Stepping inside the Lodge for the first time two weeks ago, I thought, “so that’s where the million dollars went.” What used to be McMonkeez and Bayou has gone hunting lodge tinted with “Blade Runner,” a profusion of antlers, fieldstone surfaces and a backlit forest tableau behind a long bar. Its sun is a 20-foot-long ribbon of video screens whose wavering glow waxed every 15 minutes, briefly illuminating our food. ¶ Ah, the food. It’s easily the most ambitious on the Chippewa strip, and our meal included remarkable plates amid less successful ones. But it was hard to enjoy it amid the dim and the din, leaving dining feeling like more of a sideshow. The room, a place to see and be seen, is the real star.
The trees behind glass reminded me of museum tableaux. Before the server could get to the details of our dining experience, she had to give us the verbal tour, complete with the electronic tablet ordering system and rundown of diversions in the second-floor game room. She was personable, but the effect was more docent than waitress. It didn’t help that she had to repeat herself over the roar of the dinnertime drinkers behind her.
We were steered to a first-floor booth, equipped with a throw pillow. It was alongside the main bar area, next to the DJ. Chef Todd Lesakowski’s menu is wide-ranging and adventurous, with American comfort food and French bistro standards energized with Korean, Japanese and Indian influences.
Stag on a stick ($15) was twin skewers of venison coated with a yogurt marinade and grilled. Pita bread, pickled red cabbage and an intense cilantro-coriander paste supplied the rest of the fixings for do-it-yourself mini-sandwiches. They were hard to eat cleanly but plenty tasty. The venison was tender and difficult to distinguish from beef. The unevenly sized chunks meant some pieces were well done while others were rare.
Buffalo-style shrimp ($15) sounded good on paper, but the puffy batter coating on the crustaceans got soft as a quilt under the Frank’s-and-butter bath. That didn’t stop our table from finishing them off, though.
Heirloom tomato bisque ($6) with toasted cheese was a marvel. It conjured up the iconic childhood duo of cream of tomato soup and toasted cheese sandwich in every spoonful. Plus, you get about four bites of toasted cheese sandwich as a bonus.
The Caesar salad ($9) featured real croutons and a substantial Parmesan tuile, like a cracker made of pure cheese, but I wanted more flavor from the dressing, even a hint of anchovy. Beet and mango salad ($10) was decent, a jumble of arugula with roasted beets, sesame seeds, candied walnuts and shaved Manchego cheese, with mango in scant evidence.
The Korean short ribs ($15), quarter-inch slices of beef short rib cut across the bone, arrived with scallion kimchi and pickled peanuts. The marinade and grilling made the meat tasty, and the kimchi was too, showing fermented funk, not just pickled. The plate was a wrestling match, though, between chewy beef that took bone-gnawing to fully enjoy, and whole scallions that were knife resistant, and eaten whole.
The crab and cod fritters ($11) were two well-browned little discs of seafood topped with slivers of preserved lemon. The acidic note helped offset rich aioli for a pleasant plate. A black schmear of squid ink sauce added a hint of ocean.
The pork chop ($28) came with greens and spaetzle, on a tangy red pepper sauce. It arrived medium well, as ordered, a satisfying piece of meat. The greens were robust, though the brown butter spaetzle were tough after browning.
My hanger steak ($26) with frites, ordered medium rare, arrived redder than I like, on the verge of rare. Perhaps I should order hanger medium. The french fries were decent, but lacked the crispness of the best versions in town, even before most were doused with bordelaise sauce like an upscale poutine.
The wild boar ragu ($24) had chunks of pork in a long-simmered sauce, tender as a hug. It was topped with robust house-made Italian sausage, over pan-toasted potato gnocchi that avoided being leaden, but were dry.
The Hunter’s Giannone chicken ($20) was the best entree we tried. It was centered around an ingot of confit chicken topped with crackling-crisp skin – a substantial technical accomplishment, and delicious to boot. Sliced chicken, mustard greens and creamy polenta rounded out the plate, which was the envy of the table.
Desserts ($7) were accomplished, providing a few more marvelous bites. The S’more, with graham cracker and marshmallow made in-house, had been well torched. But the bacon ice cream with it was the most remarkable bite of the night. Sweet-salty, velvety-smoky, it hit more spots than a coverall Bingo jackpot.
The apple crumble was pleasant, with chunks of fruit in a caramel sauce, but the candied apple on top tipped it into too-sweet territory. Strawberry shortcake in April has the deck stacked against it, but Lesakowski made it sing with the canny move of simmering Florida berries briefly with anise liqueur. The scent added an exotic note that made up for the fruit’s shortcomings, and little heaps of rhubarb didn’t hurt either. The shortcake was fluffy.
The Lodge’s dishes weren’t perfect, but they provided moments of sheer thrills and satisfied an appetite for culinary adventure, a big step forward for the Chippewa strip. If the place fine-tunes the dining environment as far as it’s pushed the décor, it will serve culinary seekers as well as it does drinkers looking to get loose.
The Lodge: 7 plates (Out of 10)
Elaborately decorated club’s menu includes creative eats, drinks and eye candy.
WHERE: 79 W. Chippewa St., 256-1940, www.thelodgebuffalo.com/
HOURS: 11 a.m. to midnight Monday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Soup and salads, $6-$10; small plates, $9-$16; sandwiches, $9-$15; and entrees, $20-$38.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.