.
"Chefs can only go so far in terms of taking risks, as far as what they can sell," said organizer Michael Bernhardt. "If they order, say, veal tongue, and don't sell any of it, they're stuck with it."
Chefs who cook only dishes they are fiercely passionate about can't always stay in business, said Bernhardt. That's because Western New York isn't a steady market for the unusual or exotic preparations that haunt some chefs' dreams.
But it may have a small market for them.
One day last spring, Bernhardt -- a former bartender who has spent much of his adult life in Buffalo restaurants, on one side of the bar or the other -- was at the Bistro Europa bar. He was talking to Gedra, who runs the kitchen with Bruce Wieszala.
"I pushed him over the edge, because he was just talking about [the dinner idea]," said Gedra, who took over the restaurant last year. "The idea was just going into a restaurant and letting the chef just go off. You get kind of sick of cooking the same menu every night."
Bernhardt promised Gedra an audience. "He said, 'You can cook whatever you want and people will buy it.' I said, 'Sweet.' "
That has been the deal ever since. Bernhardt strikes a deal with the chef: Cook what you've always wanted to make, and I'll supply the customers. With nine such events so far, Bernhardt hasn't been in danger of dining alone. (The "danger" of the series' name comes from Bernhardt making "Danger" his middle name as a joke on his Facebook page.)
So far, the chefs at Bistro Europa, Tabree, Encore, Torches, O'Connell's American Bistro, the Wine Thief, Marco's and Allen Street Hardware have had the chance to show off. The chefs at Mothers and Carmelo's in Lewiston are coming up. (Tickets are about $65 and $80, through dinnerwithdanger.com; drinks not included).
Bernhardt has "gathered a group of people who are fairly loyal to what he's doing," said chef Kevin O'Connell Jr. of O'Connell's American Bistro. "He has given me, personally, an avenue to really play around with food that I love to do, for people who really understand it, appreciate it and want it."
In November, Bernhardt's one-night dream menus hit a peak with a food lover's fantasy evening starring the white winter truffle of Italy, a $2,000-a-pound delicacy. (A cost reflected in the $200-a-seat all-inclusive price tag.)
The menu, designed by Europa's Gedra and Wieszala and SeaBar's Mike Andrzejewski, included 12 truffle dishes, including truffle "caviar" in the style of Spain's famed El Bulli restaurant, a quail-egg ravioli in truffle broth, and even a truffle chestnut cake.
"I've been in nice restaurants on multiple continents and all over the U.S., and I'd say these dinners stack up to the experiences I've had elsewhere," said Ted Constantine, who attended the truffle dinner. "I definitely think what they put together at these nights would fit in any city's major high-end restaurants."
Instead of feeling constrained by a set menu, there's a freedom in not having to choose, Constantine said.
"The menu is put together, and there are things the chef wants you to try, which makes it a different kind of experience," he said. "You are surrendering control of those choices, and you're potentially opening yourself up to trying something very good that you wouldn't necessarily have picked out from the text in the menu."
Letting the chef choose is called "omakase" in sushi culture, and it's how Gianadda and his wife, Kari, prefer to dine, he said. Also, you usually get to meet the chefs. "You get to find out what they're all about," he said, "which is kind of cool, because it makes these guys approachable."
Dinner With Danger isn't for everyone, Gianadda said. Chefs might not be able to make concessions for vegetarians, for instance. But that can help some timid eaters expand their horizons, he said. His mother, persuaded to attend one such event, even tried the grilled octopus.
At Dinner With Danger events, the customer isn't the only one being served, SeaBar's Andrzejewski said. Chefs feel like they can stretch out and learn about ingredients like truffles that they don't see often. Andrzejewski has used truffles before, but now he knows how to use a pressure cooker to extract their aroma into broth.
"We probably got three times out of it what the customers did," he said, "lifetime knowledge of what we can do with it."
Beyond the exotic ingredients, "the real attraction is to be allowed to be wildly creative," said Andrzejewski. "To do things you couldn't sell at a normal restaurant price to people who are looking for sustenance, something to eat before the theater. At Dinner With Danger, it's really about the food."