Oliver’s has maintained a reputation as one of the best restaurants in Buffalo for more than three decades. That is a rare accomplishment. Restaurants are made of people, humans susceptible to grand schemes, drinking too much and resting on their reputations. That’s why so many fail to make it past the seven-year itch. ¶ When Oliver’s was sold last year, Lennon Lewandowski, the last chef installed by its longtime owners, remained. Faithful customers still held their breath. Could the new regime keep making customers feel regal, while delivering fine cuisine worthy of the special-occasion setting and, of course, the bill? ¶ The answer is yes. When you settle into your chair with a menu full of old favorites and new discoveries, with the pianist tickling the ivories on the baby grand, Oliver’s is still one of the best tables in town.
From start to finish, Oliver’s is one of the slicker operations around. As my car pulled up in the pelting rain, an attendant greeted us and whisked it away. We ran for the door and surrendered our coats to an amiable woman.
Our friends were having cocktails at the horseshoe-shaped bar, which anchors a front dining room lined with cozy banquettes. We adjourned to our table, with a view of the main dining space behind the bar, which sports an elevated section and a semiprivate room with a long table.
A personable server brought an amuse-bouche of salmon tartare with horseradish cream on a cucumber slice, a sophisticated opening bite. The menu is a single tablet with a specials card. We asked for some of the Oliver’s classics, opting for the spinach loaf ($5) over free bread, the chopped “garbage” salad ($10) and for me, a Double Cross dirty martini with a blue cheese truffle stuffed olive ($10).
The spinach loaf arrived, and I was never so happy to pay for bread. It was devastatingly scrumptious. Dressed with spinach and cheese and toasted, it was just a fresh loaf split, the same way the Mona Lisa is just paint on cloth. The balance between crispy crust – enhanced judiciously with more cheese – and the tender, yielding interiors was perfect. Instead of sloppy overkill, it offered precisely metered indulgence.
Shrimp, sopressata, marinated grape tomatoes and blue cheese crumbles were tossed with romaine for the garbage salad, but in judicious amounts, making it anything but trashy.
Among the appetizers, the crispy octopus salad ($12) won the day. Five little cephalopods had been flash-fried and got to the table still crispy, yet tender inside. Shredded Brussels sprouts offered a fresh note, while butternut squash panna cotta, chili-soy caramel and black garlic emulsion offered ample dabbling choices of sweet and heat.
My cauliflower salad ($10) offered florets both tempura-fried and roasted to a toasty caramel note, artfully arranged over fresh dressed greens, and topped with a poached egg. Cut, the egg yolk mixed with truffle cream to make a satisfying dressing, its richness balanced by the fresh greenery and pickled carrot. It was one of my favorite vegetable dishes of the winter.
The shrimp risotto ($14) had a healthy helping of spoon-sized shrimp in a tasty diavolo sauce, with bits of cauliflower for crunch. The rice was more al dente than I like.
Kevin’s chicken and dumplings ($13) was full of tender chicken and gravy with carrots and pea tendrils. Another delicious dish, but the dumplings were slightly gummy.
My main was whole branzino roasted in a salt crust ($38). The fish was headless and deboned, and it arrived with a salad of arugula and shaved fennel, a pile of roasted cherry tomatoes, and a half-lemon in a sachet. The fish was plump and moist, the kiss of salt from its skin and a squeeze of lemon was all it needed to shine. The tangy salad was an able foil and the roasted tomatoes a fruity contrast.
Cat’s aged Magret duck ($36) was ordered medium rare, and it arrived well-seared and fanned around a tower of black rice, kale and blood orange sauce. Delicious, with the kale’s bitterness and citrus balancing out the duck’s richness, but a few pieces were too rare for her.
Liz’s seafood bowl ($41) offered monkfish, sea bass, lobster and scallops poached in lemongrass broth, with fingerling potatoes. The fragrant broth was extraordinary, deeply flavored, and we wished for more. The fish was cooked perfectly, the lobster slightly chewy, scallops almost as jiggly as raw ones. Later I learned those were discs of scallop mousseline, which might have eased my texture concerns.
Kevin’s veal saltimbocca roulade ($42), stuffed with prosciutto and fontina, arrived over cauliflower puree and braised escarole. Wrapped in chicken skin before cooking, the meat was tender, and the gravy was rich, an upgraded meatloaf-mashed-and-gravy, Italian-style.
Desserts ($9) were just as focused. Crème brûlée offered a crackling crust and decent soft custard with outstanding chocolate brickle on the side. A pear half poached in spiced wine was tasty but too deconstructed, laying between puff pastry quilts. Cheesecake was a top-notch creamy, fluffy wedge with chocolate curls and more buttery toffee. Our favorite was the bread pudding, a restrained portion of sliced warm pudding with crunchy walnuts and an eggy rum sauce that had us scouring the bowl with our spoons.
Chocolates came with the bill, and we passed by a plate of cookies on the way out. Throughout our meal, servers were watching for ways to help, and I never wanted for water or for a dirty plate to disappear.
The attendant told us to wait inside, then ran out in the sleet to get our car. With pampering from beginning to end and sophisticated dishes at its heart, dinner at Oliver’s remains a sure thing.
Oliver’s: 9 plates (Out of 10)
City’s fine dining institution continues to provide royal treatment and sophisticated cuisine.
WHERE: 2095 Delaware Ave. (877-9662, www.oliverscuisine.com)
HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to midnight Friday; 5 p.m. to midnight Saturday; and 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers and first courses, $9-$19; specialties, $15-$48; mains, $31-$46.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.