31 Club: Mixes of old and new menu on a familiar sitePosted on 17th June 2009 by The 31 Club
June 17, 2009
BY JANICE OKUN
Old-time Western New Yorkers know all about the 31 Club’s storied history. A modest-looking place on the corner of Elmwood and Johnson Park (Buffalo’s first mayor was Ebenezer Johnson, and he had an estate there), it has been a speakeasy (at least my father-in- law always told me it was) and a very fine restaurant that was so expensive for its time that as a kid, I had to save my pennies to order the signature lobster thermidor. For a while after that, it was the site of Buddies, a gay bar.
Now comes yet another incarnation under new ownership that seemed to take years to open. The place still isn’t cheap but, by gosh, it’s gorgeous – completely redone and enlarged, think subtle luxury. And, I might mention, there are younger diners aplenty. In fact, every generation seemed to be at home the night of our visit, including a clutch of Buffalo Bills and half of Channel 7’s news staff.
In other words – buzz, buzz, buzz.
Note the choice of dining sites in this good-sized restaurant. Tables surround the circular bar, the center of a lot of action; deep booths can accommodate a skinny eight. If you pass through a short hallway lined with historic photos, you come to a more formal dining room, done in deep colors. A smaller dining room is across the hall from the entrance, and a spiral staircase leads to banquet rooms upstairs.
But let’s get the bad news over right away: There’s no more lobster thermidor, though the menu is extensive. There are plenty of standards, such as the 14-ounce grilled New York Strip ($45) served with not-unexpected creamed spinach and scallop-ped potatoes, but also sprinkled with something called black tea-smoked cherry sea salt. (Can’t you just see all those ’20s revelers trying to figure out black tea-smoked cherry sea salt?) There’s also a 14-ounce roasted veal chop ($45, and that is not a typo) and tagliatelle bolognese (half portion $10; full $19).
But you will find lots of more contemporary stuff, too. My entree, for instance, a special for the evening: pan-roast blue moki, a New Zealand fish in good supply (Chef Mark Camalleri has a thing about serving endangered fish) served with charmoula, a spicy Moroccan herbal paste rarely encountered in these parts, garnished prettily with a rice-and chorizo-stuffed sweet pepper ($25). Could that fish have been a tad overcooked? Yes it could. But it was a good-tasting entree nonetheless, and I liked the bitter greens because they cut through the richness.
And, speaking of sustainability, Tasmanian salmon dusted with fennel pollen served with pancetta ($24) was available on special, as well.
The Companion went conservative, selecting the full roast leg of lamb ($32), ordered and served rare with a fine goat cheese potato pie in accompaniment. Also rapini, with a good garlic rosemary accent. He couldn’t quite eat all this, because he had ordered the mac-and-cheese appetizer, costing all of $7 for a huge portion. Actually, he planned to take home half for lunch, but somehow the plate was polished off in a matter of minutes.
That was pretty awesome macaroni and cheese, I cantell you. It featured gruyere, asiago and cheddar cheeses. Yipes. Maybe next time they’ll add truffles. (Hmmm. Come to think of it, a sprinkling wouldn’t hurt.)
Did someone say something about decadence? My appetizer was duck confit ravioli ($10).
Dessert? Dark and white fondue for two ($10) arrived on a tray of raspberries, marshmallows and little pretzels for dipping. It also came with really extraordinary chocolate chip cookies, the best I’ve ever tasted in a restaurant. (They were almost as good as the ones I make myself.)
I don’t want to conclude this review without mentioning two things. One, the staff recognized us immediately, so I was hardly incognito. And two, this new 31 is already establishing a reputation for duck fat fries ($7) that turn up in a big napkin-lined cone. Yes, Virginia, the spuds are fried in you-know-what. They’re also sprinkled with a little truffle salt – see, I wasn’t kidding about truffles.
A couple or six of those babies would be terrific partners to a martini (excellent) if you chose to eat at the bar.
Three and a half stars
WHERE: 31 North Johnson Park (332-3131). The restaurant of the moment. Lots of buzz surrounds this re-creation of an old Buffalo institution.
Credit Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
FAVORITE DISH: Duck Fries(!)