If you have a teenager, you probably already know that Yolo means “You only live once.” It might even drive you totes cray-cray to hear the term spoken.
Don’t let that prejudice you against Yolo, the American-Italian place opened in December 2011 by Justin and Robert Bingel, grandsons of noted restaurateur Russell J. Salvatore. Its core audience is younger than grandpa’s regulars, but this isn’t a hangout for East Amherst teens.
Inside the door, the high-ceilinged strip mall space has been duded up with cool blues and grays on the walls. There’s a long bar with five big flat-screens and a sound system pumping out dance music I didn’t recognize, which made me feel old.
The menu is a big placard, a two-hander, that you have to shuffle with a specials card, but at least the specials are in writing. The table was classy lite: black tablecloth, cloth napkins, square plates, artificial orchid.
Appetizers are mainly standards: spinach and artichoke dip, crab cakes, stuffed hot peppers and antipasto are all $8. Entrees range from maple pecan crusted chicken ($18) to pork chop with apple chutney ($25) and berry BBQ salmon ($19), with more daring specials. On our visit they included mussels and clams in yellow curry ($12/$18), duck a l’orange ($24), and for $23, Caribbean-style salmon with pineapple salsa and coconut rice steamed in a banana leaf.
We asked for stuffed mushrooms ($7), calamari “diavolo,” paying a buck more to get it with sweet Thai chile sauce ($10), and a “Yolo Strawberry & Pecan Salad” ($9). For mains, Cat got the duck and I asked for the “Classic Paella” special ($35).
The server brought me the wrong beer, apologized when I pointed it out, and swiftly brought the right one. Service was otherwise tight and polite, and two management types also stopped by to inquire about my satisfaction.
The calamari raised eyebrows at our table. It was crunchy in a flour crust, yet still tender inside, and the piquant sweetness made it squid candy. It was Cat’s favorite calamari so far – “hotter than I want it to be, but good” – and she doesn’t like calamari.
The best part of the stuffed mushrooms was the luxurious, relatively light Bearnaise sauce ladled over the top. Three mushrooms held an adequately vegetal spinach filling.
For spinach salad, the Yolo version could use refinement. Bonus ingredients like sliced fresh strawberries and blue cheese seemed scarce beneath the surface, and while I would rarely have a cross word for candied walnuts, a quarter-sized clump suggested a cook in a hurry.
Our server agreed to give Cat mashed pecan sweet potatoes with her duck, instead of roasted red potatoes, and happiness ensued. Flavored with nutmeg and maybe a touch of vanilla, they reminded me of eggnog. The duck was good but not great, with tender meat in a bracing citrus jus, lacking only more completely rendered, crispy skin. Asparagus spears still had a snap, thankfully adding green notes to a rich plate.
My paella left me torn. Classic paella does not start with smoked Cajun sausage cooked into the rice. Yet that smoky innovation reminded me of the traditional cooking method, over a wood fire, producing savory, firm grains. The shellfish wasn’t rubbery, and I counted four clams, four mussels, three jumbo shrimp and two fat scallops.
Unfortunately, the chicken was dry, which is why traditionalists use dark meat, not strips of chicken breast. It was also too spicy for me, a rare occurrence. I don’t mind sweating while I eat, but the dose of chile overshadowed the flavor of the shellfish.
We got a gelato trio and carrot cake (both $8) for dessert. The carrot cake had pleasant texture and indulgently creamy frosting. Cat wanted more spice, not for the first time.
The pumpkin, coconut and caramel apple gelatos were mostly fine except for the grainy ice crystals in the pumpkin version. The accompanying dab of whipped cream product did not impress. It was a banquet-hall touch in an otherwise ambitious setting.
Yolo is already a decent restaurant displaying plenty of signs that it can improve with age.
East Amherst bistro draws crowd with promising, diverse menu.
WHERE: 5841 Transit Road, East Amherst (688-4479, www.yolobuffalony.com)
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $6-$19; sandwiches and salads, $7-$18; entrees, $11-$32.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.