A Flair For Presentation Helps Kenmore's Torches Glow

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1141 Kenmore Ave., Kenmore, NY 14217
Web: Torches
Phone: 716.447.7915
Rating:    [learn more]
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"Torches delivers the strongest visual punches when there's less to brag about in taste, a balance that obviously would be better if both aspects of its items were equally powerful."

Even in Western New York, where the traditions of fine dining are now frequently relaxed to accommodate a more casual clientele, many patrons still have certain expectations for big-ticket meals. Starting in its parking lot, Kenmore's Torches ticks off most of the items on that list: you'll probably notice a working torch outside as you walk in, then an entryway filled with distinctive rock tables, and a main dining room that seems comfortable in its mix of contemporary light and dark design elements, candlelit, glass-topped tables, and blonde wood chairs. A creative, hip list of cocktails accompanies a nice wine list, and a one-page menu - plus a handful of specials - adds to the initial impression that the management here is supremely confident that it has a tightly-controlled, winning formula. From attentive service to nice plating, little hints throughout the meal help to build this feeling, so even when the bill's a little on the high side, you probably won't mind; it mightn't have come through at its Taste of Buffalo booth, but Torches is selling an experience, rather than just food.

Yet even though a restaurant can control its service, food, and decor, it can't necessarily control the decorum of its patrons - or can it? This is an issue we feel obliged to mention up front in our review, mostly to let you consider for yourself the weight it deserves when dining out. If you were on a romantic date, would you mind if there was a party taking place in the open room right next to you, where children were popping balloons and even pitching them onto your table? Would you have felt right dressing up for such a meal if people right next to you were wearing jeans and sashes that read "I suck for a buck?" Any nice restaurant will at some point accommodate immature customers, but some do a better job than others of letting the rest of their patrons enjoy their meals without interruption. At Torches, everyone mingles. That's as much as we're going to say on the topic, beyond to note that it was a minor factor in our overall rating of this restaurant.

Thankfully, meals at Torches start well, with the delivery of a complementary amuse-bouche - a "mouth pleasing" one-bite treat from the kitchen - per patron, which on this night was a bit of lightly cooked potato wrapped in crispy bacon, speared with a toothpick. Despite our mutual love for bacon, neither of us was wowed by the hors d'oeuvre due to the bland potato, but we both really enjoyed Torches' similarly complementary plates of mild pepper-crusted, only slightly sour sourdough bread. These were served with a tabouli-like pesto that we found ourselves sopping up as we waited, eventually making our way through two four-slice plates. The slices were small, but warm and classy; more sophisticated than pretzel bread, but with similar impact. We were pleased, a feeling that continued with a tropically flavored, grapefruit candy-topped Fruitbasket Martini ($8), just one of many eye-catching drink options from the cocktails menu. If we'd wanted to do nothing more than linger at the bar, there were five or ten other drinks we would have wanted to explore here.

Salad and the appetizers we ordered were also deliberately upscale, albeit inconsistently pleasing. To be clear, we love calamari regardless of whether the squid is broiled, grilled, or deep-fried, and we've had it dozens of ways over the years, yet Torches' Grilled Calamari ($9) preparation was just a little off-balance. The menu intriguingly pitches it as including roasted banana peppers, tomatoes, and grilled garlic bread, but what arrives is the equivalent of a single piece of salsa-topped bruschetta and a small adjacent pile of semi-charred bits taken from two or three small squid. On a highly positive note, we loved the flavors in the chopped fresh tomatoes and banana peppers, but there was something just a little off-putting - focus-grabbing - about the char on the bread and the squid, both of which were otherwise tender, and served with a nice lemony olive oil. Good, yes, very good or great, no.

Another seafood appetizer, the Cornmeal Dusted Scallops ($13), continued the less-is-more theme. Here, a long plate hosted three identical piles: a slightly charred and lightly crispy scallop, atop a modestly chewy al dente rice succotash with bits of corn and peas mixed in. As good as the scallops were - and they were nice, thanks to a mild little chipotle barbecue glaze - we oddly found ourselves enjoying the creamy, risotto-like succotash even more. The plate's price might have been high given the portions, but the seafood and succotash struck a good balance that made the more typical scallops-atop-salad appetizer plate seem old school.

From the three salad choices, we sampled the Torches House Salad ($7), a mix of romaine lettuce, tiny, sweet grapes and cranberries, candied walnuts, and what the menu described as "Warm Goat Cheese." That simple description underplayed the cheese, which sat at the peak of the salad with a golden battered crust, and delighted us, as did the varied sweet elements, all of which really brought fun, sugary bites to an otherwise okay salad. The romaine was fresh, but the dressing - a sherry vinaigrette - was too light on flavor, a milquetoast, inacidic binding for ingredients that could have been brought together better. Had the salad come with the meal, it would have been good, but as a $7 item, it fell a little short.

Like the items that came before, our entrees were good but a little mixed. We were mostly impressed by a special, the Pan Seared Ahi Tuna ($27), which arrived beautifully plated: the tuna was served rare and covered in a crust of blackened sesame seeds, with red and green splashes of sauce underneath, and a ball of horseradishy wasabi on the side. Pieces from what Torches described as a "spicy tempura papaya roll" were also on the plate, and chopsticks were offered to give the dish another Japanese touch. We wound up talking more about this dish than any other. To cut through our fairly extended discussion of its relative merits and demerits, the tuna was an unquestionably excellent cut, and served with a soy and sesame oil dipping sauce that distracted our attention from the iffy sesame crusting. But neither of us cared much for the accompanying sushi-esque roll: the rice was too hot from having been deep-fried, and too dry by sushi rice standards, while the papaya was chilly. None of the sauces on the plate seemed to make it work quite right, either; it was at best okay, and we didn't finish it. We say that as serious sushi fans.

Presentation was the big draw for our second entree, the standard menu's Filet Mignon & Shrimp Kebobs ($28), which arrived on a miniature display rack that held two skewers full of meat and vegetables. Our server finished the skewers' grilling with a hand torch, pulling the elements from the skewers to deposit them on a plate of honey- and butter-coated sweet potato fries. Between the rack, the torch, and the key elements of the dish - the shrimp and filet - this should have been a knockout, but there wasn't much going on with the flavors. Ordered without a request for preferred doneness, the meat ranged from medium rare to medium well and tasted basically indistinguishable from skewered sirloin, with small zucchini, squash, and pepper pieces that were do-it-yourself quality. The shrimp - cooked just enough to remain tender and full of natural flavor - were the highlight here, and the sweet potato fries were similarly good, though not quite as overwhelming as, say, Old Man River's. Everything in this dish was good, not great.

From a list of five desserts, we went with the one we felt would be most dramatic: the Black Raspberry Baked Alaska ($7). Thanks as much to its flaming presentation as anything else, it's hard to find these days outside of cruise ships, and generally theatrically presented with a flaming liqueur. At Torches, ordering it results in a brief visit from the chef to your table, complete with a hand torch-lit ladle full of orange-flavored Grand Marnier and a personalized browning of the dessert's initially white meringue topping. Once the blue flames have died down, you're left to dig into what's essentially a mix of orange-hinted, soft meringue, black raspberry ice cream, and dense yellow pound cake that's sitting in a pool of blueberry syrup. Note that the version here is especially fruity from component to component relative to traditional recipes, which we'd expected would make this a dessert to remember.

Visuals aside, however, we both sort of shrugged the Baked Alaska off on taste: apart from the mix of fruit flavors, which were masked a little by the traces of alcohol left over from the fiery Grand Marnier, the cake and ice cream combination was only modestly better than the desserts served at kids' birthday parties - this, after Torches obviously tried to creatively upgrade the flavors in the recipe. It's no wonder that Baked Alaska is uncommon, but to Torches' additional credit, it puts on a better show for the $7 price than most high-end restaurants do these days with their desserts. Other items - a Key Lime Pie, a Tiramisu Tower, a Concord Grape Pie, and a Vanilla & Chocolate Swirl Cheesecake - all sell for $6 or $7 as well, and don't involve the same sort of chef's attention.

Overall, our impressions of Torches were mixed, but generally positive: to the extent that a restaurant can impress on more than just a purely culinary level, upping the ante with a little extra flair and personal attention, this place succeeds, even when its dishes weren't as universally thrilling on flavor as we would hope. In fact, it's arguably the case that Torches delivers the strongest visual punches when there's less to brag about in taste; obviously, it would be better if both aspects of the experience were equally powerful, and this was the primary reason that we were on the edge of 2.75- and 3-star ratings. Apart from the risk that you'll find a somewhat uncouth party taking place besides your table, this is a very nice restaurant with strong service and decor - an especially good option if you're looking for some literal sparks or flames to light up your evening.

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