Sorry, Mom: Mother's Meals Are Better Than Homemade

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Mother's Restaurant
33 Virginia Pl., Buffalo NY 14202
Phone: 716.882.2989
Rating:    [learn more]
Pros:

A short but sweet menu of low-end and high-end American favorites, ranging from seemingly humble meatloaf and pasta to steaks and chops. Very good food and impressive service generally justify premium prices. Includes a central bar popular with well-to-do locals, and dinner service that continues to early morning.


Cons:

Small venue is dominated by music and noise from bar, which appears to be the central facet even early in the evening. Some items, particularly appetizers and side dishes, are competent rather than thrilling.


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"There's an appealing consistency at Mother's: from humble to specialty dishes, virtually everything we had was very good, and the service hit exactly the right balance."


As we drive through Buffalo's Virginia Place, a narrow side street near Delaware, it's impossible to ignore how many cars and restaurants are lining the sides of this single road: the eye spots conspicuous signs for Scarlet and Fat Bob's Smokehouse before noticing Mother's, an orange building with an artist's rendition of the classic tattoo as its only marking. But it's this place that we're interested in seeing, known as much for attracting well-to-do city dwellers to a sizable bar as for its meals, which are served late into the night - actually, until 3am - and range from homey pastas and meatloaf to steaks, pork chops, and some seafood.

What we find as we enter is something very close to what we'd expected: at 6:00, the bar is already full of people - all well-dressed, virtually all in their mid-30s or older - and the place is loud, its brick walls reflecting the lively conversations of businesspeople, their dates, and even a local news anchor, as music plays at a volume that seems a little high for the small space. Yet the main dining room off to the bar's left side is far less congested, half or fewer of its ten or so tables filled, and one serving as a seating area near the kitchen for the servers. More tables are in another room, similarly off the bar; voices and music are inescapable.

From the first moment we arrive at the dining room, we notice that the severs are dressed differently but all in business casual attire, some tucked in, some not, an attitude which sums up the place perfectly: nice and sharp, but relaxed. They're completely on top of things, each assigned to a table or two and taking their responsibilities seriously; our water never runs low, our plates arrive and disappear as expected, and they answer every question quickly, with a soft but genuine smile. We think early on that we're going to tip generously, and by the end of our meal, we still feel the same way, and do so.

There were two definite highlights to the meal: both entrees, one picked from the standard menu, the other from the hand-written specials menu, each only a single side of paper in length. Based on both interest and our server's recommendation, we ordered the always-available Meatloaf Dinner ($14.75), a plate that has equal potential to delight or disappoint depending on how it's prepared. At Mother's, there's basically no chance for it to disappoint: rather than serving a dried out lump of low-grade beef, the meatloaf here is made from moist ground veal, beef, and pork, fused together into slices that are so thoroughly mixed that the individual meats are only discernible in hints between bites. Sure, there are two slices - big ones - on the plate, and they've been drenched with a gravy, but it's all different: the gravy is red and untraditional, barbecue-flavored and fresh, while the loaf tastes like a lean, mild sausage. A side of crispy, fresh snowpeas and a generous portion of half-creamy, half-chunked garlic mashed potatoes were enough to completely stuff us; we brought a bunch home in a doggie bag.

Our other entree was even better. Found on the specials menu, the Oven-Roasted Kurobuta Pork Chop ($25) was, like the meatloaf, a truly complete dinner for its price tag. If you're not familiar with Kurobuta pork, it's time to learn a little about it: also known as Berkshire Pork and Black Pig, Kurobuta is the closest thing in the pig world to Wagyu/Kobe cows, genetically possessing unusually favorable succulence and tenderness relative to other pigs. Mother's serves a double-thick chop that impresses immediately on size, scent, and texture: the slightly crisp outside crackles just a hint as the knife hits it, revealing a perfectly cooked, juicy center, while a slightly smoky, apple smell accompanies the first bite. On bite three or so, the scent wore off a bit, leaving the tongue wondering whether the thick chop needed a little salt in the center, but in no way diminishing our desire to keep eating - we wanted to slice every bit of meat off the twin bone. Then there were the topping and sides of a mildly spiced apple chutney and a sweet potato bacon and spinach hash, both delicious to the bite, and leading us to skim the plate clean. A nice stack of green beans, reasonably sized and fresh, couldn't compete on flavor or interest with the plate's other items; this was as close to a masterpiece of preparation as we had at Mother's.

Notably, entrees at Mother's are served with either a bowl of soup or a house salad, so we tried one of each and found them to be pretty good. Choosing from three soups, we picked the New England Clam Chowder, which was filled with vegetables and bits of clam - more the former than the latter - and made with a light, creamy base that tasted freshly made. While not quite as thick or rich as we tend to prefer, the Chowder came across as delicate and sophisticated, and did quite well with an included packet of big oyster crackers.

The House Salad wasn't anything special, a simple plate of lettuce with a couple of cherry tomatoes, a pile of chick peas, and a cup of dressing on the side, all fresh but none amazing. We were more impressed by a Mescalun Salad that was ordered separately; normally sold for $5.75 and consisting solely of mixed greens and a raspberry vinaigrette, we went with the Loaded version ($8.50), which added chunks of portabella mushroom, roasted beets, gorgonzola cheese, and a cool garnish of thin fried leeks. The plate was divided into piles, the mushrooms and melted cheese on one side, beets on another, and the leeks in a bunch on top of the salad. While the collection of ingredients was nice, the "loaded" items weren't generously proportioned - only reasonable - and we would have preferred them to be mixed into an actual salad rather than left for us to assemble.

Both of our appetizers were good, though each had a little something that would appeal more to some people than others. Looking over both the specials and regular menus for something to share, we settled on the Sausage Stuffed Portabella Mushroom ($9.25), a single large overturned cap that is precisely as its name suggests: the belly is packed with a mild sausage, seemingly straight from the casing, then topped with a thin, melted cheese and scallions while the mushroom sits atop a plate of tomato cream sauce and cherry tomato slices. To be clear, the mushroom tasted very good, as did its stuffing, which could as easily have been sitting on a bun and served as a burger, but everything was very mild - there wasn't anything punchy about the sauce or anything else in the dish.

A plate of Fried Coconut Shrimp ($11.25) was similarly satisfying rather than superb, a contrast with The Eagle House's similarly priced, more ambitious version. Served four to the plate and medium-sized rather than large, Mother's shrimp were lightly coated in a batter that didn't scream "coconut" but wasn't missing the flavor, either - it was a little too light for those looking to enjoy the shrimp on their own. That may have been because the plate included a small cup of orange horseradish dipping sauce that was more intensely flavored; we kept trying it but never wanted to fully submerge our shrimp in the accurately named flavors. In our view, the shrimp should be able to stand alone on flavor without the dip, but this dish was made for people who wanted to use them together.

Desserts were a mixed bag: we chose from a list of only four options, three tarts and one cake, with both of our picks recommended by our server. We were genuinely taken with the Banana Split Tart ($5.50), a slice of graham cracker pie crust with a body of fresh banana filling, topped by a thin layer of chocolate icing and chunked pineapples, all set next to dollops of whipped cream and powdered sugar. The first bites of this tart focused the tongue on the chocolate and banana flavors - entirely satisfying to fans of both items - but as we made our way back to the edge of the crust, the graham became even more intense and tasty, while the pineapple added an unmistakably fun, citrus edge to the creamy, mild banana chunks underneath. We'd order this again any day.

By comparison, the Chocolate Cappuccino Mousse Layer Cake ($5.50) was a disappointment, served on an identical whipped cream and powdered sugar base, and visually every bit what we'd expected. Our first fork into it revealed the cake, its mousse layers, and even its icing to be dry; it seemed to crumble rather than gently coming apart, though perhaps by design rather than neglect. It didn't taste stale in any way, but possibly had been made to be chunky rather than soft and yielding, and didn't have much obvious cappuccino flavor relative to the strong chocolate base. This, we wouldn't order again, and felt bad when we saw slices being delivered to other tables as we finished our meal.

It should be noted that we had no significant disappointments in our meal at Mother's up until the cake; from beginning to end, we agreed that the meal would have been worthy of 3.25 stars if we issued quarter stars, but three if not - given the number of "on the edge" places we've reviewed recently, we again thought briefly about adding quarter-stars for that reason. But we didn't think about a 3.5-star rating. Despite its premium though not outrageous pricing, Mother's didn't strike us as being on par with The Left Bank, Tempo, or Buffalo Chophouse, each of which offered one or more truly outstanding items relative to local competitors. Yet there's an appealing consistency at Mother's: from humble to specialty dishes, virtually everything we had was very good, and the service hit exactly the right balance of attentiveness and discretion. As we walked out the front door, it was obvious that all the cars outside and the noise inside this place were here for good reason; like the growing crowd, we'll be back again for sure.

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