Twenty-five years ago, Krista Van Wagner and husband, Kirk Van Wagner, added Caribbean flavors to the menu at Curly’s. Jamaican jerk chicken was as unusual for Lackawanna as iguanas are in the Antarctic, but Curly’s made it work. Two years ago, Shea Zappia took over the kitchen, adding Asian flavors from Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. My recent meal there showed Curly’s still deserves its reputation as a Southtowns standout delivering nuanced international flavors. ¶
Open since 1934, Curly’s footprint in the heart of Lackawanna has expanded into a banquet center and casual fine dining restaurant. There’s a long bar inside the entrance where people can drink or eat, with the main room done up in earth tones and tropical scenes.
We took comfortable chairs around a glass-topped table, and accepted menus from our cheery server. There were three pages of appetizers, salads, pastas and entrees from the wood-fired grill, plus a page of specials. Curly’s is notable for its extensive gluten-free menu and vegetarian selections that go past primavera to tofu in Thai curry.
We ordered a bowl of asparagus and sweet potato bisque ($5), a Saigon salad ($9), and appetizers of gnocchi poutine ($9) and conch fritters ($11), plus a special of scallops with ramps in saffron corn cream ($14). For mains, we chose a special of steak over asparagus risotto ($30), peanut-crusted chicken over banana-mango sauce ($24) and two Jamaican classics, roast jerk chicken ($19) and escovitch fish ($29).
A bread basket arrived with fresh, chewy house-made focaccia and country white, and packets of butter.
The bisque delivered earthy yam sweetness and a green note from the asparagus in a delicious, smooth potage. Three plump scallops were well-seared and plated on silky cream sauce sweetened with corn and scented with saffron. The plate was rounded out with a roasted tomato salsa and sautéed ramps. A squeeze of lemon brought needed acidity to the rich ingredients for a well-rounded dish that was appetizing indeed.
The Saigon salad was a mix of greens, radicchio, red and yellow bell peppers and scallions, topped with bean sprouts and roasted peanuts. Its lime-based Vietnamese vinaigrette was lively but so salty I stopped eating it.
Five fluffy conch fritters were accompanied by fresh-cut salsa, a bed of sliced scallions and spicy mayonnaise. The combination was enjoyable even if the bits of mollusk were hard to discern.
Zappia’s version of gnocchi poutine piled tender, shredded pork in rich, garlicky gravy over crisped potato dumplings, with a topcoat of melted fontina cheese. It put the heart-stopping blue-collar pleasure of potatoes, gravy and cheese into a velvet tuxedo. Some of the gnocchi should have been cooked longer, though; they were too doughy inside.
The entrees were excellent. The steak over asparagus risotto featured tender steak seared well and cooked as ordered, over precisely cooked creamy rice. More sautéed ramps added their oniony savor.
Escovitch was a moist, flaky snapper filet in a zippy vinegar and pepper sauce that was anything but tame, and a jumble of bell peppers and onions. The mango-banana sauce under the peanut-crusted chicken Ochie was composed of fresh fruit that added tropical flair, and the crust stayed on the moist chicken. The half chicken jerk-style smacked of allspice and a tickle of sweet habanero fire. It was moist inside, cooked to the bone, and crusty where it had been fired on a smoky grill.
Three entrees came out with the same vegetable sides – peppery roasted potatoes and corn medley. Even though the vegetables were well cooked – the corn was fresh from the cob, the potatoes crusty – the universal sides seemed more suited to a banquet dinner.
Desserts were like an ice cream parlor gone to finishing school. The peanut butter pie ($6) offered outstanding peanut butter mousse, with crunchy peanuts. The Swiss roll ($6) was airy chocolate mousse in a crunchy meringue tube. The tuile was a crispy caramel pecan cookie shaped into an ice cream dish, finished with chocolate and caramel. It was $10, but big enough to share. The chocolate mousse bag ($12) was the lone dessert disappointment, twin chocolate cups whose Belgian chocolate contents were described as mousse but came out denser, “like eating a bowl of icing,” Cat said.
Our server was polite, attentive and well-informed, refilling water, sweeping our dishes away and swapping silverware without a hitch.
Curly’s broad mix of Western New York standards and international flavors makes it an excellent choice for all sorts of crowds. There’s a different frontman in the kitchen, but it’s still a beat that will get you dancing.
Curly’s Grill - 8 plates
New chef adds Asian menu stylings while keeping Jamaican favorites.
WHERE: 647 Ridge Road, Lackawanna (824-9716, http://curlysgrill.com)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday; 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday; 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $4-$13; salads and sandwiches, $8-$12; and entrees, $14-$31.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.