On the way to the table, lots of diners look around for clues to the mysteries that await, if only in self-defense. Setting accurate expectations insulates against the bitterness of disappointment. ¶ So when you pass a disused deli case and wood-grain plastic laminated booths on the way to the televisions and beer taps of Brick Oven Bistro’s main dining room, you might brace yourself for another Buffalo eatery whose core competencies are draft beer pitchers and fried whatnot. ¶ Happily, you would be dead wrong. Oh, they have fried whatnot here, to be sure, but better versions of the old familiars. ¶ You want chicken fingers and fries for a child’s meal? They got that: chicken tenders they hand-dip fresh, not the frozen planks. Hand-cut fries, too.
You hankering for a nice pot roast? They got that: a fist-sized hunk of beef short rib, spoon tender and buttery rich. It arrived reclining on a bed of fresh pappardelle pasta, glistening with jus and dotted with peas, and a handful of fresh pea shoots. It was $19, and if you ate it all in one sitting, you would want a nice nap.
Chef Andrew Murtha used to cook at a swanky Philadelphia steakhouse called Barclay Prime, and the plates that come out of the kitchen show attention to detail and a handle on presenting prime ingredients.
I saw a beer-battered soft-shelled crab po-boy on the specials, $12 with Cajun remoulade and fries. I am drawn to soft-shells, crab for lazy people, so I asked if I could have just the crab.
For $10, I got an expertly fried crab done up in a light, puffy jacket, spicy mayonnaise, chive flowers and pickled ramps, whose puckery green note helped all that richness shine.
The beef on weck version in the restaurant’s brick oven pizza lineup ($12) could have been a cliche. But the roast beef was tender, the Swiss cheese added depth, the crust was crunchy and adeptly bronzed, and the horseradish aioli was applied with restraint under a dusting of chives.
Everybody has a beet salad these days. Not like this one. It arrived in a bowl that had been coated with a roasted beet puree brightened with orange zest and blood orange, topped with roasted beet wedges, arugula, orange supremes, sliced radishes and house-cured duck prosciutto. Oh, and little crispy-crusted goat cheese croquettes. For $9.
The antipasti platter is house-cured salami-like soppressata and more of that duck prosciutto ($12 small) with fresh mozzarella, toasted Italian bread and a ramekin of oil. How I wished for pickles or any foil for all that funkiness.
The French onion soup ($2 upcharge with entree) was decent but not compelling, considering the competition, and we lost interest after eating the cheese. The chicken soup was hearty, with chunks of chicken and carrot, but it needed salt.
The fried chicken, fries and gravy special ($14) was gone by 6 p.m. during our Saturday visit. After a brief mourning period we ordered the steak sandwich ($11), manicotti ($14), veal cutlet Milanese ($17) and the short rib pasta.
The sandwich’s steak was several thin pieces, some still a bit pink, on a vigorously toasted roll with hot pepper, provolone and garlic aioli. It won the heart of its owner.
The manicotti was nutmeg-scented ricotta rolled in delicate crepes, and lots of it. The sweet, bright tomato sauce had a lick of heat.
The short rib pasta, with tender beef and the pleasant texture of fresh pasta, evoked low noises of appreciation. It made its owner happy the next day for lunch, too.
The veal cutlets had some scorching here and there, making them chewier. The salad that topped it was fine, dressed with balsamic and a surprise prosciutto guest appearance.
For a place that’s put so much effort into food, the beer list is broad and deep, and the bartender will supply free draft samples. A flight of four 5-ounce glasses is $6. At the table, I asked for an IPA draft and got a lemony Leinenkugel instead. Apologies and immediate replacements were offered, but it was growing on me, so I kept it. The black-clad servers play as a team and got us sorted out.
Desserts ($5.50) weren’t a letdown. The cinnamon creme brulee’s creamy-crusty contrast was heightened with salt flakes; the chocolate brioche bread pudding was comforting and not overly sweet.
A guest said that after eyeballing the place on his way in, he was “100 percent surprised in all the best ways possible.”
Well, the secret’s out now.
Brick Oven Bistro: 8 plates (Out of 10)
Graceful touches, house-made offerings surprise in South Buffalo tavern setting.
WHERE: 904 Abbott Road (844-8496, brickovendeli.com).
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Sunday brunch is from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., with the regular menu then served until 8 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $5-$17; sandwiches and pizzas, $7-$14; entrees, $11-$21.
PARKING: Small lot on side of building. WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.