When the 31 Club was reopened as a fine dining restaurant in 2009, its ambitions were plain. It aimed to evoke both the 1960s-era cool of its first incarnation, and satisfy the heightened culinary expectations of the modern diner. Its mission hasn’t changed since. You walk in through a covered entranceway to find a tidy world of tasseled drapes and art in carefully chosen frames, nooks and banquettes, a marble-topped bar and a spiral staircase. ¶ Offerings include Sunday brunch, and prix fixe menus with shuttle service for customers dining before theater. The compact menu of American and Italian classics hasn’t changed much – the Bolognese is still there, and the lobster mac and cheese and Roman stuffed artichokes still deliver luxe thrills. Yet a few details, like kitchen fumes wafting through the dining room, tempered our enthusiasm for an otherwise classy experience.
Early on a Saturday we were led to our table in the back room, past the bar and empty tables, making me think it was a light night. But we got one of the last tables in a packed room. Our table was dressed with a white tablecloth and real flowers, and the chairs were comfy.
A brief menu featuring 11 entrees didn’t take long to digest. We ordered Parmesan flan ($9), lobster mac and cheese ($14), harvest salad ($9), grilled romaine salad ($11) and Roman artichokes ($11) as appetizers, with a shrimp cocktail ($12) thrown in for good measure.
For entrees, we asked for the catch of the day ($30), which was seared snook; filet mignon ($41), which has replaced the New York strip; ricotta gnudi dumplings ($21); and the cider brined pork chop ($29).
First, a bread basket arrived, featuring focaccia, baguette and a cheese-and-herb-speckled flatbread, with an olive oil/balsamic vinegar reservoir and flavored butter. It was a delicious and diverting bread plate, fresh and engaging.
We paid more attention to the bread than we would have because it took a while for food. Our server explained the delay, saying the theater-bound customers were due their dinners. It was hard-to-hear-your-neighbor noisy until the theater tables left, which didn’t make me any more sympathetic.
Our appetizers came with an apology. The lobster mac and cheese was the best of its kind I’ve had in Buffalo. Firm macaroni in a flavorful cheese sauce with real chunks of lobster, including a shelled claw, and crispy panko crumbs made it stand out.
The artichokes were popular as well, four halved vegetables over an arugula salad, each one carrying a baked filling of breadcrumbs, prosciutto and asiago cheese. Savory stuffing with tender vegetables made everyone happy.
The Parmesan flan didn’t. The cheesy puck at the center of the plate was grainy and the consistency of cream cheese. It did taste like Parmigiano Reggiano, though, and it’s not an insult to say I would have happily spread it on a bagel. The arugula salad with orange vinaigrette and sliced beets with it were enjoyable. The shrimp cocktail was standard, five fresh jumbo shrimp perched on the lip of a martini glass with a dab of salad and horseradish ketchup.
Grilled romaine salad was a split head of young lettuce marked up on the grill and given a whisper of smoky flavor, then topped with roasted red peppers, pine nuts, gorgonzola cheese and balsamic dressing. It was a restrained but still likable version of this sometimes overloaded dish. The harvest salad had small diced squash served alongside more arugula and matchsticked apple, with a molasses dressing. The dressing was a touch too sweet, but it was a satisfying combination.
My fish arrived perched atop shiitake mushrooms, spinach and quinoa. It had been seared brown on top, but the skin on the bottom was soft and I scraped it off. The nutty quinoa and vegetables were cooked properly. Two sauces circled the pile, and a truffled one added more flavor, but overall the dish tasted pale.
The filet was coated with a robust dose of cracked pepper and was cooked perfectly. A rich cream demiglace put it over the top. The accompanying risotto was pleasant, with firm rice.
Our pork chop was the hit of the night, emphatically seared, yet juicy and tender. Perhaps it was the cider brine that made it different, and if so, I hope every chef in town gets wise to the technique. The squash and shredded Brussels sprouts were fine accompaniments. The menu mentioned smoked apple butter, which I didn’t notice, but it was a splendid dish already.
The gnudi weren’t so nice. Two ricotta dumplings the size of jumbo eggs arrived atop more of the diced squash, spinach and shiitakes, on a foundation of parsnip puree. The vegetables were decent, and the parsnips were a welcome winter diversion from the ordinary. But the dumplings were gummy instead of fluffy, and two seemed skimpy.
As we waited for dessert, we talked about the kitchen fumes infiltrating the dining room. The odor was strong enough that non-diners noticed it on us an hour after we left.
Dessert was some consolation. The chocolate hazelnut mousse with sesame tuile ($8) was a small hemisphere of feather-light mousse coated with ganache. It was adorned with a party hat of crispy cookie and a glazed toasted hazelnut, and left chocolate lovers swooning. The crème brûlée ($7), its crackling burnt-sugar crust top festooned with chocolate curls, was a solid version. The roasted pears that arrived with the brown butter cake ($8) were hard, and the cake was arid. But lemon cake with passion fruit curd and lavender anglaise ($8) was an intriguing assortment of floral and fruit notes that made me want to linger with coffee.
I had my quibbles, but two weeks after dining in the 31 Club, what I remember most is the grace notes of its cuisine.
The 31 Club : 8 plates (Out of 10)
Historic club is no longer new kid on block, but remains a fine dining destination.
WHERE: 31 N. Johnson Park (332-3131)
HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday (with bar menu 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.); 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday brunch and dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers and salads, $8-$16; entrees, $21-$41.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.