Verbena Grille: On The Upswing, Standing Out In Williamsville

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Verbena Grille (Updated: Closed)
930 Maple Rd., Williamsville, NY 14221
Web: Verbena Grille (Updated: Closed)
Phone: 716.580.3125
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"The Sesame Seared Yellowfin Tuna was truly outstanding - without question one of the top 3 items we've eaten at any Western New York fine dining establishment in years."

Though we could say as much about many other restaurants, we really weren't sure what to expect as we headed to visit Williamsville's Verbena Grille. Located on the former site of Daffodil's on Maple Road, this place had apparently undergone the business equivalent of Hurricane Katrina since re-opening in 2008: a well-liked chef and menu both abruptly disappeared, replaced for some time by a temporary staff that disappointed customers, then replaced again by another well-regarded chef who has had to rebuild the restaurant's reputation. Would our meal be great? Bad? Decent? We had no idea. With its up-and-down past and a relatively pricey menu, it's no surprise that Verbana has faced challenges in cultivating a loyal following, but as of now, it seems to be heading in the right direction. After a tantalizing appearance at the Taste of Williamsville, we felt compelled to visit and check it out, and left impressed enough to visit again. (Updated: Verbana Grille closed for good following another less than spectacular flame-out in 2010.)

To discuss Verbena without mentioning the building would do the place a real injustice: hidden inside a relatively plain and frankly uninviting free-standing structure is an elaborate, fancy, multi-room restaurant with the old school wood and carpeting touches of a very dark, very exclusive club. In one area, a long bar and fireplace sit near a gated wine room; in others, small groups of two- or four-person tables are clustered for intimacy rather than a collective feeling of service en masse. Acknowledging the darkness of Daffodil's, Verbena's owners have brightened up the place, bringing light in through windows and adding an open, now well-lit patio in the back for those who wish to dine outside. Everything - and we mean everything - has been done with the sort of taste and class that we really appreciate; it was great to see the traditional elements of the prior establishment preserved rather than discarded.

Also of note was the service, which consisted on our visit of two key people: a young but utterly polished maitre d' whose sharpness and attitude combined modern sensibilities with classical traditions of customer service, and a similarly young though comparatively inexperienced server who was either new and unsure or a little anxious during the evening. Both did their best to accommodate our group's few requests, but the maitre d's gentlemanly, lightly humorous gestures - a brief tour of the remodeled restaurant at the beginning, and a holding of the door as everyone exited at the end - conveyed a real appreciation for our business, and a sense that Verbena was, in fact, different from the typical Buffalo or suburban dining establishment. We haven't been this impressed by an overall mood of service since visiting Tempo, and that's saying something.

That brings us to the meal, which we'll acknowledge up front was a little inconsistent, truly excellent at times and somewhat underwhelming at others. It began with a complimentary basket of soft, good, egg-shaped rolls and pesto, and continued with salads - notably, outstanding full-leaf Caesar Salads ($8), which thrilled us with long, beautiful stalks of romaine, drizzled with creamy dressing, fried anchovies, and roasted garlic. A Grilled Peach Salad ($9) was also attractively and tastefully balanced with sliced, grilled peaches on one half of the plate, and similarly sliced, grilled onion rings on the other; a bed of field greens, candied bacon, spiced pecans, and a balsamic vinaigrette dressing sat in the center. The caramelized bacon was so good that we wished for more; members of our group vied for extra samples. Interesting mostly for comparative purposes was the $7 Field Green Salad, a comparatively plain plate of croutons, chopped greens, crumbled goat cheese and small red onion pieces in a champagne vinaigrette; though it's the lightest and simplest of the salads, this one received more attention than the caesars do at most restaurants.

Though the appetizers list is very short - four total salads and five other items including a Tomato Gazpacho ($9), different from the one we'd sampled at Taste of Williamsville - we did want to try something else, and went with the most "prepared" of the other four, the P.E.I. Mussles ($11), bypassing simpler items such as a Shrimp Cocktail, a Caprese, and an Antipasto Board, all ranging from $10-$14. The Mussles were presented nicely enough in a large white dish with slices of lightly grilled bread on the side, and had two things going for them: nice chunks of chorizo sausage from local shop Spar's, and the mussles themselves, which had roughly the same size and look as the sausage pieces, leading to little surprises with every bite. That said, the white wine, tomato, and garlic sauce was too thin and sparing, while the bread was a little on the tough side, and we didn't find ourselves sopping up sauce or enjoying the meat and seafood with the slices. It was a good, but not great item.

Entrees were similarly mixed, but there was one that was truly outstanding - without question one of the top 3 items we've eaten at any Western New York fine dining establishment in years. That would be Sesame Seared Yellowfin Tuna ($28), a plate that we would have never expected to be so floored by at any restaurant, let alone one with such a generally Western menu. Verbena's take was a successful - underscore successful, not ham-handed or wannabe-class - ode to Japanese cuisine, combining thick slices of perfectly sesame-seed encrusted, rare tuna with a bed of similarly sesame-flecked seaweed salad, big, tempura-coated shiitake mushrooms, and a pile of wasabi-flavored caviar. What made this dish work so well was its base of authenticity: the tuna, shiitake, seaweed salad, and tobiko caviar are all items that would typically be served separately at a Japanese restaurant, blended onto a single "best of" experience here. We loved the lightly spicy, less than overpowering wasabi flavor of the small pile of tobiko, the softness and meatiness of the mushrooms, the freshness of the wakame seaweed, and of course, the big, perfectly cooked pieces of tuna, which were glazed with a light mayonnaise sauce that we found unnecessary but inoffensive. If the tuna had been even a little more fresh, and the sauce offered as an option, this dish would have been perfect; as was, it was a "must order again"-quality option.

The response to the other entrees was somewhat less enthusiastic. Two members of our group ordered steaks, one a Prime Filet Mignon ($35), and the other a 16-Ounce Grilled Dry Aged Ribeye ($32), both at prices that we considered to be too high given the quality of what arrived. The Filet was technically a fine enough cut of tender meat, but lacked so much in flavor - even with a port wine and veal sauce - that we couldn't help but be a little surprised; similarly, the meat in the Ribeye was bland, and "saved" only by a grilled green and red pepper topping that helped make the bites more interesting. Both steaks were served with forgettable sides, the Filet a mix of sliced potatoes, beans, and shallots, and the ribeye a pile of garlic mashed potatoes; we came away from both plates with the impression that beef wasn't a specialty or even a real interest of the kitchen here. Our last entree, the evening's Pasta dish ($24), was similarly plain, though we chalked this up in part to a custom order - it was requested without the standard chicken - and didn't exactly excite its recipient. Both she and the steak fans said that they'd re-do their orders on a subsequent visit.

Finally, there were the desserts: first was a wonderful Creme Brulee ($9) that was on the expensive side, but managed to strike just the right balance of caramelized but not too hard, burnt, or glass-thick topping and sweet, vanilla cream; next was a dark, pie-like Brownie Torte ($8) slice that was dense with cocoa and more moist than might be expected from our photo, served elegantly with three raspberries and a stripe of whipped cream. It was fine to good, but could have been great with a sauce - say, a chocolate raspberry sauce, if we didn't want to be too outside-the-box. Last was the Cream Pot ($8), one of those modish "long plate with a few scattered item" desserts that we can't say that we're really liking anywhere we find them. Verbena's version did well on ingredients: there was a cold miniature coffee cup off to one side with a sweet, chilled faux cappuccino inside, two good biscotti in the center, and a dollop of chocolate gelato on the other side, all legitimately tasty. However, the gelato was already partially melted by the time it arrived at our table, and hard to fully enjoy, the thickness of the cappuccino cream made it less appealing for biscotti dipping, and so on. The elements were individually good, but had they been served more quickly and in a better fashion - more gelato, in one of two bigger cups, with another biscotti - we would have been pleased.

Overall, between its ambience, service, and menu, Verbena Grille has a lot to offer, though there are elements of its pricing and preparation that are still in need of a little polish. To the extent that we found one of the area's very best entrees here, as well as an outstanding salad and at least one impressive dessert, we're certain that we - and others - would have reason to return again. But how consistent the greatness is across the menu, and from server to server, remains somewhat of an open question for us at the moment, the reason we've opted to hold off for now on a final rating for Verbena. Rest assured that we're looking forward to a follow-up in the near future.

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