5403 Sheridan Dr., Williamsville, NY 14221
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Salads Sandwiches Soup Williamsville
"After splitting a cup, we were ready to order a second, and would have done so if we hadn't wanted to save room to try other items. It was as superb as the restaurant's name suggested."
Conventional wisdom suggests that soup is an appetizer, too minor to justify the existence of a restaurant, but that's not always true. We've visited cities where a good bowl of soup - authentic Japanese ramen or Vietnamese pho, as just two examples - is enough of a draw for restaurants to maintain out-the-door lines, though such places are uncommon in the United States. For all of its virtues, soup generally doesn't generate a lot of buzz, and so it wasn't entirely surprising that we hadn't previously heard of a small Sheridan Road establishment called The SoupHerb Gourmet. Signs on the walls near the back counter show that whatever this restaurant was doing from the late 1990's through roughly 2001, it was enough to win multiple awards at the Taste of Williamsville; there have apparently been some changes since then. Today, this small place offers an extremely short menu of soups, salads, and sandwiches, from which we've sampled enough to know that we like the place, but not enough to assign it a final rating. Updated October 19, 2009 with 3-star rating.
The premise at the long, narrow venue is simple: set down your bags at a table, walk up to the back counter before or after eyeing the menu, place and pay for your order, then have a seat. A few minutes later, a member of the collegiate-looking crew will arrive at your table with plates in tow, and if it's your first visit, a slurp or a bite later, you'll probably be surprised. Surprised that the salad or the soup is really good. Surprised that you haven't heard of this place before. And, if you're us, surprised that soup isn't a bigger part of your dining repertoire.
What did it to us first was the Red Pepper Gouda soup, a cup ($3.25) that should have been a bowl that should have been a meal with two bowls. Yes, we loved it. Imagine your favorite non-sweet spaghetti sauce thickened, loaded with ground-up red peppers, and mixed with small chunks of gouda cheese; then imagine having to decide whether to share that with someone else or keep on spooning it down by yourself. After splitting a cup, we were ready to order a second, and would have done so if we hadn't wanted to save room to try other items. It was, as the restaurant's name suggested, superb.
Twin salads we ordered were similarly unimpeachable. A Baked Goat Cheese Salad ($8.25) arrived beautiful and generously proportioned: a half-inch thick disk of slightly browned cheese was placed atop a stack of grilled vegetables; they were mixed in with fresh, cool lettuce and sliced red peppers, as a raspberry vinaigrette dressing sat on the side. Those vegetables - big pieces of eggplant, circles of zucchini, and strips of portabella mushroom - proved too much for our small appetite this day, but entirely satisfying as we ate as much as we wanted. The second dish, the standard Caesar Salad ($6), was the archetype of the light version we like, with literally just enough dressing to flavor all of the romaine lettuce, perfectly fresh toasted croutons, and thin-shredded parmesan mixed in. A slice of soft grainy bread was off to the side, only fine rather than good. Four other salads are on the menu, along with a small collection of "display salad" choices in a refrigerated glass case; these can be ordered three-at-a-time in a "Salad Sampler" for $7, or individually.
It's also possible, we found, not to be so taken with the items here. Perhaps, for instance, you love soup and have it all the time. Or you're expecting a lot of choices - SoupHerb Gourmet's list of soups changes, but there were only six or so when we visited. Or you pick something relatively common, as we did when we went for our second bowl: the Chicken Noodle soup. Maybe it's not a surprise that it wouldn't necessarily fire anyone up; it is, just as the name suggests, a bowl of chicken broth, noodles, carrots and herbs, albeit rich and hot in the way some of us remember from childhood, and served with a packet of oyster crackers. Those noodles are thick - not udon thick, but thick - and they're soft; the broth is unmistakably denser than the typical chicken stock, too. To be clear, we wouldn't recommend that the average reader make a special trip to SoupHerb Gourmet for this soup, but if we were in need of a bowl in a rush to take to a sick friend - or for ourselves - we'd stop by and pick it up here sooner than we'd make it from scratch.
And there can be disappointments. Mostly out of curiosity, we ordered the Beef on Weck ($6), which arrived with a small handful of chips that tasted better than the sandwich - dried beef on a bun that looks like it missed the salt train on the way to kummelweck town. With every bite, we felt that it was a half-hearted rendition, the sort of snack that you'd hope no out-of-towner would have as their first beef on weck experience. Yet there are 20 sandwiches on the menu, and this one was the least expensive of the bunch, with most at $7 and one -- a Beef Tenderloin -- at $12. This part of the menu deserves greater exploration, for sure.
So is The SoupHerb Gourmet good? Great? Somewhere inbetween? We're not rendering a verdict quite yet. But for a place that sells little more than light lunch fare, it didn't take long to make us understand why it's been around for so long; we'll update this review with a rating in the future.
Updated October 19, 2009: Though we don't have a lot to add to our prior review of SoupHerb Gourmet, we've visited three times since our first report, and we've had the same experience each time: a low-key meal with three-star caliber food. The place isn't fancy, its menu is small, and the highlights are basically soups and sandwiches - sadly, our favorite soup, the Red Pepper Gouda, has only been available on one other occasion. But all of the items we've tried have been very good: we've had tomato, vegetable, and chicken soups, sandwiches and wraps - basically everything save for the desserts, either in the restaurant or as take out. We've fallen in love with a grilled vegetable wrap, which has on two occasions thrilled us with the size and freshness of the portobello mushrooms, eggplant, and peppers inside, problematic only in the scalding hot liquid - runoff from the vegetables, we think - that always seems to drip out of its bottom. That aside, we've had no complaints here; SoupHerb Gourmet is a small place with disproportionately good food, and if the list of soups was more predictable, we'd probably be inclined to visit more often.