1008 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo NY 14222
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Buffalo Desserts Sandwiches Seafood
"We were most impressed by the fish side of the Fish N Chips, a plate with three lightly lemony, deep-fried pieces of haddock that we could only describe as delicious."
When friends and readers ask us about recently-opened local restaurants, we're torn: on one hand, we want to offer immediate impressions as soon as they've opened - if they're selling to the public, the public deserves to know - but we also realize that a brand new business deserves some time to settle into its new location before being fully judged. Thus, we bring you relatively abbreviated and combined looks at two new Elmwood Avenue businesses: Zillycakes, a cake and cupcake shop that opened in late May, and Captain Jack's Fish N Chips, which opened two weeks ago only a few blocks down. Though they're substantially different from one another in the specifics of what and how they sell, both have well-designed exteriors that caught our eyes, and those of our readers.
Zillycakes. Snow was on the ground when we first spied attractive signage on Elmwood for Zillycakes, mysteriously touting a cake decorating business that wouldn't actually open for months - and then, not on the same side of the street where the sign had appeared. In late May, the store opened, and soon thereafter, we dropped in for a couple of minutes, seeing what appeared to be a storefront for fancy, made-to-order cakes, plus a couple of depleted-looking display cases up front. Whatever was going to be sold there, we figured, either was out of stock because it was too late in the day, or not really the focus of the people who were decorating cakes in the back. We decided to try a second visit on another occasion, but noticed some beautifully designed, classy "Z" promotional cards as we were leaving. Our last thought about the place was that it was great to see a local business embracing high-quality graphic and logo design.
We returned this weekend, and what we found this time was similar in the display case department - a few handfuls of scattered items - except for two key differences. There were small signs hinting that this was a custom cupcake bar, and a person there to explain what was going on with what initially looked to be very plain cupcakes. Unlike its neighbor Delish, which elaborately decorates numerous cupcakes and then leaves them sitting out for a bit too long, Zillycakes makes fewer and decorates them to order on the spot. You pick one of four or five flavors of cupcakes, each offered in $2 small and $3 large - really medium - sizes, then choose a completely fresh frosting from a short list of flavor options, and either free or premium 50-cent toppings as you prefer. What's included and what's extra isn't initially obvious, as six or so toppings are in plastic-wrapped display dishes - revealed to be included only if you ask - and others are indicated as premium on a small sign with prices. It's more than a little confusing.
For the standard $3 prices, we grabbed one coconut cupcake, topped with a tropical fruit frosting and coconut shavings, as well as a white velvet cupcake with dolci de leech frosting and ground toffee chunks on top. Both were fresh, pretty good, and fun to customize, but a little small; more importantly, Zillycakes' signage was fragmented, such that we needed to look around on multiple little pieces of paper to see all of the choices, and wound up missing one of the frostings - a cannoli version - because its sign was hidden behind the counter. We get the impression that Zillycakes is going to be a local powerhouse in cake decoration, but that its snack side isn't a major part of its business… yet. For now, its custom cupcake bar is a cool idea that could easily become a bigger deal with improved signage and a better-organized display of all the available options.
Captain Jack's Fish N Chips. By comparison with Zillycakes, Elmwood's brand-new seafood restaurant Captain Jack's (1066 Elmwood Ave., 716.881.3474) is a thoroughly cash-and-carry-focused establishment, with emphasis on the "carry:" open for only two weeks, the restaurant has already seen long waiting lines at dinner time, and is letting first-time customers know that its interior tables aren't meant for extended seating. "Everything here is take-out," said the cashier, twice to different customers on our visit, and the small tables inside include signage requesting that you not actually eat at them; they're only for people waiting to leave with their orders. The tables outside on its patio? You can feel free to have your meal there. But really, you're supposed to pick up your bag(s) of food and take them home. Captain Jack - as played by Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, hanging on the wall of the small but clean blue-walled restaurant across from a large aquarium - apparently would have wanted it that way.
Some good news: the items we sampled from its short, entirely under-$10 (and mostly $5-$7) menu were all pretty good. Some bad news: because so many of the offerings are fried, you'd better live close to Captain Jack's, or be able to snag one of those outside tables, or you won't enjoy the hot, fresh fish at its peak. There are, of course, non-fried items here - chicken, turkey, and veggie burgers most prominent amongst them - but we focused on the seafood on this visit, due to the restaurant's fish-heavy slant.
We were most impressed by the fish side of the Fish N Chips ($6), a plate with three lightly lemony, deep-fried pieces of haddock that we could only describe as delicious; they were tender and subtle enough inside to enjoy without accompaniment, but came with a small cup of tartar sauce and a single packet of malt vinegar - too little for our resident vinegar fanatic. By comparison, the plain included french fries just weren't very good, and no substitute was available. While we were waiting for our meal, we heard the cashier explain that the two-week-old Captain Jack's had been out of its popular sweet potato fries for some time; they would otherwise have been an alternative. We also tried and liked its onion-heavy cornmeal and flour ball hushpuppies, and would gladly substitute them for the fries if given the chance in the future. A honey butter sauce was also included, and proved staggeringly sweet given the small size of the dipping cup.
Another good pick was the shrimp portion of the Coconut Shrimp ($8), a dinner-sized box with seven large, properly golden-fried shrimp in a very nice coconut batter, served as is customary with a sweet marmalade dip, plus a clean, homemade cole slaw, and some more of the disappointing fries. By contrast, a Tuna Steak Sandwich ($6) was more capable than most other fish offerings here of surviving an extended drive home - a nice-sized piece of pan-seared tuna, plus a good roll, and typical sandwich lettuce, tomato, and mayo toppings. Unfortunately, we were verbally offered three sauce options - cajun, lemon, or barbecue - and made the mistake of trying the barbecue, which turns out not to be on the printed menu. The sweet glaze had no verve and didn't work well at all with the tuna; our suspicion is that the other options would have been a lot better.
Less impressive but inexpensive enough was the Fish Taco ($4), which really should have been called a Fish Burrito: it contained a stick of the same deep-fried haddock from the Fish N Chips, mixed with the cabbage coleslaw, tomato chunks, and shreds of cheddar cheese inside a flour wrapper. The balance of elements wasn't quite right for a taco, but the quality wasn't bad, either; it would appeal most to people who love fish fry mashups and haven't had proper fish tacos elsewhere. Last up were the Stuffies ($6), two large clam shells that had been packed with a breadcrumb-heavy, clam-light stuffing, then served with a cup of cocktail sauce and a lemon wedge. As with the fried fare, these baked stuffed shells aren't exactly ideal take-out food unless you live nearby - the breading doesn't get better over time, and overwhelmed most of the clam flavor even fresh out of the box - but they may be worth sampling if you're willing and able to eat out front.
Based on the items we sampled - and the fact that both the sweet potato fries and the Manhattan Clam Chowder we'd hoped to order were unavailable on our first visit - we'd go back to Captain Jack's again. Time will tell whether it's going to become a highlight of the Elmwood strip, but based on Buffalo's love for great fried haddock, we wouldn't be surprised.