3220 Monroe Ave., Rochester, NY 14618
Web: Next Door Bar & Grill
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American Japanese Pittsford Rochester
"If we had to pick just one course to repeat here in the future, dessert would win hands down: Next Door Bar & Grill delivers outstanding ingredients, flavors, and presentation for their prices."
Since businesses know that artificial scarcity creates the perception of popularity, we're always a little skeptical when a brand new restaurant has a waiting list during its first or second weekend of operation. But then, the Next Door Bar & Grill isn't just any brand new restaurant: it's the successor to Tastings, the restaurant famously opened by the Wegman family next to the flagship Wegmans store in Pittsford, New York. Name aside, the Next Door Bar & Grill is actually right across the street from Wegmans, and in the company's typical style, it's bigger, bolder, and frankly better than the place it replaces, though it still has rough edges that deserve to be remedied. Our extended review, left without a star rating based on the restaurant's youth, looks at the ups and downs of this noteworthy new venue.
A Room With A View. For the time being, reservations aren't just recommended at Next Door Bar & Grill; they're practically mandatory. In part because it's new, and in part because it won't start serving lunch until January, tables weren't available at normal dining hours during its first weekends - there were actually waiting lists for last-minute openings on both nights. But with a reservation in hand on a different night, we had no problem getting a table, and found ourselves impressed starting from the moment we walked in.
Complimentary valet parking and huge wine racks await patrons at the entrance, which splits into hallways leading to a completely packed bar in its own room, and a separate, expansive dining area with plush booths and a grid-like collection of dark wood tables. A couple of glances are all you'll need to appreciate the generally very good taste of Next Door's decorators; apart from some odd split logs and chains in one hallway, everything from the fancy Asian-styled restrooms to the main dining room appears to have been decorated with a sharp eye and a generous budget. We happened to be seated at a table near an active fireplace, but the focal point of the dining room was a three-sided sushi counter with a meal prep area in its center; cute and semi-private themed rooms on the perimeter bore signs indicating that they could be reserved for groups. Dining at Next Door Bar & Grill felt like a cross between sitting in Kitchen Stadium and a rustic but upscale American restaurant, simultaneously familiar and different in memorable ways.
Obvious Inspirations. Though Next Door's name sounds as folksy and American as can be, it's obvious that the Wegman family has a thing for Japanese food. The prior restaurant Tastings grafted sushi onto an otherwise American and Italian menu, and Next Door subsumes much of its menu while going further: it keeps the sushi and adds another Japanese section called "Robata Grill." Robata should be familiar to frequent readers of Buffalo Chow; as noted in our article on New York City's Yakitori Totto, the word refers to a special type of charcoal grill used to prepare separately ordered sticks of meat, seafood, or vegetables - generally one ingredient per stick - with the chef seeking a pure, tender preparation that won't require extra sauces or seasoning. Next Door's menu specifically endorses this philosophy in a brief note, saying that robata preparation "allow[s] the quality of the ingredients to speak for themselves." It was the robata-style yakitori that drew us to check out Next Door Bar & Grill; no one in Buffalo or its suburbs is operating a robata grill, and someone really should be.
Robata, Tweaked. Unlike the sushi at Tastings, which was inauthentic and unimpressive - a problem that mostly continues at Next Door Bar & Grill - the robata yakitori mightn't be completely authentic, but it's delicious, if too pricey by the stick. Most robata restaurants price individual sticks starting at $2.50, enabling patrons to make a whole or substantial meal from the grilled snacks, but here, the yakitori starts at $5 and climbs to $7 while maintaining the same three-bite portion sizes. One exception was Next Door's Kurobuta Pork, which seemed a little pricey at $5 per portion, but turned out to be two separate sticks of the tender meat, topped with a slice of apple and served with a creamy caramel-like apple puree. Yet Trumpet Mushrooms for the same price were small, meaty slices with a wavy soy drizzle, and a $7 order of Scallops consisted of three small, golden brown discs topped with light shredding of shiso leaf. Along with some salty Asparagus Spears ($5), the scallops were the most traditional of the robata offerings in that the natural flavors of the ingredients were allowed to shine through, while the pork and mushrooms were dominated by their sauces. Pricing aside, we'd order any of these items again.
Mixed Italian-American Dishes. Opinions were mixed, but generally positive, for the American and Italian items we ordered. Next Door's rendition of a Caesar Salad ($8) was impressively elaborate - a bouquet of whole romaine lettuce leaves held together with a long, thin slice of cucumber, one of a couple of changes that initially made it unrecognizable. Two fresh anchovies and a bundle of sliced, pickled red onion sat on top, while large fried oysters and a classic caesar dressing rested off to the side. The mandatory assembly process might be a little much for repeat visits, but made a nice impression on this one; everything on the plate tasted fresh, and worked well together.
By comparison, a Margherita Pizza ($9) was billed on the menu as having a "very thin crust," which was accurate but understated: it was like eating a warm, thin cracker with hot toppings. Rather than red sauce, the pizza had been topped with sliced, roasted tomatoes, plus an uneven layer of cheese mixed with shredded basil and a little too much salt, all of which made for a large plate that looked interesting but didn't in any way satisfy the person who ordered it. The name pizza anticipates a thickness of dough that just wasn't there.
We were pleased with our entrees, though smart plating went a long way to make up for vegetable-heavy portions on the plates. The Seared Scallops ($18), for instance, could be described less than charitably as a set of only six or seven medium-sized scallops surrounding an oversized arugula and bacon salad, but the actual experience of eating the items felt balanced: the scallops might have been a little too small, but they were deliciously tender inside, and the greens were mixed with pears and a light sweet and sour dressing that offset the crispy, salty bacon - it was actually pancetta, though the preparation made it indistinguishable as such.
A salmon fan at the table ordered the Salmon A La Plancha ($19, not shown) and received an attractive but modestly sized salmon steak atop a pile of cool shredded parsnips, apples, and horseradish; she was entirely pleased by the delicate tenderness of the fish, and the light seasoning, but disappointed by the small portion. She filled up on complimentary breads - white, wheat, and sourdough, served with butter - and an order of dark orange Crispy Tuscan Fries ($7, not shown), which arrived very late at the table in a nice metal serving cone, tasting overcooked.
Screwy Sushi. Given how much we enjoyed most of the rest of Next Door's food, we're nearly at a loss to explain how mediocre we found its sushi; if we hadn't had similar issues with Tastings, we might have chalked it up to a bad night. A Vegetable Maki Roll ($6) was filled with thinly sliced asparagus, cucumber, shiitake mushrooms and avocado, but was so oddly imbalanced - sugary sweet, with big dabs of wasabi in the center, and falling apart from poor assembly - that the person who ordered it didn't want to finish it, and two other people could only stand one piece each. An individual sashimi order of Sea Urchin ($3) tasted fine but dry, while Yellowtail sashimi ($2.75) consisted of three very thin but otherwise fresh slices. As was the case with Tastings, it's surprising that a sushi kitchen with a direct pipeline to the country's best supermarket can't do better on quality, prep, or portion sizes than this.
On a related note, Next Door's take on Tekka Don ($19), the traditional Japanese entree-sized bowl of raw, sashimi-grade tuna served atop rice, impressed more on presentation and small details than exploitation of its core ingredients. The thinly-sliced tuna was doubled back on itself to appear large and bulky despite actual thickness and portion sizes that were only decent for the price, and the rice was overaggressively sweetened, just like the Vegetable Maki Roll. Yet a generous topping of green wasabi-hinted tobiko roe and small cubed yellow omelet pieces added atypical visual appeal and nice additional flavors to the dish.
Desserts To Die For. If we had to pick just one course at Next Door Bar & Grill to repeat in the future, desserts would win hands down: they deliver outstanding ingredients, flavors, and presentation for their prices. Though we collectively fixated on the Molten Chocolate Cake ($7) as soon as we saw it on the menu, we never expected that it would arrive as a work of zen-like beauty, circular splashes of a port reduction surrounding the typical cake and atypical accompaniments: walnuts, two different crispy cookies, a ball of homemade caramel ice cream, and a sliced strawberry. The gooey-centered cake would have been good enough on its own, but the wine sauce, cookies, and cream took it to another level. We picked the other dessert, a Sweet Potato Cheese Cake ($8), expecting something more odd than delicious, but it too had surprises: the circular portion was sliced into stacked halves, each a wonderful balance of pumpkin-like flavor with a crumbly gingerbread crust, laid on top of sugar-crisped cranberries and cranberry sauce, plus a dollop of soothing vanilla chantilly cream. It was almost the perfect end to a very good meal.
Service Issues. That was the point at which Next Door Bar & Grill had a non-trivial problem with service - the second of our meal, after one of the dishes had failed to arrive on schedule. The credit card machines were having problems, we were told, as we spent half an hour waiting to pay our bill; a call to our credit card company confirmed that it was the restaurant's issue. Like our server, the manager who came over to remedy the issue was modestly apologetic, but didn't know what was going wrong or how to resolve it. What otherwise would have been a pleasant but expensive night consequently ended on a low note, though the food was generally good enough to forgive the bad experience.
On the whole, Next Door Bar & Grill is an auspicious new venture for Wegmans, simultaneously demonstrating its growing talents outside the supermarket world and its ability to scale its restaurants upwards as impressively as its stores. Though we're somewhat depressed by the new venue's inability to master sushi - a now consistent problem in its stores and restaurants, which will continue to be troubling no matter how many bad rolls it sells - its initial adoption of robata yakitori and generally impressive takes on non-Asian appetizers, entrees, and desserts are all worthy of a visit if you're in the area. Our hope is that this restaurant's example will inspire other chefs to install robata grills, which are both excellent and popular in Japan; perhaps we'll get lucky and have a Next Door that's closer to our own homes in the near future.