647 Ridge Rd., Lackawanna, NY 14218
Web: Curly's Grill & Banquet Center
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American Caribbean Italian Seafood Steak
"Though the restaurant's Caribbean influences are obvious in the menu and always within reach, it's possible to dine much as you might at an American or Italian restaurant."
Of the many towns and cities in Western New York, Lackawanna isn't known for the size of its population or its abundance of restaurants, but one name stands out on its list: Curly's. Alternately known as Curly's Bar & Grill and Curly's Grill & Banquet Center, this is one of relatively few Buffalo-area restaurants to boast a 75-year heritage and third-generation owners; it's even rarer in that it has evolved from humble roots and appearances to something that defies simple description. Once a place where local steelworkers would come for drinks and American food, Curly's is now semi-upscale - more inviting than the standard fine dining establishment, with a Caribbean-influenced menu that's substantially accessible to those with less tropical palates. It also makes a better first impression than in years past; as we walked in with our dining companions, their initial comment was, "wow, they've really fixed up the front of this place," and all of us felt that the standards of service and preparation exceeded the expectations patrons would have for a typical "Caribbean restaurant." That said, the island flavors are milder by default than some would expect, as explained below.
Decorated with tropical, consistently colorful Haitian and Dominican paintings, Curly's dining rooms are otherwise painted in mature tones, and the white tablecloths are topped with glass - visual touches that convey a sense of practical, modern class. Servers come across as ready to satisfy, a point that earned a more generous tip than average on our visit, and complete meals are properly paced to take around an hour and a half, with new items arriving at appropriate intervals. A complimentary basket of two fresh sliced breads appears at the start of the meal, one white, the other poppy and sesame; both can be replenished by request while awaiting appetizers.
Though the restaurant's Caribbean influences are obvious in the menu and always within reach - tables are offered separate bottles of Jamaican jerk sauce and Jamaican hot sauce, both legitimately worth cracking out during the meal - it's possible to dine at Curly's much as you might at a typical American or Italian restaurant. Options such as Mussels Marinara, a Caesar Salad, a grilled New York Strip Steak, and five largely Italian pasta dishes have at least as much prominence on the menu as more exotic-sounding options; we sampled a couple of these non-Caribbean items mostly out of curiosity. But based on the menu, the sauces, and our experiences, our advice would be to visit Curly's intending to try its more novel items.
We had positive feelings about two seafood appetizers, the Deviled Clams ($10) and the Conch Fritters ($9), both of which were served hot, five to a plate, and with contrasting, cool piles of fresh black beans and sliced fruit. While both of the appetizers were notable for their copious breading, the Deviled Clams had more obvious bits of meat inside their half-shells, chopped clams mixed with similarly small pieces of bacon, peppers, and onions. Thanks in equal parts to the clam and bacon bits, they had more than enough flavor to enjoy without the bottles of Jamaican sauce, but we found ourselves dipping anyway, and really liked both the smoky jerk and the herb and chili options. By comparison, the Conch Fritters - taken from snail-like shellfish popular in the Caribbean and Florida - turned out to be larger, almost rubbery balls of fried batter with so little obvious conch flavor that we'd have been hard-pressed to identify them as anything other than modestly seafood-flavored; they were tasty, but nowhere near as strong in the conch department as we'd expected.
Given the choice of soup or salad with our meals, three of us chose to try the Black Bean Soup or Chicken Saffron Soup, while the other picked a plain, appropriately-sized house salad. Both of the Black Bean Soups were served by request with their sour cream and chopped onion garnishes on the side, enabling their recipients to add as much or as little to the warm, chunky, dark brown broth as they preferred; each person liked but didn't rave about the results. The Chicken Saffron Soup was a moderately thick, modestly saffron-flavored broth with plenty of rice, a fair number of chicken breast chunks, and some peppers scattered throughout. It was milder than we'd expected, and nice enough, but not memorable.
Three of us were pleased by our entrees, and in some cases even impressed. The prize for most interesting plating in the collection went to the Low Cal Fish in a Bag ($25), a parchment paper sack with grouper, carrots, mushrooms, and onions inside, all steamed together and slit open at the table by our server with a knife. Deliberately mild and obviously healthy, the fish was served in roughly a six-ounce portion, soft, fresh, and entirely nice in the way that meats and seafood can be when cooked gently in their own juices. The member of our group who ordered this dish was thrilled by it.
Two other entrees were nice. The Roasted Pork Tenderloin Armenia ($22) was a long piece of meat, pre-sliced into thick chunks; it was notable mostly for how delicately roasted it was - just to the point of safety - and the initial gentleness of its flavor. Though the Pork's drippings had been mixed with a dark, full-bodied Madiera wine and some veal stock as a sauce, these elements were found not within the meat itself but rather pooled on the plate, along with chopped shiitake mushrooms and pieces of apricot; the pork went from good to very good when dipped in the sauce, and eaten with the accompaniments. Like the pork, a Jamaican Jerk Chicken Sandwich ($10) was served with its two pieces of chicken breast far more mildly flavored than we'd expected; it tasted good but incomplete, as if it was meant to be more heavily seasoned with jerk sauce, leaving the patron to do the finishing work with the aforementioned bottles on the table. Instead, Curly's served it topped with dabs of modestly jerk-flavored mayonnaise, which we didn't like, and largely scraped off.
Notably, the Fish and Pork entrees both arrived with three sides each, a scoop or so of nice herbed rice, a similar portion of zucchini and squash, and an oversized dollop of creamy, cheesy potatoes au gratin. Patrons aren't offered input into these items, so if you're not a fan of one side or another, you're out of luck, a point which led to some disappointment for those of us who weren't fans of au gratin potatoes. Other starch options mightn't be as elegant or attractive to see as this one, but might well suit individual tastes better.
The only bland entree was the Warm Chicken Salad ($11), described on the menu as a grilled jerk chicken breast served over mixed greens and a vinaigrette dressing. Though the salad lived up to its billing and was appropriately portioned for an entree, the meat was again only modestly jerk-flavored, while the citrus vinaigrette dressing was a little sweet but forgettable; we'd never have guessed that the buttery croutons and cherry tomatoes would be the most interesting things in the bowl. As a whole, it didn't seem worth finishing, the only item we ordered to fall into that category.
Desserts were thankfully more impressive, if a little expensive. From a list that included a Taste of Buffalo award-winning Peanut Butter Pie and several other interesting options, we selected the Chocolate Mousse Bag ($11) and the Tuile ($9), both of which were hits at our table. Though misnamed, the Chocolate Mousse Bag had all the elements necessary to win wags of our tongues: a hard but edible dark chocolate outer box was completely filled with dense, truly wonderful chocolate mousse, whole berries, and just enough whipped cream not to come across as overloaded. A pool of strawberry sauce, raspberries, blackberries, and a full sliced strawberry were all there to break up what would otherwise have been non-stop licks and crunches of chocolate.
By comparison, the Tuile - French for "tile," and also called "Tuilles" - might have looked like an overblown ice cream sundae, but it was equally impressive in its own right: on the bottom was an edible brown bowl that had been been made from melted, shaped sugar, flour, eggs, and butter into what tasted like a thin and crispy caramel and almond cookie; above it were scoops of vanilla ice cream, raspberries, strawberries, and drizzles of chocolate and caramel. The ice cream could have been a little more creamy, but we put as much time into a discussion of the interesting flavor of the Tuile cookie base as we spent eating it.
As Western New York restaurants go, Curly's is surely unique: it's a place with a name that reflects its heritage but not its current focus, a menu that defies simple description, and a location that enables it to be Lackawanna's neighborhood standout, though it's perhaps not as well-known as it might have been on another street in a different town or city. Visit expecting a traditional Caribbean restaurant, and you'll find the meals to be less powerfully spiced and far more upscale than the norm; that said, visit anyway. Given the sauces, the number of menu choices, and the desserts, your chances of leaving Curly's satisfied are considerable. Our 3.25-star overall rating reflects generally very good food and service with minor caveats; we would certainly return again.