Semi-Precious Eastern European Food: Williamsville's Krystall

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Krystall Eastern European Cuisine
954 Maple Rd., Williamsville, NY 14221
Web: Krystall Eastern European Cuisine
Phone: 716.691.5797
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"Most of the entrees are under $10, the sort of number that lets an unfamiliar diner explore with little consequence, and a familiar one be gluttonous."

By comparison with Main Street's Prosit, which feels distinctly like entering the quaint old house of a European grandmother, Maple Road's Krystall Eastern European Cuisine is surprisingly conventional, and a little more upscale - at least, in decor - than one might guess from the outside. Only its name, the paper menus on the front door, and the surprisingly low prices offer clues as to how different the Krystall experience is from its neighbors: this may be a Russian and Armenian restaurant, but its two-page menu is packed with choices that won't scare away first time patrons.

The Venue and the Menu. Conservatively appointed with red tablecloths and white candles that happened not to be lit during our visit, the dining room's plain chairs and checkerboard dance floor are the biggest signs that this isn't actually as buttoned-up a place as it looks. One look at the menu confirms that impression: the decor would be just as appropriate to a restaurant serving dishes at twice the price.

If you know your Russian or Armenian cuisines, you'll see a number of familiar names - Blintzes filled with anything from red caviar to cheese or meat, Borscht, Golubtsy, and Chicken Kiev, amongst other items. Americans seeking comfort in familiar foods are given a handful of options, too, including roast beef or bacon sandwiches, french fries, a few unthreatening salads, and several soups that sound like they couldn't possibly be bad. In every case, the prices are aggressive: virtually every appetizer is $5 or less, with several at or under $4, and a few priced at up to $10. That'll get you a two-person Fish Platter - an assortment of smoked fish - while a Meat Platter sells for half the price. Soups sell for $3 or $5 in small or large bowls, salads go for $5 or less, and any of the 12 entrees can be had for $6 to $15. Most are under $10, the sort of number that lets an unfamiliar diner explore with little consequence, and a familiar one be gluttonous.

Mild Appetizers, Soups, and Salads. We tended towards the gluttonous, starting with the Armenian appetizer Basturma ($5) - cured, slightly spicy beef, served bright red and a little bit below room temperature on a plate with black olives and tiny pieces of lemon. The thin-sliced pieces had more moisture and life than the menu's claim of "dried beef" had suggested, with evidence on the edges of the dish's classic spice crust. But the heat was only a notch above mild, and the pieces tasted more like thin-sliced, slightly chewy meat than an amazing concoction - a more upscale alternative to deli meat that was good, not great. One of us tried to pack the Basturma with the thin slices of complementary bread our table received in a nice basket, but both were too dry to make much of a sandwich.

Two other items were fine. A Baked Piroshki ($1.50) - flaky pastry dough filled with lightly seasoned meat - was on the dry side inside and out, but the light dough was so delicate that we enjoyed it on its own merits, looking past the relatively small, crumbly filling. Similarly, Krystall's plate of Rice Pilaf ($7) hid chunks of exceptionally plain meat under a bed of slightly oily but otherwise nearly dry rice, attractively surrounding them on a clear glass plate with red cherry tomatoes and more of the black olives. It made for a nice picture, but the flavors would have been hard to pick out of a lineup.

Other items weren't as interesting to look at but offered pleasant flavors. A small bowl of the Georgian soup Kharcho ($3) featured a tomato and beef stock that didn't feel over the top in richness, yet provided a thick enough orange-red base to completely hide rice and chunked potatoes that were resting on the bottom of the bowl. It wasn't a challenge to the tongue in any way, its hot but not scalding ingredients going down as easily as any chicken noodle soup, which incidentally is offered at the same price for those who aren't looking to be so adventurous. Our advice: go with the Kharcho if you can't bring yourself to sample the Borscht or the spicy Solyanka - this is a safe choice. House salads included with our entrees were also as inoffensive as could be: sliced lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers with a little lemon, oil, and salt as dressing. Not a piece of the greens looked or tasted less than completely fresh, but nothing here lit the night on fire, either.

Entrees. We hoped for some surprises in our entrees, particularly some strong flavors, but each was again on the mild side, albeit not precisely as we'd expected. The Otbivnay ($10), referencing the Russian tenderized beef or pork steak dish Otbivnaya, was a set of two thin-pounded pieces of pork that had been lightly breaded and fried, then served alongside a dish of "Krystall signature sauce" - a red, ketchup-like dip that our friendly, attentive server twice deliberately left mysterious, beyond to say that it wasn't ketchup. It was so much like ketchup that it might as well have been. Neither the sauce nor the pork filets was anything to write home about - plain flavors, both - but we really enjoyed the side dish of "fried vegetables" included with the Otbivnaya; broccoli, mushrooms, onions, squash, and peppers all tasted so fresh that the slight salting and presence of just a little too much oil didn't bother us at all. They looked and tasted better than the pork.

A bigger surprise was the Beef Stroganoff ($11), which is most commonly served creamy, and often atop noodles. Not at Krystall: this version arrived in a strong shade of burnt orange - the color, not the flavor - due to a sauce that nearly left its thin-sliced onions and similarly narrow but numerous pieces of beef impossible to distinguish from each other on the plate. Next to them was a pillow of bright white mashed potatoes that you'd never guess from looks alone would have tasted as buttery or as handmade as they were. No one would have turned away this dish, with its soft, tender beef and sweet onions nearly melting together, but few would have guessed that there was any sour cream in the "special sauce," or that this was even Beef Stroganoff. We wound up surprised after all.

Desserts. Though the menu lists only ice cream, eclairs, a Napoleon and Baklava as choices - all $1.50 to $2.50 - our server mentioned that a Plum Cake and a Cherry Cake were also available, so we ordered the Plum one, along with the Baklava ($1.50). Our opinions split on these desserts: the Plum Cake used thin layers of pinkish-purple icing to impart a light fruit flavor to the alternating light and dark layers of cake, all competing with a vanilla buttercream frosting. A small piece of plum was on top of the cake, and a small chocolate bonbon on its bottom. One of us found the large slice to be interestingly subtle and generously sized, the other called it out as a little too dry and too weak in flavor. We both agreed that the Baklava, served three triangles to the plate, was appropriately sweet and nutty, but its phyllo dough was too dense without flaking, and the traditional drips of honey or syrup were just absent. Like many of the items we sampled, it was entirely acceptable, but could have stood to have a little something special to bring it (back) to life.

If we had to guess at the reason that Krystall Eastern European Cuisine hasn't made more of a name for itself in Western New York, we'd point to the flavors rather than the overall experience of dining in the place: this is a nicely decorated restaurant with an interesting menu and the sort of prices that most customers would beg for - made almost astonishingly low by gift certificates - but from dish to dish, there wasn't a thing we tried that was memorably awesome; the sliced Basturma beef, Kharcho soup, and Plum Cake were closer to comfort food than adventurous dining. For Krystall, that may actually be a good thing: Western New Yorkers seeking a first encounter with Russian or Armenian food will likely leave surprisingly comfortable with the experience. We'll update this review with a rating after a follow-up visit.

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