Though Pricey, Black & Blue Glows, With Crab and Steak

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Black & Blue Steak & Crab
5493 Sheridan Dr, Williamsville NY 14221
Web: Black & Blue Steak & Crab
Phone: 716.839.2525
Rating:    [learn more]
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"Quite possibly the suburbs' best spot for an impressive date, you get the sense that someone with good taste has masterminded virtually every element of this experience."

There are people who would argue that Western New York's blue collar leanings would militate against the opening of high class, high priced restaurants, and for sure, the ever-increasing number of places with sub-$20-per-person price tags suggests that upscale places have an uphill battle ahead. Yet there is a significant population here, particularly in the suburbs, that's ready and willing to pay more for a higher caliber dining experience - assuming that it actually delivers something of value relative to the area's cheap eat favorites. Black & Blue, a Williamsville steak and crab restaurant, tries to precisely follow the template for appealing to upper crust customers, and succeeds in almost all the ways that count.

The Story: We first heard Black & Blue described as the only area restaurant that had actually succeeded in bringing a Manhattan-quality dining experience to the suburbs, and though that claim downplays the insanity of New York's uber-flashy, multi-million-dollar restaurant renovations, it's not that far from the mark. Clearly, the owners understand the importance of visual appeal in setting the tone for an eventual triple-digit check; large wooden doors open to reveal an attractively decorated entryway with tall ceilings, a typically crowded bar, and a reservation-dependent front counter. Walking in, you'll notice a long, glass-encased fire pit, as well as stately rooms that lack only a little in the discrete color department. This is, in a way, Amherst's well-known "supper club" Fanny's, brought twenty-five years into the future and menu-skewed towards high-quality steaks, and various types of seafood. There are other items, including roasted chicken, a portabella flan, and even pork and beans, but why bother?

Highs: Black & Blue's star attraction, in our view, is its crab, which despite its high pricing manages to delight in any form it takes. Crab appetizers start at $11, and entrees at $27, but there are two affordable ways to give the signature item a try. The first, a Maryland She-Crab Soup ($7), is one of the very best cream soups we have ever tried: it's thick, brown, and infused with enough crab flavor and small bits of meat to completely win over a skeptical diner. Another option, adding a lump of blue crab meat to any steak or chop entree ($7), offers more actual crab but a little less satisfaction: you feel like you've received only a small dollop of something that you really should have had in greater quantity. In any case, consider something crabby mandatory on your first visit unless you really hate seafood.

Meats are, like the crab, expensive for their sizes but generally delicious. As is fairly common at expensive steakhouses, you can expect to pay $27 for 8 ounces of Filet Mignon or 12 ounces of New York Strip, with the price jumping $10 to increase either by 4 ounces. Our dining companions enjoyed their Filets; we were almost thrilled with the lamb chops ($29), which appeared to be 12 ounces bone inclusive, and were delicious but not filling.

While the looks of most restaurants wouldn't sell us or drive us away, Black & Blue's initial appeal is unquestionably visual. Quite possibly the suburbs' best spot for an impressive date, you get the sense that someone with pretty good taste has masterminded virtually every element of this experience, picking the right general decor, young but capable servers who have obviously been recruited for their discretion, and then approving little class touches, such as the menu and web site. Business casual attire is recommended, but not required, for dining. While the end-to-end experience isn't perfect, each of the elements is at least 90% of the way there; given time, Black & Blue might become even better.

Lows: Pricing is, thanks to the overhead of designing, staffing, and maintaining a restaurant like this, on the very high side. Expect to pay $40 per person even before you've ordered drinks or dessert. With meat entrees, sauces are generally served on the side, and you also typically get one choice of a side dish, such as french fries, onion rings, or a cooked vegetable such as the asparagus shown here. Because of the small-ish entree portions, you may find yourself relying on the sides to fill a large belly; though the onion rings are large, there aren't many of them, and only the french fries are truly generous in quantity.

Additionally, there are some inconsistencies in Black & Blue's preparation and service. We've had great steaks, great crab, and very good desserts. We've also had a so-so steak - the top sirloin, typically a favorite elsewhere - and some nothing special desserts. Given that each of the desserts except ice cream sell for $7.50, there shouldn't be a single complaint about size or flavor, but we've never been blown away with the offerings. On the service side, the employees generally seem eager to impress, but not always to please; this varies from person to person, but appears to be an issue of experience and employer guidance rather than anything else. With slight tweaks to the preparation of certain items, modest flavor enhancements to its complimentary breads, better desserts, and a little more attention to diners' needs, Black and Blue could be a bruiser from start to finish of your meal, rather than just an appetizer and entree heavyweight.

On a final note, the otherwise superb visual experience is interrupted only once: unfortunately, just as you walk in, you may see how the tall, fancy set of doors met their match when smashed into two nearby metal lamps, leaving crushed wood as permanent scars on an otherwise beautiful design. The pain that these doors felt is surely nothing compared to how the owners, clearly concerned about aesthetics, must have felt seeing their entryway damaged.

The Verdict: If we awarded points just for sheer moxy, the simple fact that Black & Blue exists might be enough to earn it a higher rating - to call it "out of place" would be a disservice to Williamsville, which deserves more restaurants of this caliber, but there's no doubt that unusual levels of ambition and sharp execution went into this design. This is a standout steakhouse by suburban standards, with ambience, quality and pricing that wouldn't be out of place at another city's Morton's or Ruth Chris, plus crab dishes that are all but completely delightful. If you're planning a turnkey dining event, complete with drinks and dessert, expect Black & Blue to deliver a very pricey but memorably good experience; it would have been a 3.5-star restaurant but for the little issues.

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