The most interesting section of the very interesting menu at O'Connell's American Bistro can be found under the "Small Plates" and "Share" headings. It is there that chef Kevin O'Connell Jr. gets to strut his stuff. Smoked Salmon Pizza ($15) with a glorious accompaniment of red onion, capers and chive-spiked cream cheese turns up under "Share" for instance and Tuna "au Poivre," under "Small Plates" is dished up with wakame seaweed, ponzu and wasabi foam for the same price.
Those plates can easily stand in for a satisfying meal. One of our "Shares," Soft Shell Crab Tacos ($14, an evening special) consisted of three portly, housemade grilled tortillas bursting with crisp soft shell crab, jalapeno slaw, pico de gallo and a touch of spicy sriracha aioli, plus a little lime to squeeze over it all.
Supremely messy to eat -- those skewers barely did their job -- they were well worth the trip to the cleaners, we thought. If you're wondering how the soft shell crabs turned up in the middle of November as we did, we asked and learned that they had been frozen by the chef when the weather was warm.
Another special "Share" was Tapas Shrimp, a gumbo-esque mixture of grilled shrimp with homemade andouille, topped with cilantro aioli, to be eaten with a fork rather than a spoon and flaunting a nice little spike of heat to make the dish especially interesting.
With all of that good food under our belts, it was not the easiest thing in the world to think of moving on to large plates -- a tough job and somebody has to do it as they say -- but in the end we were glad we did.
I opted for the Duck Breast ($26) and I loved it for its crisp skin. The meat, cooked medium rare the way I ordered it rested atop a creamy risotto flavored with pork cheeks and dotted with baby bok choy.
The Companion's Veal Cheeks ($25) was a muscular cut of meat that requires slow cooking. And so they were -- braised with green garlic and tomatoes, then popped over gnocchi.
But practically everything on the printed menu called to us including a wild salmon/lobster served with more of that andouille and hush puppies ($28). Diners may order their freshly ground burgers made from a combination of luxury mixture of beef cuts for $15 or lamb for $18. The latter are served with feta, mint aioli and tapenade.
"Milanese" comes based on veal ($23) or chicken ($19), but both are breaded with Parmesan/panko crumbs and served with arugula salad.
Desserts are a little easier to select because most of them are not made in-house. But the Pecan Pie ($7) is. And it's a doozy because it's a deep dish pie -- you can get smothered in that filling and what a great way to go that would be! We ate it with a good-sized scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Do you have a question about the area restaurant scene? Then ask Janice! Her answers will appear in the Taste section of The Buffalo News on Wednesdays.
O'CONNELL'S AMERICAN BISTRO
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
WHERE: 981 Kenmore Ave. (877-8788, www.oconnellsamerican bistro.com). Interesting contemporary food ideas in this small, comfortable restaurant with real strength in the small plates department. Credit Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
FAVORITE DISH: Soft Shell Crab Tacos
NEEDS WORK: Food is of excellent quality.
PRICE RANGE: Large plates from $17 (most are $20 up). Small plates and "Shares" from $11. Chef's Five-Course Tasting Menu, $45.
SERVICE: Very good.
HOURS: From 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
PARKING: Lot in the rear.
RATINGS: Stars reflect the overall dining experience -- including service, ambience, innovation and cost -- with greatest weight given to the food.