634 Main St., East Aurora NY 14052
Phone: 716.652.0341, 716.655.1874
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"After dropping nearly forty dollars for bland salads, a sandwich, and a piece of quiche, we really don't want to risk throwing good money after bad and making another visit here."
As long-time readers of Buffalo Chow know, we generally prefer to visit a restaurant twice before rating it, but on occasion, we'll feel so lukewarm or disappointed after a first visit that we don't really want to return. This leaves us conflicted: not saying anything may leave the impression that we never visited or even might like the place. So we've come up with a compromise solution: we'll talk about these visits and issue no rating, but give you a clear sense of what we thought. East Aurora's Tantalus and Taste - two restaurants located within steps of one another in the same Main Street building - are the subject of one such ratingless article.
We had every reason to be excited after we entered Tantalus: decorated with sophistication, this lunch and dinner venue packs a menu that's outrageously long, filled with salads, sandwiches, burgers, quiche and even pizzas - we took a while to read the 13 pages, some specific to times of day or a day of the week, and spent some time discussing what to order. Part of this was due to the disappearance of our server, and part to our desire to take everything in. As we sat at our unusually long wood and tile table, our eyes caught glances of cookbooks shelved around the dining area, candle holders deliberately covered in feet of melted wax - a cute sign of the place's longevity and lack of formality - and servers whose attire and demeanor personified hip. The big menu, its prices, and an extensive foreign beer list all seem to establish Tantalus as a cool place to hang out.
But every dish we ordered was just one blah after another. Nothing on the list of appetizers really grabbed us - a $7.75 plate of roasted garlic, a $9 plate of fried mozzarella, and so on - so we skipped right to the salads. A Chicken Caesar Salad ($9.70) started promisingly, on a reasonably large plate with some warm, sliced, and grilled chicken breast alongside four anchovies, a handful of croutons, a ton of lettuce and plenty of crumbled cheese. Unfortunately, the only really good items on the plate were the fresh, salty-but-not-too-salty, moist rather than dry anchovies, and the croutons; the rest of the plate was akin to eating a chopped head of lettuce mixed with a garlic dressing and nearly flavorless poultry. Everything on the plate was fine in concept, but there just wasn't anything taste-wise to tie it together.
A second salad, the Imported Baked Brie and Walnuts ($9.75), was just okay. Like the Caesar, it looked great, but had no depth of flavor, and seemed more like a collection of assembled ingredients than a finished whole. The promised Brie cheese, for instance, wasn't really tossed in the salad - it was a partially melted wedge of cheese that was left sitting on top of the mostly field green salad, okay in flavor rather than anything special. Caramelized and candy-like, the brown walnuts were the salad's highlight, adding a little sweetness and crunchiness to the dish, but they weren't great, either. Tantalus's included raspberry vinaigrette dressing wasn't anywhere on the plate; our server appeared semi-apologeticlly with a cup of it several minutes after the salad arrived. It too was fine - more raspberry than vinaigrette, and totally forgettable.
We spent a long time trying to figure out which sandwich to try with our meal, ultimately settling on the Classic Cubano Sandwich ($6.75), a sliced "rustic bread" roll with pieces of roasted pork, slices of ham, pickles, and a dijon aloli dressing. Though the Cubano was ordered without swiss cheese, it arrived with a thin layer anyway, and was promptly replaced upon request. The first half of the sandwich was an unpleasant affair, but we couldn't quite put our finger on what it was specifically that we weren't enjoying - the roll seemed fresh, and all the ingredients were there as promised. So we had the second half of the sandwich in pieces, and found the problem: the pork was bland and dry, the ham was bland and dry, the pickles were bland and moist, the dijon was bland and wet, and the thick, dense bread roll was bland and overly glutinous. Nothing had a strong or even especially fresh flavor; the parts all seemed to have come from the day-old bin. We drowned our sorrows in the hand-cut fries, which were similarly nothing special but looked nice; the best part of the plate was a thin but fresh slice of watermelon that helped to wash away the other flavors.
That left us with one last item: the Gourmet Quiche ($7.50), an expensive little piece of eggy pie with tiny pieces of prosciuitto ham and asparagus inside, plus another semi-melted piece of Brie cheese on top. Once again, bland was the first word that came to mind: it was like a yolky omelet packed into a fine flaky pie crust with way too little inherent or additive flavor to justify half its price, let alone what Tantalus was charging. After a number of slightly gooey, boring bites, we couldn't find any reason to keep eating it and gave up. If this was supposed to be gourmet, we'd hate to see what the two $7 non-gourmet quiches were like.
But we won't. Even if this was an off day, an off week, or just a lapse in quality control during our meal, we don't like to waste nearly forty dollars on bland salads, a sandwich, and a piece of quiche, and have no desire to risk throwing good money after bad for another visit here. Though we tried to pick items that represented a number of the ingredients found in other menu options, we'll openly concede that we did not sample the full depth of the menu, and could have picked many other options for our meal. In this case, it's not going to happen. Time and money are just too short to waste.
Since Tantalus was right next door to another place, the coffee shop Taste, we decided to skip the sweets at one place and drop in for coffee and possibly dessert at the other. As with Tantalus, we immediately liked the venue: amongst other places, Taste reminds us of Ithaca's bohemian Collegetown Bagels, with large, hand-chalked menus on the walls, seemingly reclaimed seating and tables, and a too cool for school vibe. It claims to be an "urban bistro experience," and that's exactly what it feels like. Service was initially fast and friendly: on this hot summer day, we ordered two cold drinks and mulled the display case's pies and cakes. They were mostly from Butterwood, so we passed.
Our drinks were both major disappointments, but not for the standard reasons. Each one of us wanted to order the E.T. Mocha ($4.25), which the server behind the counter told us was the place's signature drink, and one of us lucked out: it was a cup of chocolatey coffee with chocolate syrup mixed in, under a beautiful-looking whipped cream topping. As a second option, we picked the Polar Bear Freeze ($4), which we were told is a vanilla milkshake. It too had the whipped cream on top, and both cups had us salivating all the way over to our tables. Then we tasted them: the E.T. Mocha was good but nothing special - a sweet drink that was akin to a glass of Quik or chilled Swiss Miss with some coffee mixed in - and the Polar Bear Freeze tasted like whole milk with vanilla syrup and ice chunks, also good but not great. It wasn't really a milkshake in any way except for the fact that it contained milk that had been shaken.
That's when we hit the snag: the cups were at least 50% ice, seemingly more, and it hadn't been blended well at all with the liquids. The "Freeze" had been blended but poorly, and the E.T. Mocha had just been poured over a large cup filled with big ice cubes. The $4 drinks were over as quickly as they began, and every sip towards the end of the ice-filled cups became less and less appealing, until we were left with little more than globs of whipped cream and semi-frozen water. It just wasn't good at all - for what little it's worth, even Starbucks on its worst day does $4 blended drinks better. We came back to the empty counter to order a hot drink just to see how Taste would do with that, but gave up after waiting a while for three staffers who were too busy talking with each other to handle customers. Urban bistro, indeed.
With Spot Coffee as a more convenient and decidedly more appealing local alternative, we can't think of any good reason to come back and try Taste again. As with Tantalus, we're leaving it without a rating, but it's pretty obvious where both places would wind up on our scale; there are many better local alternatives that we'd rather use our resources to cover here.