Buffalo-area hotel restaurants are not exactly playgrounds of adventurous cuisine. There is so much filet-with-potato that chicken Parmesan qualifies as an ethnic specialty. ¶ Brioso by Butterwood, on the ground floor of Williamsville’s shiny new Wyndham Hotel, went the other way when it opened in early November. Pitched as an upscale restaurant featuring South American flavors, Brioso’s menu requires translation. ¶ Diners can either start Googling words, or turn to servers for explanations. You might know that empanadas are turnovers, but huacatay pesto – featuring an herb used in Peru and Ecuador – was new to me. Chiles rellenos ($18) are stuffed with vegetable “picadilillo,” which Google has never heard of, so I assumed picadillo.
Minguichi is a chile-cheese-corn soup. The menu said it comes with “bread of the dead.” Our server explained it as brioche, a word I did understand.
Writing a menu full of exotic terms isn’t that difficult. Translating it to clear statements on the plate is harder.
It helps that Brioso makes a fine first impression. As the hostess hung up our coats, we checked out the interior of warm brown wood and hammered copper tables. Digital fireplaces flickered on two widescreen TVs. The TV over the bar showed the Sabres game.
We ordered cocktails to fortify ourselves for the menu decoding. From the appetizers, or rather, “Ceviche, Crudo, Tiraditos & Street Foods,” we chose pork belly ($10). Also, empanada verde, goat cheese turnovers with the huacatay pesto ($11). Grilled watermelon salad ($7) with arugula, jicama, queso fresco and jalapeno vinaigrette. An order of smoked chili marinated chicken wings ($12). A cup of the minguichi ($6), too.
Of the entrees, my guest Kim went for Moqueca, or Brazilian fish stew ($32), while her husband, Bud, opted for lamb chops, a dish Central Americanized by swapping Peruvian purple potatoes for the standard mashed ($34). Cat opted for Chicken Shake & Bake, crusted with corn tortillas ($22), and I had the Short Rib “Rajas,” with chorizo con papas, or sausage with potatoes ($24). I also asked for a special of fried cauliflower with pistachios ($10) and a vegetable quesadilla ($12).
A bread basket arrived with slices of fresh, citrus-scented brioche, a dense corn cake and fried wonton wrappers unevenly flavored with chipotle, or smoked jalapeno. There was pepper jelly and jalapeno cream cheese instead of butter. The sweet bread was terrific, the corn number thin and chewy, and the chips ranged from blazing to bland.
The pork belly arrived, and I probably would have been satisfied with it, had I not read the menu first. I’d been promised pork belly “chicharrones, charred corn salsa, ranchero poached egg, ‘Bloody Mary’ pearls, maple-black pepper crema.”
The tender cube of pork was browned but not crispy. The corn beneath it wasn’t charred. Ranchero is a spicy Mexican chile-tomato sauce, but I wouldn’t have known from the egg. A glistening globule of tomatoey gel alongside it was a molecular cuisine move that added interest but little flavor. The maple crema worked with the pork, and it was not a bad little dish. But after exotic promises, the dish tasted all too familiar.
The grilled watermelon salad satisfied its owner. I enjoyed the bracing arugula-jalapeno combination after I pushed the fruit aside. The minguichi soup was a homey roasted pepper and corn chowder. The empanadas were enjoyably flaky, and that pesto was tasty. The wings were spice-crusted and flavorful, but soft-skinned where we wished for crispiness. The quesadilla, overstuffed with greenery, fell apart but tasted good. The honey-chipotle sauce was spot on; a second pink sauce stumped tasters. (Answer: “margarita jam.”)
The cauliflower, tossed in a sweet-spicy chipotle glaze and lots of pistachios, was the hit of the night. The taste was caramel french fries with crunch.
Bud enjoyed his accurately cooked lamb chops, on cheesy polenta, and purple potatoes he liked just as much as white. Cat’s chicken was disappointing, the corn tortilla crust arriving as a dusting of crumbled red and black corn chips. The chicken underneath was decent, but it still felt like bait and switch.
My huge beef rib offered plenty of satisfaction, with tender meat and two interesting sauces, a poblano cream and pesto-y green parsley chimichurri. The lumpy orange potatoes with chorizo, Mexican sausage, was stick-to-my-ribs good. The pepper slaw was a bit coarse and backyard barbecue for the plate, but its fresh crunch was welcome amid all the soft richness.
The Brazilian seafood stew, Kim’s dish, was outstanding, delivering on its exotic promise. The coconut milk broth, flavored with cilantro and lime, held scallops, shrimp and hamachi steak. Emerging from the center was a pile of quinoa flavored with licorice-like Thai basil. The grain’s chewy nuttiness, taken with the tangy, tropical broth, accentuated the tender seafood.
For dessert, we ordered praline tart ($7.39), pecan pie ($6.95), pistachio crème brûlée ($6.95) and cranberry walnut tart ($7.39). The praline number, with unctuous caramel, flaky crust and crunchy salt crystals, was decadent, the envy of the table. The pecan pie was a gooey delight, the brûlée had average custard, wimpy crust, and the cranberry walnut tart was too much walnut, not enough cranberry.
Brioso at Butterwood is certainly better than average hotel dining. But though its menu reads like a roadmap to adventure, all too often, our meal was a walk on the mild side.
Brioso by Butterwood: 7 plates (out of 10)
Flavors of Central, South America raise the bar on hotel dining.
WHERE: 5195 Main St., Amherst (828-8370, www.briosowny.com)
HOURS: Breakfast from 6 to 10 a.m., lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner from 5 to 10 p.m. daily except for Friday and Saturday when dinner is served until 11 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Breakfast, $5-$18; lunch, $6-18; dinner appetizers, $5-$14; and entrees, $18-$39
PARKING: Lot behind hotel.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.