1375 Delaware Ave., Buffalo, NY 14209
Rating: [learn more]
A small but generally classy fine dining establishment in the City of Buffalo, displaying a slightly irreverent but generally conservative approach to decor, service, and food options. Offers a nice mix of traditional steak, seafood, and appetizer courses, including some with slight twists on expected themes.
Omissions in preparation and service, including significant undercooking of an entree, can detract from an otherwise generally pleasant - if expensive - experience. Seating area is somewhat cramped and noisy.
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"We weren't surprised by how well the hot squid and cold, spicy slaw worked together, but we were entirely happy with their juxtaposed flavors, temperatures, and textures."
"Transcendent," explains the American Association of Food Journalists in its definition of a four-star restaurant, "a one-of-a-kind, world-class experience." We've eaten at such breathtaking restaurants. We can even recall the cities they were in, the items we ordered, and the other little touches that made them so special. They're rare, they're special, and they come along once in a very long while. So while some critics hand out four-star ratings all the time, Buffalo Chow has yet to issue one to a restaurant in Western New York. And though we generally liked Hutch's, twice the recipient of such a rating from the too often fawning Buffalo News, it isn't going to break that trend - in fact, it wasn't close. But it wasn't bad, either.
There are signs that Hutch's was conceived with an eye towards modest irreverence - the sort of mostly conservative thinking that chooses a small, easily but legitimately packed venue in the middle of a nondescript Delaware Avenue plaza, mixing its brick walls and white linen-covered tables with a cheetah print carpet. That's confidence. In the same style, it's one of the increasingly rare local places that still actually employs separate, well-dressed people as servers and busboys, yet gives those servers the discretion to give off a little cocky attitude rather than sticking to a script. So even though we weren't entirely impressed with our slightly cramped table, the noise level of the place, or the pace of the service, a brief moment of old school attentiveness - a mid-meal crumb sweep, sadly absent at most places these days - made up for some of the omissions.
As did the menu, which offered 25 stock steak, seafood, appetizer and salad options that ranged from slightly inventive to entirely traditional, alongside a significant additional list of transient specials. We started with a plain but perfectly fresh Caesar Salad ($6), every ingredient from the crispy, large croutons to the mini-ribbons of cheese exactly as it should be, minus only the anchovy flavor that deluxe renditions tend to include. Most impressively, the salad plate was embarrassingly large by comparison with, say, Prime 490's ridiculous $9 version; vegetarians might have considered the Hutch's salad to be half a meal. On the flip side, complimentary bread arrived in almost humorously small portions: each person was dispensed two slices per person, and accompanying oil was offered but didn't appear until it was re-requested. Still, the tomato-topped foccacia and Italian bread did a fine job of padding our stomachs.
Less satisfying was an Asparagus Soup, served alongside an entree and gelato for $20.09 as a WNY Restaurant Week special; we were initially excited to discover that the green, creamy base was hiding chunks of cut asparagus inside, but neither they nor the rest of the soup was especially compelling - the vegetable flavor was generic and too light, while the asparagus bits broke up the flow of the small bowl. It just didn't work.
Salvation came in the form of the Thai High Calamari ($9.50), a plate of what appeared to be conventional deep fried squid with deliberately colorful vegetable garnishes, but turned out to be as close to a tour de force as Hutch's delivered. Underneath the generous bed of crispy, slightly salted and properly degreased calamari were three separate beds: one, bright yellow but plain corn, another, pitch black and similarly bland beans, and the largest at center, a thin-sliced slaw of cold, crunchy vegetables in a gently spicy red pepper vinaigrette. We weren't surprised by how well the hot/cold balance of the squid and the slaw worked together, but we were entirely happy with the juxtaposition of flavors, temperatures, and textures, save for how difficult the thin slaw was to eat with a fork. It was the rare occasion when chopsticks would have had a better chance at facilitating a fusion dish than silverware.
Our entrees were polar opposites, one high, one low. The better of the two was Hutch's eight-ounce Lamb Chops ($33), cut into imposing four-ounce portions and laid alongside sliced potatoes gratin, two colorful pepper slices, and a small but tasty bed of green beans. While the lamb wasn't Buffalo Chophouse-busting, and lacked a little for the natural gamey flavor we tend to expect in this meat, it was wonderfully prepared to our medium rare order, charred just right on the outside, and served in a light but flavorful garlic and rosemary demi-glace. Though bones took an ounce or so off of each chop, the creamy, beautiful-looking potatoes gratin felt like a guilty pleasure going down. The plate wasn't "transcendent," but it was certainly very good.
Hutch's Norwegian Salmon, part of the special, was a different story. Ordered by a serious salmon fan, the thin, ground mushroom-topped pink filet raised rankles even before we cut into it and each took unsuspecting bites; though it was sitting in a pool of white wine and truffle cream sauce, something just didn't seem quite right. "This may well be the worst salmon I've ever eaten," said Christina, as we chewed on the nearly raw, cold center of what appeared to have been a less than thoroughly thawed piece of fish, seared but not fully cooked through. We joked with our server that we weren't expecting sushi, and he apologetically took the plate back to the kitchen after explaining that it clearly hadn't been grilled properly. Instead of a promised replacement piece of fish, the leftovers of the prior piece reappeared, overcooked, with more vegetables - similar peppers and beans to the ones with the lamb, but gratin potatoes replaced with plain roasted red potatoes.
Desserts went better. We canvassed a list of eight choices, ranging from Cheesecake, Pistachio Cake, and Chocolate Cake to an Almond Laced Cookie Cup, a Creme Brulee, and a Pear Caramel Tart, but we knew which one we wanted: the chocolate one ($7.50), which seemed to have been ordered en masse by neighboring tables. The slice, thick and lightly dusted with powdered sugar, somehow infused every bite with the moistness and sweetness of the chocolate syrup that decorated the plate; we both agreed that it wasn't the very best we'd ever had, but it was damned good. A golf ball-sized globe of vanilla ice cream might as well have been absent from the plate, as we laid our forks into the cake with abandon. Our server said that it was made off-premises, but it was as fresh as could be, and a great way to end the meal.
The other dessert pick was gelato, which normally would have been only a single flavor but for the "folly with the salmon," as our server put it: we wound up with a ball of chocolate and a ball of pistachio, a miniature biscotti resting on the edge of the dish between them. While the chocolate was tame - no better than a softened scoop of Perry's Ice Cream - and the biscotti was fine, the pistachio gelato impressed both of us with its gentle but not subtle flavor, preserving the essence of the nut without carrying over its bitter aftertaste. It won over a pistachio fan and a non-fan alike, though it mightn't always be on the menu; cinnamon was the listed gelato choice on the "normal" menu of desserts.
As we've catalogued over the course of many reviews at this point, Western New York certainly doesn't lack for fine dining establishments these days - even in the face of a rough economy - and we've had meals at some that we'd characterize as excellent by local standards, and close to excellent by national ones. Based on the mix of dishes and the overall experience of dining at Hutch's, we'd place it in "very good but not great" territory; while some of our items were impressive in concept, flavor, or both, others were weak and apparently not given the attention they really deserved in the kitchen. By the three-star, "excellent" definition offered by the AFJ - "memorable, high-quality menus frequently accompanied by exciting environs and/or savvy service," Hutch's might even fall a little short. But for better or worse, our three-star rating is a little more tolerant: salmon mistake aside, we feel comfortable recommending this place to diners looking for a good, though pricey way to start a fun night out in the city. It may not be world-class, but it's definitely one of the nicer places we've visited in Buffalo.