A Simple Menu With Good Picks at Williamsville's Protocol

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6766 Transit Rd., Williamsville, NY 14221
Web: Protocol
Phone: 716.632.9556
Rating:    [learn more]
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"Overall, every member of our group enjoyed our meal at Protocol: the only question was how much we had individually liked it. Our proposed stars ranged from 2.75 to 3.25."

Only one thing is on our minds when we visit a restaurant: we hope to have a truly good or great meal. Unlike the average diner, who finds a handful of comfortable places to visit repeatedly, we so frequently eat at new venues that every experience feels full of potential for discovery. Located right next to the intersection of the I-90 and Transit Road, Protocol struck us as a prime example of a risk: located in the same vicinity as Russell's, Cracker Barrel, and other mostly American restaurants seeking thruway exit traffic, it looked nice enough from the outside, but between its flashing outdoor specials sign and the perpetual construction on Transit, we weren't quite sure what to make of it. It was only after a visit to its booth at the Taste of Clarence and a piece of its memorably awesome flourless chocolate cake that we put it on the "must visit" list; if nothing else, we knew that we could end a meal with this item and have a nice enough experience.

As it turned out, that wasn't necessary; apart from dining room lighting that our dining companions found to be problematically dark - also bad enough to mess up our photographs, as you've no doubt noticed already - we enjoyed Protocol enough before reaching the dessert course that we'd return any time. Now 38 years old and staffed by well-dressed, professionally attentive servers, Protocol offers a simple, upscale American menu with three main pages of appetizers, steak, and seafood options, all comfortable and familiar, plus a smaller fourth page of specials that were enticing enough to change a couple of minds. It seemed to be catering to an almost entirely older crowd when we visited on a Saturday night; with exposure at events like the Taste of Clarence, we'd imagine that a new influx of customers like us could be just around the corner.

After consulting the menu, our group snacked on two nice breads, white and multigrain, from a small basket with oil and hummus dips, opting to order an entree-heavy meal and a few appetizers. From the main menu, we selected the Appetizer Sampler - a collection of three different appetizers plus a taster-sized portion of one entree - served in two- ($15) and four-person ($23) versions that vary solely in the quantities of included items. Our two-person Sampler arrived with three Clams Casino, two small clusters of Baby Back Ribs, two Coconut Shrimp, and a single Stuffed Banana Pepper, collectively served with a lemon slice and a tiny bowl of sweet barbecue-like dipping sauce. It was a fair value for the price, offering plenty of different taste and preparation variations to enjoy.

While none of the items was the best we've had locally, they were all at least good, sometimes better. Strongest were the Coconut Shrimp: oversized and tender inside, they were coated in a wonderful batter of crispy golden coconut shreds that felt and tasted homemade. These were impressive enough not to need any dipping sauce, and two seemed like too few; we'd gladly order a full plate. Next up was the Stuffed Banana Pepper, which for whatever reason was bottom-loaded with spicy seeds, surprising the one of us who got a bite full of pure heat, though otherwise evenly distributed with a nice bread stuffing. Other than the uneven spicing, it was quite good. By comparison, the Clams Casino - baked, breaded, and topped with bacon - were pretty good, though the middle-neck clams were very small; the Baby Back Ribs were taken from the full-sized entree of the same name, and coated in a rich barbecue sauce that was good enough to help us look past the slightly overcooked meat. Seemingly low fat content might have been to blame for their lack of tenderness.

Two other appetizer items were also good enough to satisfy. Protocol offers only two soup options - French Onion Soup Gratinee ($5.50) every day in a crock, with a soup of the day served in either cup ($4) or bowl ($5) sizes. We went with the Tomato Artichoke Soup, which had a moderately thick tomato broth, plus plenty of chunks of tomatoes, some artichokes, and pasta inside - no surprises, but a fine enough cup of soup, with oyster crackers on the side. Another item was taken from the specials menu, and a fairly substantial deviation from the rest of the American fare on offer: an Ahi Tuna Sushi Roll ($10), interestingly served with chopsticks, an Asian soup spoon full of soy sauce, and a dab of wasabi. From a purely technical standpoint, there was nothing wrong with this roll, its presentation, or the proportions of its elements - soft rice on the outside of a nori seaweed wrapper, holding together a mix of sliced tuna and avocado - but the flavor was subtle even by sushi standards, and the tuna just a little too chilly.

Our entree selections were chosen to try and sample different major elements of the meat and seafood-heavy menu, which devotes a page mostly to steak and ribs, and another to seafood entrees. We were curious as to Protocol's steak-cooking savvy, so we ordered the Filet Mignon, available in six-ounce Queen ($24) and eight-ounce King ($29) portions, each served with a demi-glace. Opting for the smaller portion, we selected french fries as an accompaniment from a short list of starch choices, any of which sounded almost like bonuses given the entrees' relatively reasonable prices. While the Filet portion that arrived was as small as expected, it was tender - properly cooked to our medium rare order - and tasted a little plain but good for what it was supposed to be. Its only failing was the demi-glace, a light brown gravy underneath that didn't add enough to the meat's natural flavor, and would have been more interesting with a strong red wine or pepper sauce. The portion of french fries was accented by an artistic drizzle of ketchup on the plate's side, plus a smaller pile of thin green beans and baby carrot; all these items were nice, not special.

Another member of our group tried the Sesame Seared Ahi Tuna Salad ($18), a nice, heavily sesame seed-encrusted tuna steak deposited on a bed of romaine lettuce, with tomato slices, thin red onions, some pickled ginger, and a ball of wasabi off to one side. As contrasted with the tuna sushi, which was served a little too plainly, we were extremely pleased with the seared tuna here: like the meat in the sushi, it was obviously fresh, but between its temperature, thicker body, and flavor, we really enjoyed every bite. The rest of the salad similarly benefitted from a very nice sesame soy vinaigrette dressing, as well.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening was something that we hadn't expected anyone to order, and had no expectations for in advance: a Roast Beef on Weck Sandwich ($11), which was a little on the expensive side but truly very good. Normally served with a cup of horseradish and fries, we substituted in Protocol's "ranch mashed potatoes," which as the name suggests were standard potatoes mixed with ranch dressing for a little added flavor. The sandwich was big enough to dwarf the meat portions of the prior two dishes, made from a generous stack of legitimately very good, slightly moist sliced beef, atop a kummelweck roll that was fresh, nicely apportioned with caraway seeds, and just a little light on the texture and quantity of salt. As contrasted with the version we'd had at SoupHerb Gourmet days before, Protocol's was the type of Beef on Weck that someone could try on their first visit to town and get an almost ideal representation of the local specialty.

Much less impressive, however, was a second seafood entree, selected from the specials menu: the Wild Coho Salmon ($26), which was described and served as a cedar-rubbed filet on top of spinach, artichoke hearts, and roasted red pepper; it too came with the ranch mashed potatoes, here only in the smallest of ice cream scoop-sized dollops. While this plate looked beautiful, again given an artistic red drizzle of sauce on one side, the salmon filet was nothing short of depressing; it was half the thickness it should have been, and perhaps consequently so overcooked that it lacked in color, moisture, and flavor. Rather than flaking off effortlessly into soft pieces, the salmon crumbled off in almost dry chunks, and the member of our group who ordered it found herself offering it unsuccessfully around the table. Without question, it was the only big disappointment of the meal - not inedible, but not good, either.

After an otherwise filling meal, no one seemed willing to commit to ordering a dessert solely for themselves, even after our server stopped over with a platter filled with creme brulee, slices of cake, and pies. Then an initial order was placed for the Raspberry Velvet Pie ($7), inspiring a second order for a Flourless Chocolate Tart ($7), which we'd loved (and thankfully photographed) at the Taste of Clarence. Apart from the fact that they both possessed mild, gentle raspberry flavors, these items were sharp contrasts - the Velvet Pie was a triangle of silky cream atop a plain pie crust, with a little pink meringue that seemed to add more color than flavor; it was collectively as sweet and smooth as the name suggested, with a fresh strawberry slice possessing a stronger flavor than the pie. We liked but didn't love it; fans of subtle desserts might well go gaga for the light raspberry cream. By comparison, the Chocolate Tart was comparatively dense and powerful, each bite releasing the collective cocoa flavor of a half candy bar, plus that wonderful chocolate raspberry sauce - here, in smaller quantity than at the Taste. The portion size at the festival had been ridiculously impressive for the low price; here, the same dessert was more expensive, but just as tasty. Though we suspect we could replicate it at home with a little practice, it has become one of our local favorites.

Overall, every member of our group enjoyed our meal at Protocol: the only question at the end was how much we had individually liked it. In the discussion that followed, proposed star ratings ranged from 2.75 to 3.25, with the salmon recipient at the low end of that scale. Our three-star rating reflects a restaurant with food that we'd describe as very good overall for the prices, service that was generally very attentive and accommodating, and a venue that was a little dated and a lot too dark inside, but otherwise nice. This wasn't a restaurant that we were on the fence about visiting again - we would without question - but next time, we'd likely opt for seating in the covered outdoor patio, or bring our own flashlights. It's a shame that the photos here couldn't do justice to an otherwise nice meal.

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