BOSS aspires to be one of the classiest places in town. It didn’t quite pull it off when I visited, but came close. The devil, as is always the case in fine dining, was in the details. There’s valet parking. But its air of luxury was disrupted by the harrowing sight of the valet playing Frogger across two lanes of dinnertime Hertel traffic. ¶ Our food was terrific. Dishes showed more finesse than I expected from a steakhouse, and the prices are lower than Fiamma’s, but that’s not saying a lot. Management makes a point of personably engaging every table, which is how I got to meet a man named “Hot Dog.” The place aims at classy – when was the last time you saw a free-standing wrought-iron purse percher brought to the table? – but it reminded me of an actor who hasn’t quite settled into the part.
There’s a glowing new sign on the corner of Hertel and Starin flanked with gas torches. What used to be Fiamma, most recently an expense-account playground, reopened in February after a rebranding. The main dining room overlooks the street through glass, an airy space with room between tables and solid chairs. Our server presented single-card menus with a practiced flourish. She was attentive and quick with a solid wine recommendation. While she knew her lines, it seemed like she hadn’t done it long enough to make it seem totally natural. Hot Dog, the host, offered a hospitable welcome and wanted to chat, but he didn’t always spot incoming food, and I watched servers hold cooling plates while he chatted with their intended recipients.
We chose pork belly ($12), marinated scallop carpaccio ($13), cauliflower bisque ($9), arugula salad ($8) and chopped salad ($9) for starters. We also asked for a black tagliatelle pasta with crab, jalapeño and lemon ($12). Entree selections were a 14-ounce dry-aged strip steak ($45), pork tenderloin ($26), rack of lamb ($39) and roasted halibut ($30). At BOSS, steaks came with a side dish, a departure from steakhouse pricing, but the other entrees did not.
I asked for a Parmesan hashbrown with egg as my side, and we also got side dishes of Brussels sprouts, macaroni and cheese, and mushrooms with cippolini onions (all $4).
A bread basket set the tone of raised expectations with fresh, crusty white and wheat bread offered with a vibrant caponata. Bracingly sweet-and-sour with a whack of chile heat, the cooked salsa of eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, raisins and more, overcame long-standing eggplant aversions at the table. “Terrific,” said Cat. Fresh arugula and basil in the butter lent it more color than flavor.
The first appetizer to arrive left steakhouse expectations behind. Thinly sliced raw scallop was decorated artfully with blood orange supremes, minced green chile, radish and celery leaf. The ornaments still let the scallop foundation’s sweetness through, a tricky balance to strike. Chef Vincent Thompson, formerly of Bambino Bar & Kitchen, owner Michael Vaccaro’s other place, turns out eye-catching plates.
Cauliflower bisque was served in a broad bowl decorated with a plump seared scallop and crispy leek threads. It was rich and comforting, if bland. The tagliatelle with crab was largely successful, sweet seafood and tender pasta with sparks of lemon zest and jalapeño.
Pork belly showed that Thompson’s steakhouse spin goes beyond grilling. It was tender slices of thick, house-smoked pork belly braised until fork-tender, then topped with a canny set of companions: a sunny-side-up egg yolk, matchsticked pickled vegetables and coarse, whole-grain mustard. Coated with a thin barbecue glaze, the balance of fatty vs. astringent, and sweet vs. sour, produced sighs of satisfaction.
The chopped salad offered smokiness, too, from crunchy bacon nubs tossed with lettuce, diced tomatoes, avocado and blue cheese. It verged on overkill for me, but my guest Dave applauded: “That is a meat lover’s salad.” The arugula salad, featuring marinated fennel, shaved aged provolone cheese, grape tomatoes and toasted pine nuts, was overwhelmed by balsamic vinegar.
My steak was well-crusted and cooked to medium rare as requested. It tasted like any other good-quality strip steak. I expected more funk from 30 days of dry aging.
Cat’s pork tenderloin had been seared, sliced and interspersed with fried kale leaves, which were so delightfully crunchy everyone got to try them. Apple chunks and speck, more smoked pork, completed the dish, on a bed of cheesy polenta. The pork was tender, the dish a winner.
Lisa’s halibut was a lovely browned piece of fish, still moist and flaky. It rested on parsnip gnocchi, in a tomato saffron broth, topped with more of that caponata. The piquant broth couldn’t soften the fact that the gnocchi were chewy, then toughened up further in a sauté pan.
Dave, the lamb fan, got four big chops, gloriously rare. They were served over butter bean puree, like a loose hummus, with glazed sweet-and-sour cippolini onions, and whole smoked peeled grape tomatoes. He hesitated at the red meat – which matched the useful “doneness” definitions printed on the menu – then ate it all.
Of the side dishes, the perfectly crusted Parmesan hashbrown drew the most attention, followed by the moderately creamy mac and cheese, topped with breadcrumbs. The cippolini and mushrooms had soaked up red wine flavor, and the Brussels sprouts, browned with pancetta before being coated in balsamic, were soft but not soggy.
Desserts were good enough to merit a stop themselves. They’re made by John Naumovich, who also makes the bread for BOSS and Bambino. Chocolate Dream had Callebaut pots de crème with orange sorbet, salted caramel and a citrus tuile ($10), plated like a work of modernist art. Coffee and doughnuts were an espresso panna cotta with a little pitcher of crème anglaise and first-class beignets, light as a dream, for dipping ($10). The deconstructed pear tart offered compressed pear, crisp phyllo triangles, honey, Camembert ice cream and fresh ground black pepper ($10). Its matrix of sweet, savory, spicy and crunchy left me with one complaint: It was over too soon.
The restaurant at Hertel and Starin has changed its name but not its capacity to impress. With an engaging menu and service that’s still getting into the groove, BOSS has the big windows lit up again, and the welcome light back on.
BOSS: Eight plates (Out of 10)
Finesse touches take dinner menu further than standard steakhouse fare.
WHERE: 1735 Hertel Ave. (551-6499, www.bossbuffalo.com)
HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
PRICE RANGE: Starters and salads, $8-$15; entrees, $23-$69.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No.