You might say Tab Daulton used to work on a bigger canvas. A few years ago, he was the chef in charge of feeding First Niagara Center fans. Today, he’s got his own place, a former dive bar in Lackawanna. There, at Winfield’s Pub, in a matchbox-sized kitchen, he insists on making his own stock and baking his own bread, which is like performing tai chi in a tanning booth, in level of difficulty. This season, on Ridge Road at least, Sabres fans are in for a treat. ¶ From the outside, Winfield’s Pub looks like it hasn’t changed much in years. Inside, though, it’s clean and shiny, with new paint and wood floors, not grime. There’s a bunch of tables within sight of the televisions over the bar, making it prime game-watching territory. The beer selection is extensive, with about 20 craft taps plus bottles. ¶ The menu is short and has plenty of the dishes you might expect from a Lackawanna tavern: wings, burgers, nachos, fries.
But the wings, available on Tuesday wing nights, are smoked and fried. Daulton grinds his own meat for the burgers, and you can taste the difference. The lamb burger ($9.75) was flavored with cumin and coriander, topped with feta and cooked to a juicy pink inside, as requested. It was my favorite lamb burger of the year.
The nachos ($9.50) were white corn tortilla chips adorned with restrained amounts of smoked chicken, cheese sauce and a fresh relish of chopped red and green bell pepper, red onion and corn. You can’t get these on the arena’s 300 level. The chips were chewier than I like, but every chip was dressed, instead of wrestling with a cheese quilt only to find bare chips underneath.
French fries were offered dusted with hop salt, as in beer hops ($6), and as poutine, with duck gravy and goat cheese ($8). I’ve tried the hop fries before, and enjoyed their subtle bitter notes and garlic Parmesan aioli.
This time we dug into the poutine, which had good, golden brown, house-cut french fries napped with great gravy (deeply flavored, sporting small bits of tender duck), which was used sparingly. We wiped the plate clean, even though I would have preferred classic cheese curds on top instead of the more intense chevre.
Our last appetizer was mussels steamed in Victory Golden Monkey triple Belgian-style beer, augmented with garlic nubs of house-smoked bacon ($9). The small helping of shellfish was plump and tender. Accompanying sun-dried tomato focaccia was flavorful, but dry and crumbly.
For mains, we ordered a bourbon maple glazed pork chop with chimichurri ($15), steak and fries (at $16.50, the most expensive dish on the menu), a Reuben sandwich ($9.75) and chicken pot pie ($13.50). Mains come with small house or Caesar salads, which were minimally dressed but sported decent house-made croutons. For $2.50, we converted one to a beet salad, with cubes of firm, sweet beets and chunks of gorgonzola cheese and toasted almonds, and applauded the decision.
Sandwiches come with a choice of fries, small Caesar salad, or something called Kiki’s warm potato salad. Fries and Caesars are everywhere. Go for the Kiki’s experience.
What arrived was a small bowl of melted Velveeta with potatoes, green olives, bacon and scallion. It’s one of those dishes that starts with “You’re not serious” and ends with you surreptitiously polishing the bowl. Our server, who was swift and professional throughout our meal, said the Kiki’s recipe started on the side of a Velveeta box, and I believed her. The menu describes it as a “family favorite,” which may result in diners pelting Daulton with adoption requests.
The Reuben featured house-made corned beef and bacon, and came on toasted Mazurek’s rye, the only bread Daulton doesn’t make himself. The meat delivered smoky flavor but lacked tenderness, making eating it a chewy struggle. We prevailed in the end.
The pork chop, cut from a loin, was just moist enough, and the powerful herbal flavor of the chimichurri was a welcome foil. The butter beans under the chop were undercooked, too firm.
My 8-ounce steak was cooked accurately, but I wanted more smoky punch from the pat of chipotle butter melted on top. The heap of fries it came on were decent again, but I wanted sauce or aioli to boost the flavor. Maybe I already had met my night’s fry quota. A dab of dressed arugula helped, but not as much as I would have liked.
A side order of mac and cheese ($6) was firm elbow macaroni in a light cheese sauce with toasted breadcrumbs. It was cooked well, but seemed undercheesed, or maybe that was just the Velveeta hangover talking.
The chicken pot pie was an achievement, more fitting for a restaurant with tablecloths. Tender chicken, peas, carrots and onions were presented in a velvety but not gloopy chicken gravy. The fixins were covered with a crackling pastry shell that had been browned perfectly, so it crunched into flaky shards.
We got the sole dessert, Guinness cake ($6), with cream cheese icing and a brightly flavored strawberry sauce. The cake was dense and dark, a decent sweet, but I wished for more of that sauce.
Winfield’s Pub isn’t trying to revolutionize dining, just deliver better food than you expected, based on real cooking and not sauces from packets. On those terms, it succeeds, and at a reasonable price.
I’d rather watch a Sabres game at Winfield’s with a pint of Ommegang Fleur de Houblon and a plate of Daulton’s poutine, than sitting in the arena trying to find sustenance, and solace, in tepid fries from a paper cup.
Winfield’s Pub- 7 plates (out of 10)
Chef experienced in much larger room delivers surprising fare from tiny kitchen.
WHERE: 1213 Ridge Road, Lackawanna (821-0700, www.winfieldspub.com)
HOURS: 3 to 11 p.m. Sunday (open at noon in football season); 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday; 1 p.m. to midnight Saturday; and closed Monday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $6-$9.50; sandwiches, $9-$10; entrees, $13.50-$16.50.
PARKING: Lot in back and on the street.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No.