There are nights where my professional eating duties take me to tables where disappointments outnumber satisfactions. Then there are the nights when my restaurant critic’s job is a license to thrill.
Let me tell you about my five most memorable dishes of 2013.
Tabree, in Snyder, was the only restaurant I reviewed this year that earned 10 plates out of 10. Our meal was splendid from start to finish, but the consensus all-star that night was Chef Bruce Wieszala’s gnocchi. (It’s $21 now. Still worth it.)
Potato dumplings can be leaden, but these were cloud-light, browned in a hot pan. Tumbled with housemade ricotta, Swiss chard and roasted grape tomatoes, wreathed with tender pea tendrils, it was a symphony in vegetables, elevated and transformed by adept hands.
Part of the reason it was so delicious was its freshness. From potatoes to chard, Tabree (4610 Main St., Snyder, 844-8477) relies on Oles Farm in Alden for vegetables in season. Since Wieszala has earned so much attention for transforming local pork into salumi, it’s almost ironic that this dish, which made such an impression, is meatless.
So was the most memorable Chinese dish I ate this year. Of many experiences well worth repeating in the restaurants that have sprung up to serve the Chinese nationals attending the University at Buffalo, the biggest surprise was at Miss Hot Café (3311 Sheridan Drive, Amherst, 832-3188).
Ask for “fish with sour cabbage, without soup,” and the server will bring a plate of mild whitefish fillet that’s been sautéed in a clear, gingery sauce with pickled cabbage. Not like sauerkraut; more like sliced dill pickles. Circling the plate are a ring of deep-fried crullers, like light unsweetened doughnuts. They’re oily but add a crunchy, rich element to a dish that has delighted and surprised many.
Do you like fish? Pickles? Doughnuts? For $14, try a dish that confounds what you thought you knew about Chinese food. It’s on the blue-collar side of Chinese cuisine, to be sure. But it’s a clue to an entire hemisphere diners miss out on by sticking to General Tso’s chicken, beef with broccoli and pork fried rice.
Eating out is entertainment as well as nutrition, so the element of surprise is valuable. When I looked at the menu of Bistro Europa (484 Elmwood Ave. 884-1100) one night in late July, I saw this: cherry soup.
Now, fresh cherries are one of my favorite things to put in my face. Yet it had somehow escaped my attention that Hungarians will make a cold soup whose sole purpose is to show off the glories of one or more kinds of cherries.
It was a cherrybomb. Sour cherries, sugar, sour cream, dabbed with whole sweet cherries and more sour cream. Chef Steve Gedra had it on the menu as long as he could get the local cherries into it. Then it was gone. I can still taste the lush fruit. For $8.
Reaching into his European recipe catalogue for a dish that showcased one of our locally grown gems struck me as a canny decision by a chef whose menu always seems to have something diners would not expect. People who select those ciphers, on the strength of menu description and perhaps their trust in Gedra, often return with their friends. That’s part of the reason he and partner-wife-baker Ellen Gedra bought the former Golden Key on Connecticut Street and are planning to expand their operation in 2014.
If a chef can get customers to buy unfamiliar dishes on their say-so, that chef can let creativity roam further afield. Gedra uses that trust to thrill acolytes with whipped lard in the bread basket, pig’s heads, lamb kidneys and fish they never heard of, but me? I’ll remember that soup.
Another surprise came at Tappo (338 Ellicott St., 259-8130), Mike Andrzejewski’s casual Italian place downtown. Over the years I’ve ordered a lot of braciole in Buffalo, and almost always regretted my decision, the exception being Sinatra’s on Kenmore Avenue.
When news came that the leading Buffalo chef was adding a family Italian place to his stable of restaurants, I wondered if he could redefine local favorites. How much finesse can you add to a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, at the sort of volume you’ll need at a place with entrees under $20 and $15 bottles of wine?
In his braciole, the chef answered my question. It’s a beef roll-up stuffed with eggs, cheese and salumi that’s braised in tomato sauce. Most Buffalo versions use flank steak or similar beef, which rarely seems to get braised to tenderness.
Andrzejewski uses beef from short ribs instead, meat that makes a rich, tender pot-roast experience by itself. Roll it around those fillings and let it simmer, and you’ve got a notable improvement on most braciole I’ve seen, served with spaghetti and a dollop of ricotta, for $15.
Last, I want to mention the “spicy chicken” at Sun Restaurant Buffalo (1989 Niagara St., 447-0202), the city’s first Burmese restaurant.
There are a lot of interesting things to try there, but I like recommending this dish for a few reasons. First, despite the name, it’s not spicy. It’s a fragrant rice casserole, with cashews and fried shallots and tender chicken chunks, served in a hot clay pot. Completely harmless. Alongside comes a dish of cucumber, herbs and other fresh accents in a sweet and salty Thai vinaigrette, for applying as needed.
The rice sticks to the pot and browns. You scrape it loose and eat those bits too. It’s worth the effort.
Second, the dish is not just delicious, it’s educational, a fine place to start exploring how Burmese is what happens when Thai runs into Indian, sort of. The rice itself is akin to an Indian biryani, while the salad-sauce side dish, flavored with Asian fish sauce, is a classic Thai move.
Delicious, educational and $14, which is a pretty good price for a lesson, tuition costs being what they are these days.