In recent years, Lockport-area eaters looking for a finer-than-diner meal have had three main choices: red sauce Italian, traditional American steakhouse or drive to Buffalo. ¶ That changed in November when Michael Zambito opened Mericana on Main Street. Having whetted local tastes for finer than usual food at Zambistro in Medina, which he opened in 2006, chef-owner Zambito decided that a “new American” menu had a chance in the lock city. ¶ In his hands, new American translates to meat and seafood options people will recognize, slightly tweaked, plus a few attention-grabbing dishes. After experiencing Zambito’s frog legs, which had a remarkably crispy buttermilk fried crust, I am still coming to terms with the fact that I have become a fan of frogs’ legs. Sorry, Kermit, I’m going back for seconds.
The Main Street space sports two dining areas separated by a bar. We were seated in the suitably secluded front room, which filled up while we were there but never became noisy. Dark wood accents add a touch of old-school formality to the room.
If you just read the entrée titles, the brief menu is all too familiar. The difference is that the strip steak ($24), roast chicken ($18), salmon ($21) and so on sport nonstandard preparations, sides or seasonings. (They also include choice of green or wedge salads.)
Instead of some leftover-sounding pasta primavera, the vegetarian entrée is a wild rice stuffed pepper ($15) with romesco sauce and queso fresco. (It comes in vegan, too.)
The Friday fish fry ($15) is coated in crushed cornflakes and accompanied by an apple coleslaw and sweet potato fries. The blue cheese-dressed wedge salad uses sunflower seeds for crunch instead of bacon, and I didn’t miss the pork.
The house bread was a fresh sourdough with rosemary, which we enjoyed with plain butter and a pistachio butter. The pistachio butter gained nothing from the added ground nuts.
Those frogs legs ($8) look like uncut chicken wings, with thinner bones. Blindfolded, I’d never suspect I was eating anything but impeccably crusted, remarkably juicy Southern fried chicken wings.
Here the house quesadilla ($10) is duck, the crispy tortilla holding a satisfying pile of dark meat, bolstered with mushrooms, caramelized onions and barbecue sauce. It was the table’s favorite. Fried calamari ($9) was decently crispy, with pepper rings fried up, too, and roasted tomato and spicy mayonnaise dips. A special of lamb chops with potato pancakes ($14) satisfied the lamb-seeking, with three perfectly seared meatsicles separated by crispy hash-brown-like cakes.
The “mac and cheese tasting” ($9) featured radiatore pasta dressed in three flavors of dairy excess, a cup each. That was quite enough to pass around the table to argue over, making it a successful appetizer. The jalapeño was assertively spicy, and the spinach cheddar won the most fans. The house standard, fortified with goat cheese, was my favorite.
Though competently cooked, for the most part, several entrees felt like a letdown after those appetizers.
The roast chicken was my favorite entrée, so satisfying I didn’t mind that the skin wasn’t crisp as promised. It had been marinated in lemon and roasted garlic for a day or two and was served on a warm spinach feta potato salad with a swirl of roasted red pepper aioli. With so many roast chicken entrees, the beauty is only skin deep. At Mericana, the flavor penetrated to the bone.
Dave’s beef short ribs ($25) were tender and rich, but there was scant sauce with his potatoes. The carrots had been shaved into ribbons and assertively seasoned with ground cumin seed. I liked that, but he found it off-putting.
The Cajun chicken and shrimp Alfredo pasta ($17), ordered by my wife, Cat, lacked any kick from pepper, black or otherwise, and the sea of rich cream needed a bite. The chicken wasn’t overcooked, but the shrimp had an odd mealy texture. Lisa’s sea bass ($28) was nicely seared but underseasoned. The wild rice underneath and artichoke heart atop it were both fine, just a little boring.
Dessert brought two successes. One was minor, an apple tart ($7) featuring pieces of apple and pastry baked all the way through. More remarkable was the “s’more ravioli” ($6), a marshmallow-stuffed graham cracker crust that’s baked until toasty and served with sliced almonds and chocolate syrup. With a note of char, it would have been a first class s’mores riff.
A week later, the most memorable dish was those frog legs, more for their implications than their exotic nature. If Zambito can exhibit frying skills capable of rendering frog legs irresistible, what could he do to fried chicken? Perhaps we’ll see, the chef said.
Mericana is offering a dining opportunity that Niagara County previously had to leave town to experience. If customers prove Lockport can support a place that wants to surprise just a little, I’d bet Zambito can take the menu up another gear. Once Mericana gets its legs, you might say, it could really hop.
Mericana: 7 plates (Out of 10)
Frog legs are just the first surprise on menu of upgraded American classics.
WHERE: 80 Main St., Lockport (www.mericana-ny.com, 201-1859)
HOURS: 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers and salads, $4-$12; entrees, $15-$28.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.