451 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo, NY 14222
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American Elmwood Fine Dining
"Even when the plates were less than ideal, they were still quite good, and to the extent that some of them really sparkled, they were North Star-caliber bright spots - ones we won't soon forget."
On very rare occasion, a good meal ends so well that we find ourselves anxious to return again immediately, and this week, we had one of those experiences at Nektar on Elmwood in Buffalo. In brief, Nektar presents a familiar American and Italian menu with atypical flare, serving meals that will range from and merit roughly $35 to $50 per person. As always, we'll tell you about this restaurant's look and feel, as well as some of its interesting appetizers and entrees, all of which contributed to a really enjoyable dining experience. But the thing that really sealed the deal was Nektar's desserts, particularly the one featured in the first of our photos, which we'll discuss below. We're holding off on a final rating pending a follow-up visit in the future.
Accessible But Upscale. Though there are somewhat fancier options on Elmwood, particularly up near Allen, Nektar does a good job of offering the sort of accessible yet upscale venue that Buffalo's known for: a small but classy bar and dining room that's worth dressing up a little to dine in. The cream-toned walls, off-white tablecloths, and dark wood furniture are all easy to like, with gentle curtains helping to create a secluded experience that feels removed from the street's hustle and bustle. Welcoming from moment one, Nektar offers good to very good service, designed to let patrons set their own pace, which keeps the meal relaxed and enjoyable; additionally, friendly valet parking is offered in a parking lot immediately next door, which is especially appreciated given the challenges of hunting for a space on the street in the cold of winter.
Appetizers and Salads. Nektar's regular dinner menu isn't short on beefy appetizers - a big steak sandwich, burger, lamb chops and ribs are all included in the "small plates" section, along with calamari, crab cakes, mussels, and a mixed plate of grilled squid and octopus, their prices ranging from $9 to $18, plus four salads in the $7 to $12 range. On our visit, Nektar just happened to be offering a limited menu, from which our group of four selected the Crab Stuffed Shrimp ($10), Stuffed Banana Peppers ($9), and two Caesar Salads ($8). A complimentary basket of crusty but otherwise soft, fresh bread was served along with a pre-mixed dish of olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette, a nice enough start to the meal.
Though all three of the small plates we ordered were good, the Crab Stuffed Shrimp was the standout: each of the two plates we ordered arrived with two large prawns, loaded with clumped crab meat and sliced red peppers to the point where they needed to be cut in half or more to be eaten, then topped with a little cream before hitting the broiler. The mix of gentle cream, soft crab, and substantial, crisp shrimp couldn't have worked better together, and sat on either side of a big scoop of surprisingly savory spinach. Even if the dish wasn't the most beautiful we'd ever seen, it was certainly one of the most satisfying little appetizers of its sort in town.
By comparison, the Banana Peppers and Caesars were good rather than great. Nektar serves its pre-dressed Caesars with full romaine leaves - a presentation we generally like - but also leaves you to cut up a garlic bread slice on your own to serve as croutons, which in addition to requiring pepper led to several comments that the salad required a little too much work. The Banana Peppers arrived on a plate that was dominated by a lightly citrus and vinegar-tossed salad and two more slices of the garlic bread, with the twin, medium-sized stuffed peppers sitting off to one side. We were hoping that they'd have a little kick, but they didn't: the soft, smooth cheese filling was almost sweet, and the peppers were nice enough - far less greasy than ones served elsewhere - but lacked for any spice. Considered in its totality, the plate of salad, bread, and peppers struck us as a good value, but the peppers could have been punchier.
Entrees. On a normal night, the short entree menu ranges from $14 to $28 in price, leaning heavily towards $20 plates, with two fish, two meat, and three pasta dishes, but the special menu was a little different in balance. From it, our group selected four separate entrees: an 8-ounce Horseradish Crusted Filet Mignon ($30), topped with gorgonzola cheese and served with broccolini, broiled fingerling potatoes and onions, the Chicken Oscar ($23), a breaded half-breast topped with crab meat and a little bernaise sauce on a bed of orzo, the Beef Short Rib ($24), and a flat-pounded, breaded Veal Milanese ($24), served with the standard arugula salad underneath. To the extent that these dishes are specials - variations on or different from Nektar's regular menu items - their specifics aren't particularly important, but we'd describe them as universally good, with little caveats.
The Filet, for instance, was tender and cooked properly inside given its medium order, though its horseradish topping was too tame to add real flavor to the slightly over-charred exterior. We'd order it again, but would have been happier if the meat had been cooked more delicately. Our Beef Short Rib entree was visually somewhat of a jumble, but our fork found more than enough large, soft, and richly wine-sauced pieces of meat inside, along with two large bones and a pool of creamy rosemary polenta; the broccolini on this plate, and others, was boiled to just the right stage of firmness, and a nice contrast with the yielding meat and polenta. Nektar's Veal Milanese and Chicken Oscar both benefitted from nice breading and little hints of citrus; our group really enjoyed the the soft, roasted vegetable-laden toasted orzo under the chicken, and the fresh salad along with the generous, almost entirely excellent piece of veal. We'd call each of these dishes a step or two under similar versions at, say, Tempo, but they were all quite good by the standards of most local restaurants.
Outstanding Desserts. Stopping the meal after the appetizers and entrees would have been easy, but in retrospect, that would have been a huge mistake. Our group ordered three $8 desserts, all of which are on Nektar's regular menu: the Chocolate Decadence was a pie-slice like piece of dense chocolate cake, containing a thick ganache-like mousse with small crunchy chocolate bits mixed in, plus alternating layers of semi-soft dark chocolate, and a raspberry, strawberry, and blueberry garnish. Though there are so many variations on the chocolate cake that could be praised as wonderful based on differing combinations of cocoa and sugar, this one was at least equally worthy of salutation: it was utterly elegant, strong, and delicious - the sort of really nice, assuredly chocolatey dessert that sits on the right side of the line dividing powerful from overbearing. A Chocolate Cherry Gelato, shared by two other people at the table, was satisfyingly creamy, but light on cherry flavor; plain chocolate, vanilla, and pistachio versions are regularly offered on the menu as alternatives.
The star of the meal was the Warm Bourbon and White Chocolate Bread Pudding, served with dried cherries inside, a small scoop of vanilla gelato on top, and a garnish of strawberries and blueberries. We've looked far and wide, so we can say with certainty that this was quite simply the very best bread pudding we've had anywhere in Western New York. Made with two large and lightly fruity pieces of bread pudding, the dessert was topped with a strong, delicious bourbon sauce and comparatively little hints of white chocolate. So much of the bread pudding served elsewhere in this area resembles overcooked and under-flavored muffins or french toast that we couldn't help but get excited about this perfectly cooked version, which in addition to a gentle texture had just the right amounts of whiskey flavor and gelato to serve as a balance for the moist bread pudding. It's big enough for two people to share, but each of us wanted to horde as much of it as possible.
Overall, Nektar struck us as a restaurant that does so much so well that we wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to readers: even when the plates were less than ideal, they were still quite good, and to the extent that some of them really sparkled, they were North Star-caliber bright spots - ones we won't soon forget. Our group agreed that the overall atmosphere created by the decor, service, and smart valet parking made for the sort of memorably relaxing night out we all look forward to repeating. We're holding off on issuing a rating for the time being, but we'd certainly call ourselves fans, and would return without any question, as soon as time permits.