Reviewing a restaurant after one meal is like speed dating. You get a glimpse and then you have to decide: Could we have a relationship? ¶ Recently I spent a few dishes trying to get to know the Riverstone Grill better. I wasn’t swooning as I left, but I do look forward to another date. ¶ After the place closed briefly last year, it was purchased and reopened by longtime chef Chaz Bulera, who has run the place with his wife, Kristina, for about a year. ¶ It’s so close to the Niagara River that if it had outside tables, as it does during the summer, it would be a candidate for the short list of memorable waterside meals in Western New York. From its homely exterior, you might suspect it specializes in fish frys, but once you’re inside it’s a well-lit and convivial space. A semicircular bar dominates the front room. When Cat and I walked in, customers were chatting with the bartender before the Sabres game.
The entrees list is full of dishes that look like standards at first glance – salmon, steak, scallops, pastas – and one obvious outlier, a mammoth 45-ounce bone-in ribeye steak topped with blue cheese and frizzled onions ($36). It’s served with house-cut fries, in sweet potato and regular. Called the Bone in the Stone, its exuberance lured the “Man v. Food” show here in 2010.
As I read through the appetizers, I decided that the Bone in the Stone was closer to the heart of the restaurant’s mission than first glance would suggest. The Riverstone Grill wants to provide familiar dishes, but also eye-catching invitations to excess for those in the mood to splurge, calorically.
Instead of bread, Riverstone delivers a basket of crunchy house-made potato chips with a French onion sour cream dip, flavored with hunks of caramelized onion and roasted garlic. It’s a fine hello indeed, seductive enough to imperil your dinner capacity.
Then consider the bacon appetizer ($6), a blast of straight-up smoky satisfaction with the power to single-handedly lure bacon freaks. Bulera cures pork bellies in a molasses brine, smokes them and cuts his bacon a quarter-inch thick. House-smoked bacon isn’t unique. What really thrilled was its texture, crispy but still chewy, perfect for eating out of hand.
Deep-fried bacon wasn’t enough for this chef. He added a ramekin of Crown Royal maple butter for dipping, completing its evolution as a sweet-salty death-defying thrill ride. “This bacon is pretty spectacular,” said Cat, ever the responsible one. “But you can’t make me dip it in butter.”
That bacon also shows up in the crab cake entree ($21). Before I tell you what’s in it, you should probably have your cholesterol checked.
Lump crab cakes get the Riverstone Benedict treatment. Topped with two thick slices of the house bacon. Then a poached egg rolled in panko crumbs and deep-fried. Then: cheddar-garlic Hollandaise sauce.
Piling a lot of rich stuff togther is not genius, or a sign of skill, by itself. Combining fatty ingredients in the right proportions, delivering the luxury effect and ingredients’ taste without overwhelming them, is the finesse part.
That’s what I saw Bulera do with my pasta entree, grilled chicken breast with spinach and pancetta, over penne Alfredo, with fresh mozzarella and Romano. What could have been a swampy salt lick studded with leathery chicken was a robust jumble of tender pasta, moist chicken, cheese-rich cream, with oozy mozzarella-centered noodle clusters. More spinach would have made me feel better about it all. I took most of it home.
Cat’s crabcake stuffed red snapper ($23) also presented its richness with poise. The well-cooked fillet was paired with crabmeat stuffing that had enough crab but hadn’t been crusted and fried before meeting its partner, to our mild disappointment. But the rest of the components salved our feelings: fresh little Gulf shrimp, perfectly cooked rice, good enough green beans, and a lemony cream sauce with a lemon wedge cooked into it, which we squeezed for added brightness.
Our one letdown was the Caesar salad with steak ($15). The kitchen had thoughtfully split it for us, and the N.Y. strip was tender and cooked perfectly. The dressing was delicious. But it was iceberg lettuce instead of the promised romaine, which made it watery, and there were far too many croutons.
Desserts included a simple but spot-on warm brownie sundae ($5) and three mini cannolis whose crisp shells had been coated with glossy chocolate before being filled with sweetened mascarpone ($5).
It wasn’t love at first sight. But Riverstone Grill offers a fine walk on the wild side, at prices that make it worth braving the wilds of Grand Island.