3260 Main St, Buffalo, NY 14214
Web: Shango Bistro
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"By the standards of the neighborhood, and frankly the city itself, Shango is a standout on ambition and execution - the sort of restaurant we need more of in Western New York."
It's easy to find authentic down-home Cajun cooking outside of Louisiana - around here, Chester's is a great option - but the New Orleans dining experience can, in fact, extend far past the well-known classics jambalaya and sausage. Opened in 2005, Main Street's Shango touts itself as a "New Orleans Bistro" rather than a Cajun restaurant, and like the now long-gone Japanese restaurant Osaka that used to be several blocks down, it looks and feels like it's too cool for its University District neighborhood. Six days a week, Shango opens only for dinner, and on Sunday, it's only open for brunch; when we visited, the high-class decor, sophisticated wine bar, and thoughtful table service demonstrated the side of New Orleans that remains when the infamous beads and revelry of Mardi Gras disappear.
Editor's Note: This review was updated in July 2009 with replacement photographs, which complement the brief text addition at the bottom of the original review.
The Story: Starting around Englewood Avenue, continuing past Winspear, and ending around Lisbon, there's a part of Main Street in Buffalo that has for years hosted a mish-mash of bars, convenience stores, and small restaurants, most of them inexpensive and focused on serving the nearby, decreasingly University-based community. Shango is at the Englewood end, closest to a couple of churches, bars, and the University Plaza - frankly, none of these places quite like what you'll find inside. Mature, dark woods, proper white cotton tablecloths, and balanced lighting give no hint that this was once a coffee shop, converted by its owners of ten years into something that was arguably much riskier for the neighborhood. But perhaps not; whereas Shango's neighbors have historically specialized in serving drinks to college crowds, opening a wine bar with perhaps 150 different labels could cater to both students and professors looking for a more upscale experience. And where better to have a snack before a wedding at St. Joe's?
Many of the items on this menu can be classified as familiar in concept, yet upgraded in execution - not spice - from dishes you'd likely find at other Cajun restaurants. You'll still find crab cakes, fried oysters and catfish on the menu alongside macaroni & cheese, fried chicken, and hush puppies, but they'll have small twists - fresh vegetable garnishes, special cheeses, and sometimes better cuts than you'd normally expect. Prices for appetizers range from $4 to $12, averaging $8, while entrees range from $10 to $21 with most in the $16 and up category; these numbers struck us as generally appropriate, with the slight premium on some items going towards the quality servers and setting.
Highs: Virtually everything we tried at Shango rated either good or very good in both quality and presentation, and we tried a pretty nice sampling of items. Our entrees included an interestingly plated sirloin steak ($21), served with bleu cheese and spinach stuffed into a Portabella mushroom. Partially obscured by the accompanying parmesan-hinted french fries, which were placed on top both for visual impact and to avoid softening in the cabernet wine sauce, the mushroom and steak made a positive impression on the palate, collectively defying the logic that an 8 ounce steak isn't enough. Another steak, ordered from the specials menu, did away with the cheese and mushroom components in favor of a larger cut of meat, layered on a bed of spinach and similarly obscured by a smattering of french fries. The flavors here weren't as strong, as the steak had no glaze, and the fries lacked the rosemary-parmesan found in the other dish, but the meat was tender and savory, the result of impressive searing rather than grilling.
Another very good item was the Soft Shell Crab ($8), unusually served here with Japanese panko crumb batter that gave it a yellow ochre color and especially crunchy, flaky texture. We found the Crab fresh and tasty, possessing of the appropriate combination of a crisp outside and soft belly, though it was just a little too oily; the grease was offset by light, fresh daikon radish sprouts that were an interesting color, temperature, and taste contrast with the deep-fried seafood beneath.
Our favorite dessert was the Molten Chocolate Cup Cake ($6), which was every bit as gooey as expected, softly crumbling on the outside to reveal a soft, liquid interior. The twist here was a red berry sauce, which - like a good sorbet - mixed with the fluid chocolate core to tease the tongue away from the cocoa-rich flavor of the cake just long enough to appreciate it again seconds later.
Lows: One of us passed up a number of higher concept Cajun dishes, including classed-up takes on the seafood-heavy Boillabaisse ($19) and fried oyster ($12), blackened catfish ($12), or blackened steak ($14) Po Boy sandwiches, to try the Creole Meatloaf ($16). Blending beef, pork, and veal, the two slices were loosely stacked on top of each other and a pile of Cajun corn, interrupted by a piece of Andouille sausage that had been run through the Meatloaf's center. She commented that the dish was good, but not good or memorable enough to have again. Some chicken and sausage Gumbo ($4/$7) was similarly fine, but not outstanding for the price.
As a finale to the meal, we ordered the New Orleans Bread Pudding ($6), which as promised was served with a bourbon sauce. Unfortunately, most of the sauce was on the plate rather than the pudding, however, and there wasn't a lot to the item; it was on the dry side, rather than as moist and alcohol-rich as we prefer it. That said, it was far from bad, and a much better version of this dessert than we had at Butterwood further down Main Street, despite the smaller size.
Our only other issue with the Shango experience is one common to this stretch of Main Street: the parking. Though there's a small nearby parking lot that can, under the right circumstances, be appropriated by Shango customers, there's just not enough space here at some points to guarantee that you won't have to leave your car on some side street, perhaps in front of someone's house. Parking was always one of the big bothers at the aforementioned Osaka restaurant near here as well, and ultimately a reason why its management eventually looked to the suburbs as a more comfortable alternative.
The Verdict: By the standards of the neighborhood, and frankly the city itself, Shango is a standout on ambition and execution - the sort of restaurant we need more of in Western New York. Yet the prices struck us as generally very reasonable given both what we received and the overall experience of dining there, and the menu manages to deftly walk the line between familiar New Orleans names and the slicker, pricier fare that upscale diners expect from their white tablecloth restaurants. While we wouldn't put it in our rare four-star category, and the "good but not great" taste of some of the items we ordered pulled it down a little more, there's no doubt that you'll get a meal here that's at least approaching great. Shango is worthy of our strong recommendation.
Updated July 13, 2009: On a follow-up visit to Shango - the one the photographs here accompany - literally every item we ordered was either good or great, with the exception of the Creole Bouillabaisse ($20), an entree-sized collection of shrimp, scallops, mussels, crawfish and catfish in an overly thin tomato stock; this, we didn't like. But in addition to complimentary truly superb, fresh and balanced cornbread, one of three breads delivered to the table, the other main items, a Buttermilk Fried Chicken entree ($17), a Pan-Fried Caribbean Laughing Bird Shrimp Cake ($8), Avocado Spring Rolls ($7), and a Prosciutto-Wrapped Hungarian Stuffed Pepper ($9), were all solid. The chicken was perfectly balanced between moist inside and crisp outside, served with an andouille sausage gravy, and though the Shrimp Cake wasn't strongly prawn flavored, it was beautifully presented, similarly tender, and very enjoyable. One of us - the avocado fan - thought the Avocado Spring Rolls were superb, while the other strongly preferred the ham-wrapped pepper, though its cheese interior was surprisingly on the chunky side; neither of us cared as much for the other's item. Desserts were both winners: the homemade Southern Pecan Pie ($6) was a sophisticated, attractive take on a dish often served with overwhelming sugar and corn syrup, here finely balanced to provide strong pecan flavor, and served under a ball of coconut rum ice cream. By contrast, the Bananas Foster ($6) was neither the typical Foster nor quite as described on the menu: the cut bananas inside were coated in a caramel rum sauce, and served in somewhat of a yin-yang fashion with vanilla ice cream in an oversized goblet. There was no evidence of a prior flambe for the bananas, making this more of a banana sundae, but the sauce was wonderful. Authentic or not, no banana fan would turn away a dessert of this size or flavor; we ate as much as we could before losing the will to keep scooping away at the bottom of the goblet.