31 Johnson Park, Buffalo, NY 14201
Web: 31 Club
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American Buffalo Fine Dining Italian
"By contrast, the less expensive Roasted Kabocha Squash Soup ($7) was... proof that the more opulent-sounding menu option isn't always the one that tastes better."
Reincarnating an old brand only makes sense when it was truly well-known and well-liked, and the Thirty One Club (aka 31 Club) fits that bill: from the 1940's to the 1980's, the restaurant at 31 North Johnson Park in Buffalo was a favorite of our grandparents' generation - a place where celebrities, politicians, and well-to-do locals could enjoy expensive meals and drinks with classy service. One year ago, it reopened under new management as a "swanky, upscale supper club," featuring "fine dining in a classy environment," and now that the new restaurant has had a chance to settle into the old building, we paid it a visit to see whether it lived up to its predecessor's high standards.
A Little History. The original restaurant was known as "Club 31" or "31 Club" before becoming a tavern called Buddies, a transformation that eventually left the once classy venue in need of considerable renovations. Three and a half years after starting that process, the restaurant re-opened under the 31 Club name, and it's clearly designed to appeal to the same upscale crowd as the original. Like several of Western New York's steakhouses, it uses dark wood and mature red accents to glam up cream-colored walls; think of it as Buffalo Chophouse without the garish artwork, Black and Blue without the tungsten lights, or Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse with classier, smarter service. By comparison with these places, 31 Club is considerably smaller, with seating for roughly 100 people in groups of two or four, and there are touches - a spiral staircase in the entry, a somewhat awkward but ample parking lot, assisted by valets - that show that this restaurant, unlike the others, has shoehorned itself into a location that wasn't custom-built to fit its needs.
This isn't a bad thing; the new owners were inspired to decorate the place thoughtfully and tastefully, and have succeeded, with befittingly eclectic touches here and there. Dancing zebra wallpaper can be seen near that spiral staircase, and the menus alternate between seemingly faux ostrich leather and cork covering. Yet most of the 31 Club is as traditional as can be: the servers are dressed in buttoned white shirts with dark pants, and every white-clothed table has masculine silverware - even an angular spoon - plus a candle. It's possible to view the space as romantic due to the dim evening lighting, but it's equally easy to think of it as a venue where business could be done, as well. An ample, marble-topped bar and patio seating offer alternate scenery outside the main dining rooms.
Nearly Impeccable Service. Though it falls a little shy of the local high water mark set by Buffalo's Tempo, we found the service at 31 Club to be memorably impressive - the sort of experience we'd expect from a fine dining establishment looking for repeat business. Like the very best wait staff we've encountered inside or outside Western New York, our server displayed the sort of relaxed confidence and intelligence that 95% of this area's restaurants could only hope to find in their people - a charm of word and spirit that helped the drinks and dishes he offered to sell themselves, rather than requiring an awkward push or shove. Deferential and attentive, his only flaw was in twice forgetting who had ordered which dishes, first with the appetizers, then again with the entrees, a skill that top restaurants generally require from their servers; by contrast, an extended delay in the arrival of one appetizer was most likely an issue with the kitchen, and not repeated with any other item in our meal.
Specials Augment a Solid Menu. Though there are hints of Spanish and French cuisine on the menu, to describe 31 Club's selection as anything other than American and Italian would be to overstate the presence of the other minor influences on its dishes. The $17-$38 entrees, for instance, consist of two pastas, one roasted eggplant dish, two grilled steaks, and one each of roasted chicken, grilled pork, deep-fried veal, and roasted lamb options, varying from dish to dish between classic American and Italian preparations. Appetizers range from $7 to $17 and follow the same pattern, only with a considerably higher proportion of seafood, such as Steamed Mussels and a Pretzel Crusted Crab Cake, plus simple salads and Roasted Banana Peppers - the seemingly ubiquitous vegetarian option, here with a "hint of anchovy." Apart from Duck Fries - french fries cooked in duck fat - there are very few surprises on this menu; similar choices can be found at virtually any of the fine dining establishments we've visited in town.
Yet 31 Club's specials menu was, in fact, long and very special - quite possibly the most appealing total collection of additional appetizers and entrees we've ever heard recited by a server. Even when the items sounded familiar, the server's delivery sold them, describing the ingredients by point of origin - fried calamari from Santa Monica, as just one example - and we found ourselves atypically tempted by each of the options. As with the standard menu, the specials weren't especially exotic, but they uniformly sounded very good.
Appetizers, Soups, and Salads. Ultimately, three members of our group of four opted to stick with choices from the printed menu, while one selected specials, a spread that we felt properly represented the balance of options on offer. We wound up sampling both of the standard soups, plus two of the three salads, two of the eight standard appetizers, and one additional appetizer from the specials list.
Our group had almost entirely positive impressions of all of these dishes, though some were stronger than others. A high point was the Lobster Mac'n Cheese ($14), a mild but flavorful blend of gueyere, cheddar, and asiago cheeses mixed with soft rather than gummy elbow macaroni, all topped with a double claw of lobster meat and a gentle sprinkling of bread crumbs. Though the price might have been eye-popping for an appetizer-sized portion - one that was decent in size rather than overwhelming - the quality and balance of the ingredients transformed a simple comfort food into something nearly regal, meriting the premium; thanks as much to the smooth, quality cheeses as the lobster meat, it was the sole dish of the evening that deserved the description "excellent."
Similarly, a bowl of Lobster Bisque ($10) initially struck us as a little pricey, the orange broth arriving plainly scallion-garnished and receiving a small dusting of freshly grated pepper, but each spoonful yielded ample chunks of good lobster meat, and the soup nicely balanced the cream and wine inside. By contrast, the less expensive Roasted Kabocha Squash Soup ($7) was one of the most delicious vegetarian soups we've ever ordered, creamy and intense in squash flavor, with a dusting of white coconut shreds that provided a sweet, tropical contrast. It was proof that the more opulent-sounding menu option isn't always the one that tastes better.
The third seafood item we selected, a special called Dayboat of Scallops ($12), consisted of three medium-large roasted scallops topped with sliced peppers, carrots, scallions and cucumbers, served in a deep brown sauce that tasted like a rich wine reduction. Though we were pleased by both the quality of the scallops and the manner in which they'd been roasted - ever so slight char on the top edges, creating a slightly crispy shell for the soft meat inside - this was the first of several dishes we ordered that struck us as noticeably and unnecessarily over-salted. From the vegetables to the seafood and sauce, each of the ingredients was unquestionably delicate and interesting enough to stand on its own, so it was a shame that they were somewhat drowned out by all the sodium.
Better balanced was the Stuffed Baby Artichoke ($9), an appetizer consisting of four fried artichoke hearts loaded with prosciutto ham, bread crumbs, and asiago cheese, served with a simple arugula salad. The crispy, meaty pieces of artichoke were hot and full of flavor, obviously just pulled from the cooking oil, and contrasted nicely with the fresh, strong arugula that filled three-fifths of the plate; we would only have wanted for more of the stuffed artichokes, instead. Both of the standard salads were good, rather than special: the Crisp Romaine ($7) was a renamed Caesar, with three-inch slices of romaine heart - a little heavy on the bitter yellows relative to the milder dark pieces - shaved hard parmesan, and small white anchovies, plus a drizzle of generally traditional Caesar dressing, augmented with a little extra lemon juice. The Field Greens ($8) salad included spiced pecans, ricotta, and a mild rather than overpowering concord grape seed vinaigrette. Though it didn't inspire much discussion at the table, it was pronounced "very good" by the person who selected it, with a nice balance of ingredients; tomatoes were held back, as requested.
Entrees. As with the appetizers, opinions were generally positive across all of the entrees, which included three standard menu options, and one of the evening's specials. Consistent across all four of the dishes was textbook-quality preparation of each key ingredient: from the pounded, breaded, and fried Veal Sirloin Cutlet Milanese ($27) to the Bell and Evans Free Range Chicken ($24) to the special Roasted Duck Breast ($27) and Tagliatelle Bolognese ($21), the core item - meat or pasta - was perfectly cooked, such that the cutlet of veal was gently crisped but moist inside, the chicken and duck were incredibly tender, and the tagliatelle pasta was softened just below al dente, firm but neither hard nor overly chewy.
That said, none of the entree plates was amazing when considered as a whole. Take, for instance, the Veal Sirloin Cutlet Milanese, a deep-fried cutlet that arrived almost entirely covered by arugula leaves, alongside a bed of bright yellow, savory saffron risotto. While the veal sirloin was indeed well-cooked and huge, besides - enough to completely fill, even without its accompaniments - the breading was too salty, and we needed a drink refill just to wash it down. Another Italian item, the Tagliatelle Bolognese, consisted of long, ribbon-shaped pieces of pasta that had been mixed with a spiced red meat sauce and matchstick-sized grated parmesan cheese; the bowl was filled with enough meat, cheese, and pasta to completely fill a stomach, but was rated a "3 out of 4" by those who tried it, as the elements were good but didn't stand out in any way.
While the Roasted Duck Breast was a fair enough portion, drizzled with a very nice huckleberry jus that could have stood to be a little more generous, it was served with a considerable quantity of a creamy risotto that we found to be too cheesy for the sweet, gamey bird. Similarly, the glaze on the Free Range Chicken was so overpoweringly salted as to completely distract from its stuffing of prosciutto and asiago cheese, though the dish was served with more of the risotto - a better flavor balance, here - and some nicely cooked asparagus, rather than the similarly nice green beans included with the duck. In sum, all of the entrees offered enough food to fill and enough aggregate quality to satisfy the people who ordered them, but each had a little issue of some sort, as well.
Competent Desserts. The desserts at 31 Club were above average. Technically, the Flourless Chocolate Torte ($8) was what it was supposed to be - a somewhat dense slice of cake with chocolate ganache and a drizzle of pomegranate syrup on top - and there are variations in this dessert that can render it sweet or bitter, depending on the chef's preference. Here, the Torte was on the bitter side, so heavy on cocoa powder that each bite tasted dry and not quite sweet enough, simultaneously overwhelming the pomegranate. It would have been easy to miss the presence of fruit altogether here if it hadn't been for the blackberry and strawberry on the plate, which would have had more impact sliced and served atop the cake.
By comparison, the Chocolate Lava Bundt Cake ($8) inspired mixed reactions; it was a traditional molten chocolate cake with a soft core, augmented by a scoop of peanut butter gelato. One of us thought it to be a "treat," the cold gelato offsetting the richness of the warm cake, but two others found it uninspired - a very conventional cake with too little peanut butter flavor in the gelato. That the person who ordered it was pleased counts for something, but we'd be tempted to go with something else instead, next time.
And yes, we expect that there will be a next time. Our overall star rating of 3.25 stars is a consensus compromise, as group of four varied in ratings from 2.75 to 3.5 - everyone would return, some more enthusiastic than others - with most views centered at or above 3 stars. We were all impressed by the classic ambience and great service, and generally pleased with the food, particularly the appetizers. Regardless of whether it eventually attracts the power players who frequented its predecessor, the 31 Club is certainly a fine restaurant, and one of the nicest dining spaces in Western New York.