Ten years ago, when my job included reporting developments – or lack thereof – in downtown Niagara Falls, I was often asked where to find the best meal within a walk of the famed cataracts. My answers made hungry people sad. ¶ Three weeks ago, I found myself eating at a fine dining, white-tablecloth place two blocks from the park. A restaurant with a chef’s table and a tasting menu and a polite young sommelier with a French accent. ¶ This is Niagara Falls, N.Y., now. ¶ I’d read the stories about the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute opening in the former Rainbow Mall, home to state-of-the-art classrooms for the culinary students of Niagara County Community College plus restaurants, a pastry shop and a wine boutique. (See accompanying Cheap Eats review on Page 17.) But it didn’t really hit me until we sat down at Savor.
The dinner menu is ambitious and playful, packed with premium ingredients handled with skill, and presented with painstaking care. There’s a five-course tasting menu for $75, but I only learned of it with the check. The staff is a mix of pros and students; our server for Saturday dinner said no students were on duty.
From the appetizers, we chose confit duck dumplings ($9) with fried leeks, sun-dried cherry jam and orange crème fraîche, and the soup of the day, carrot ginger ($5).
We asked for the farro salad ($8) with wild mushrooms, fennel, spinach, carrot purée and goat cheese chip; a stone oven steak and cheese pizza with peppers, fresh mozzarella and Gorgonzola cheese ($15); and from the pastas, gnocchi with bolognese and fresh burrata cheese ($15).
From the mains, I chose the diver scallops with polenta, fennel salad, pearl onions and basil “caviar” in a beurre blanc ($30). Cat asked for the Maple Leaf duck with kimchi fried rice, fried egg and sesame soy sauce ($22).
When Cat got a glass of wine from the high-flying list ($9 and up) the sommelier offered her a taste and waited for her nod before the pour. Service was mostly tight, with one server disappearance, but her assistant was within hailing distance.
An amuse-bouche came, a morsel of poached shrimp with preserved lemon and celery leaf, shrimp cocktail writ small. Two kinds of fresh, warm bread – classic Italian and an earthy olive-studded loaf – plus buttery extra virgin olive oil, dressed three ways, made for a dipping frenzy.
The duck dumplings were a treat – rich, dark meat filling in surprisingly tender wrappers. Its deeply fruity cherry sauce supported the duck flavor. I could have done without the second sauce, salty duck reduction.
The pizza was handsomely charred from the oven, with a puffy but crunchy crust. Its steak – Meyer Ranch tenderloin – was tender indeed, and a warming jolt from spicy cherry peppers kept us from getting complacent with all the mozzarella and Gorgonzola. We beseeched our server to box it up for us.
We found the ginger flavor in our soup, but lost sight of the carrot. Despite its welcome accents of fresh mint and orange segments, the silky purée needed more character.
The farro salad looked better than it tasted, with the al dente grain asking for a more assertive dressing. It came encircled by a dehydrated raspberry strip that the server likened to a fruit roll-up, except it was chewier, more like raspberry jerky. Dabs of carrot added color but little flavor and the goat cheese chip was limp.
The gnocchi were light, almost airy, and served as a fitting context for the soft, warm hug of long-simmered bolognese, tender meat accented with tomato. The milky-tasting burrata on top had been fired to melt it over the dumplings.
Cat’s duck was tender and cooked accurately, and the kimchi fried rice was perked up with pickled vegetables. But it verged on oversalty, even before applying the thick, sweet soy that comes on the side.
The scallops plate was a thing of beauty. I was relieved to find the taste backed it up, for the most part. The little green pearls of basil caviar perched on the perfectly seared scallops actually tasted like fresh basil. The beurre blanc was light yet hinted at luxuriousness.
The fennel salad atop griddled polenta cake at the plate’s center needed something more acidic to perk it up. A scallop was sandy. Otherwise, it was an accomplishment.
For dessert ($8 each), we had a lemon cake overwhelmed by too much white chocolate, but accompanied by a terrific grapefruit sorbet, and cherry bombe, with vibrant cherry sorbet and chocolate mousse on a chocolate cake base, enlivened with crunchy cocoa nibs.
It was the best meal I’ve ever had that allowed a stroll past the mighty cataracts as a digestif.
Culinary institute’s fine dining place stands out in downtown Niagara Falls.
WHERE: 28 Old Falls St., Niagara Falls, N.Y. (nfculinary.org, 210-2580)
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
PRICE RANGE: Dinner starters, $5-$15; pizzas and pastas, $10-$16; entrees, $22-$34.
PARKING: On Old Falls Street, or at the southernmost end of the parking garage.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.