581 Delaware Ave,, Buffalo, NY 14202
Rating: [learn more]
Truly high-class modern Italian/American dining, achieved in an attractively proper venue with crisp service and almost invariably very good to great food. Menu items include thoughtful takes on everything from salads to entrees, some of which manage to both surprise and delight. Overall experience almost entirely justifies its premium asking prices.
Some items, most notably the desserts, are merely competent rather than impressive, and may disappoint some patrons given the prices. Waiting bar crowd can spill into dining area, raising the ambient noise level and creating a sense of crowding.
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American Favorites Fine Dining Italian
"Tempo is amongst the area's very best fine dining establishments, delivering the sort of truly great food, service, and ambience we've looked for and too rarely found elsewhere."
No matter how much a restaurant or critic tries to focus patrons' attention on a famous head chef or owner, the ultimate measures of a gourmet venue are not the people, but their products: the food and the overall dining experience. How better to illustrate this point than with consecutive reviews of Tempo and Hutch's, two locally popular places owned by chef Mark Hutchinson, which charge similarly premium prices for high-end Italian and American fare? Hutch's is older and perhaps better known, but Tempo offers a quantifiably superior experience for the dollar, matching the very best of the City's fine dining establishments. We don't offer such praise often or lightly, a point that our past reviews - including that of Hutch's - should make clear.
Though Tempo isn't the sort of restaurant that uses every course to build slowly to a crescendo of culinary excitement, it moves quickly once you're seated to signal that you're in for something special. As with Hutch's, Tempo employs separate people to handle table service, bussing, and other ancillary tasks, and in what appeared for a moment to be a hiccup, someone arrived at our table with a huge basket and left after placing a single slice of bread on each of our plates. We had only twenty seconds to look at each other and express surprise at the skimpiness before our server arrived with a split plate of complimentary tapenade in hand - half dedicated to a small but perfect block of feta cheese and several fresh olives, with the other containing a mix of spicy, fresh pepperoni and cubed eggplant. Another small dish contained a similarly beautiful blend of olive oil and red chili pepper sauce, which likewise insured that every torn-off piece of the fresh, soft bread was a treat. We hadn't even received our appetizers yet, but Tempo was off to a great start.
Salads are rarely spectacular in this area, but the Insalata Mista ($7.50) was something very close to stunning, a plate of chilled field greens mixed with thin, sweet onion strips, a wonderfully sharp red wine balsamic vinaigrette, and chili-candied almonds. It was a strong yet balanced combination of sweet, sour, spicy, and salty, delivering different small explosions of flavor with every bite. The almonds, for instance, could have been served alone as desserts - each one we located amidst the greens felt as if we'd discovered an easter egg in a garden. So impressive was the Mista that we briefly discussed ordering a second, something that we have never done mid-meal; we held off only because we had so many other dishes coming.
One was the Seared Hawaiian Ahi Loin ($12), a small but beautiful little pile of thin-sliced, barely seared fresh tuna that had been stacked with similarly razored pieces of raw cucumber and radish, and splashed with a soy and olive oil vinaigrette. To attempt and compare Tempo's ahi to traditional sashimi would be unfair, as the Japanese dish that so clearly inspired this one relies on the unfettered flavor of the fish to sate the palate, but Tempo's version was at least as compelling, its oily soy and olive dressing ever present and yet truly additive, while the crispness of the cucumber and radish pieces contrasted nicely with the soft, floppy pieces of fish. Transcendent, no, but impressive, yes.
And then, unexpectedly, we enjoyed a brief moment of zen as our crumbs were cleared. Twice in five minutes. By two different people, one after removing the plates, and the other after our drinks were refreshed. We reflected on how impressed we were by the demeanor, attentiveness and attire of every one of Tempo's many staff - our glasses never sat empty, our finished plates weren't lingering, and we knew that we were getting the sort of service that we had expected in other local fine dining establishments but too rarely received. This, while the busy restaurant continued to fill up, and a large, Jim Kelly-inclusive group at the bar spilled over into the dining room's floor space, crowding the servers. Still, there wasn't a missed step, a dropped plate, or a forgotten request. Unlike Hutch's, where the decor seemed to reflect a modest break with formal dining convention, this place - the sectioned wood floors, the fine, dark wood bar, and the somewhat more generous seating - is all class, limited only by the noise generated by its patrons.
Our second course, an appetizer-sized dish billed as "Scunghilli Fra Diavolo" ($15), preceded our entrees, and though we wouldn't have billed it as a true fra diavolo or even a local standout on flavor, it was the most fun of the dishes to eat because of its composition. Most notable were shavings of cheese so fine that they felt like soft hairs, atop a mix of physically hot, chunky tomato sauce, olive oil, and garlic, then a sizable quantity of fresh, interestingly shaped pasta. Billed as orecchiette, some of the pasta pieces were in fact dome-like, while others were like squid ringlets in both texture and shape, with one or two others elongated - a perfect mix of imperfect pasta sizes, shapes, and thickness. Missing in action was any hint of the hot peppers or spice that typically characterize the pasta dish named for the devil, and the conch pieces - the Scungilli, correctly spelled - were few and fair, but we still enjoyed the dish for what it was.
As with The Left Bank, which floored us with its appetizer course before delivering more conventional entrees, Tempo slowed down a little for our main plates. One of the specials, billed as Red Wine Braised Beef Short Ribs ($26), consisted of three large pieces of braised, brisket-like beef in a matching stew-like gravy with small bits of spinach, onions, and rice. Though the meat was unquestionably tender, rich in beef flavor, and soft enough to be cut with a fork, it was the only item of the night that was left unfinished; the meat was a little overcooked, relying on the sauce to make up for the moisture it lacked inside, and didn't win both of us over. It might have been prepared correctly, but we found the end product to be good, not great.
Our other entree, the Chicken Cutlet alla Milanese ($26), was picked as an "impress us with poultry" option, and arrived better than textbook - the product of a chef who clearly understood the potential failings of an unadorned piece of large, thin-pounded chicken with a crispy bread crumb coating. Left alone on a plate, this dish and its variants - Austria's schnitzel, Japan's torikatsu, and so on - can too easily come across as greasy and plain, so Tempo coated it in a fresh, cool salad and topped the whole thing off with more of its hairstrand-grated parmesan cheese. Purists could easily have pulled the salad off to the side of the cutlet, doused the breaded bird with the included lemon, and eaten them separately, but the predominantly arugula and sweet onion topping, the chicken, and the tongue-tickling cheese actually worked well together. We cleaned off this plate with joy.
Tempo's desserts were quite good. After mulling the prospect of trying the homemade cannoli ($9.50 for two), we decided to consult our server before making a choice. He described the cannoli cream as "excellent," but said that he found the cones to be slightly too hard for his taste. Appreciating his advice, we held off - at least temporarily - and asked for other recommendations. His two top picks were the Sour Cream Chocolate Cake ($8.50), and the Vanilla Bean Creme Brulee ($9.50), familiar enough items that we were glad to try here. In the context of the moist, yielding version we'd had at Hutch's the night before, Tempo's Chocolate Cake was comparatively prim and proper - our tongues sensed that it had been cut with a razor-sharp knife, as not a crumb or dot of frosting seemed to be out of place, while the accompanying stacks of sliced fruit and whipped cream were unimpeachably fresh and light. We'd call it very good, but a little boring; there was something wild, if not quite decadent, about the Hutch's version. By contrast, the Creme Brulee was topped with an equally fresh, perfectly crispy full-sized biscotti and a just-right layer of caramelized sugar, delicate in both char-free flavor and shatter-friendly thickness. It lacked only for physical depth as its shallow ramekin was only half-full, a disappointment given the high price, but it was spot-on in taste, and easy to like for what it was.
What about the cannoli? Intrigued, we ordered some to go and quickly brought them back to share with family. They were small and thin, with golden shells that looked like egg rolls, twin maraschino cherries, and a chocolate chip-packed cream inside. We wouldn't call the cream or the shells excellent by even local standards - the shells were in our view quite unimpressive, so our server had done the right thing by recommending the other options - but one of our family members praised everything from their cream to their carnival-like fried shells. To some, then, they might be pretty great cannolis; we'd be inclined to err on the side of other options, instead.
There's no doubt in our minds that Tempo is amongst Western New York's very best fine dining establishments - a classy venue with the sort of truly great food, service, and ambience we've been looking for and not finding at most of its area peers. While Hutch's is a three-star restaurant that might have rated lower if we issued quarter stars, Tempo is a three-and-a-half-star restaurant that could have rated higher. We pay for the meals we review on our own dime, and like you, we expect something special when we're spending $60 or more per person before tip. As was the case at The Left Bank and Buffalo Chophouse, Tempo comes as close to this mark as we've experienced locally; a little extra punch in its post-appetizer courses would make it worthy of even national recognition.