7566 Transit Rd. Williamsville, NY 14221
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American Fine Dining Williamsville
"We wouldn't want to issue a star rating or a 'preliminary rating' of 78 Degrees West at this point, but there's little doubt that this new restaurant's going to need some work, particularly in the kitchen."
Since Zetti's Pizza & Pasta lasted for only three months in an expansive Transit Road location before shutting down last December, the building's new occupant 78 Degrees West doesn't have much of a record to beat. But even though we feel obliged not to render a final judgment too early - it's only been open for a week, and certainly has time to improve - there's a possibility that this new fine dining establishment may struggle to match Zetti's longevity. To be clear up front, we hope that doesn't happen. In concept and decor, 78 Degrees West is a welcome addition to the collection of Williamsville restaurants across from the Eastern Hills Mall, offering short, semi-familiar American lunch and dinner menus, but between its dinner prices and less than impressive spins on classic dishes, we'd hesitate to return unless there are some significant changes in the recipes, preparation, and pricing.
Good News First. In the three months that passed since 78 Degrees West took over the former Zetti's location, the new owners have radically improved the restaurant's cavernously large interior, re-compartmentalizing the previously open Zetti's space to create more intimate dining areas, adding mini-curtains for some privacy, and bringing in nice new dark wood furniture, a bar, and most of the trappings appropriate to a semi-fancy restaurant. We say semi-fancy because the music was a little off - rock-pop from the '80's and '90's that felt inappropriate to the setting - and few of the patrons were dressed for fine dining, but it's obvious that 78 Degrees West aspires to be a hip, high-end dining spot. Besides the white tablecloths, a wine list - missing from Zetti's - and well-dressed servers, it has a cute name that references Buffalo's longitude, and seemingly the New York State route number for Transit Road, as well. Moreover, the service was strong: our server was friendly, attentive, and familiar enough with the relatively new menu to provide insights into the briefly described dishes, selling each with a zeal that was enough to push us into trying a little more. She was genuinely nice, and left us optimistic about the meal to come.
The Menu. We never begrudge a restaurant - particularly a new one - for keeping things very simple, and the dinner menu at 78 Degrees West is just that: one side of one sheet of paper with five "First Course" options ranging from $7 to $9, seven "Soup & Salad" picks from $4 to $12, eleven Entrees from $18 to $27, and five Pasta picks from $15 to $21. Each of the items is familiar enough in concept - "NY Strip," "Pork Chops," "Chicken Breast" - but the sauces, which lean towards cheese and creams, sometimes offer interesting twists that make the dishes sound appealing. There's also a separate lunch menu, which we discovered when our server recommended a dish that none of us could locate as a dinner entree; at that point, the separate single-page lunch menu was offered, showing 12 sandwiches, plus soups, salads, and entrees that largely overlapped with the dinner selections, only at lower price points. Our advice: if you're going to visit, do it at lunch time, as the $18 dinner Chicken Marsala drops to $10, giving you the opportunity to sample 78 Degrees West's food without killing your wallet. That said, as most of the entrees are $20 or more, the dinner prices struck us as disproportionately high relative to the quality and portions of our meals - more a reflection of aspiration and overhead than what was actually delivered.
The Appetizers. Though everything else that followed was uniformly met with "ehh, that's okay" comments by the four people in our group, the meal started out nicely enough with two plates that each contained three different types of bread, plus a decent bruschetta-style spread of chopped tomatoes, garlic cloves and basil that were fresh but watery, and not especially tasty. This was the most visually impressive part of the meal, and the delivery of one set of rolls for each couple at the table was a nice touch, too, but the cheese, Italian, and what tasted like pumpernickel rolls were only mildly flavored, a disappointment.
What soon followed were the Garlic & Gorgonzola Chicken Wings ($9), which we ordered because of our server's pitch, and because they represented one of the restaurant's several novel-sounding spins on familiar dishes. The wings arrived piping hot and crispy, but too light on garlic flavor and modestly dressed with pieces of goopy gorgonzola that brought both an odd texture and taste to the dish. Everyone at the table had a different conception of how the ingredients could work together, and looked forward to trying the wings, but no one wound up actually liking what arrived. A heavier garlic sauce and small, dry crumbs of cheese would have been a better bet.
Two soups and a salad followed, continuing the "somewhat off" pattern. A French Onion Soup ($4) was pitched as offering a unique spin on the classic dish by replacing the traditional baked topping of gruyere, swiss, or mozzarella with asiago and gouda to produce a "smoky flavor," as our server explained. Yet the cheese managed to look and taste unappealing - waxy and plastic-like - while reducing both the fun of a good, chewy cheese topping and its flavor, which was 20% smoky and 80% bland. The crouton, beef broth, and vidalia onion soup underneath was fine, but the cheese was such a distraction that we didn't really enjoy the dish. A Red Pepper Soup ($4), the soup of the day, arrived as a creamy, warm rather than hot base with microscopic specks of red pepper inside; it too merited "blahs" from those of us who tried it. Both were served with fine Italian bread, each hotter than the Red Pepper Soup. Finally, a Caesar Salad ($10) arrived, with iceberg lettuce rather than romaine, tomatoes on the plate, and a so-so dressing on the side. It didn't look like a Caesar, only barely tasted like a Caesar, and struck all of us - including the person who ordered it - as a poor offering for the price.
An Intermission. At this point, there was a pause for a momentary classy touch: each person received what our server described as an "intermezzo" - a small bowl of lemon sorbet - as a palate cleanser for the entree course, the sort of little thing that we generally really appreciate at fine dining establishments, particularly because it's so rare these days. That's why it pains us to say that the icy and extremely tart lemon sorbet at 78 Degrees West didn't work especially well after the creamy and cheesy breads and appetizers that had preceded it; we generally love strong lemons, sorbet, and the thought of a quick refresher along the way, but a physically softer and less tart variation would have worked better here.
Entrees and Dessert. It was at the entree stage that our candle of enthusiasm was ultimately extinguished. We sampled four different dishes, each of which tasted like the product of too little quality for its asking price: the Pan Seared Sea Scallops ($22) were described on the menu as possessing a red currant drizzle, but our server explained that they would come out with a beurre blanc and strawberry sauce. Either would have been fine, but the scallops were small, few in number, and inartfully cooked without visual, texture, or taste appeal - no sauce could have saved them. Jackson Pollack-like drizzles of sauce were splashed over the scallops and a pile of indeterminate cheesy vegetables and starch, as well as some steamed broccoli and carrots, none of which was good. A Blackened Salmon entree ($23) arrived more attractive but decidedly overcooked, splashed with a red sauce and accompanied by more of the same odd cheesy polenta-esque side and broccoli. The whole plate was low on flavor, even including the red sauce, but made a far better visual impression than anything else that arrived.
Our other entrees followed suit. Pitched by our server as the "special" item on the menu, the Stuffed Shrimp ($24) was an expensive little dish with six medium-sized shrimp that were more topped than filled with a very plain crabmeat and breadcrumb stuffing. The star attraction was supposed to be a set of three sauces - red pepper, orange blossom, and herb butter cream - but only the thin orange blossom dip had a strong enough flavor to compete with the natural intensity of the seafood, which had been plainly broiled to a decent finish. Even then, the orange dip added little, whereas the red pepper and cream sauces added nothing, and more of the same unappealing side items were off to the side of the stuffed shrimp dish. Last of the entrees was the Mac-n-Cheese ($11), which our server had accidentally referenced from the lunch menu; it's not normally offered at dinner time. To say that the assembled mix of penne pasta - not gemelli, as listed on the menu - gouda cheese, tomato and bacon arrived looking bad would be an understatement: ground-up Ritz Crackers were placed amateurishly on top of the plain noodles, and the bacon or tomato bits were small enough to be easily overwhelmed by the bland flavors of the cheese and penne. There was nothing deluxe about this item; it was certainly not worthy in flavor or looks of the initial sales pitch.
To end the meal, familiar, attractive-looking desserts were brought out on a tray: Creme Brulee, Chocolate Decadence, a Mango Tart, and a Mile-High Apple Pie amongst them. We took home a piece of the Apple Pie just to see whether it would top the rest of the meal - it was made with stacks of super thin-sliced apples, a thin, plain crust, and a fine crumbled brown sugar topping. Though it collapsed when we removed it from the box, and the flavor was only okay, it had just enough sugar to end the experience on a slightly sweet note. We wouldn't order it again, but wouldn't say no if offered a bite, either.
As with other restaurants we've visited in the first month of operation, we wouldn't want to issue a star rating or a "preliminary rating" of 78 Degrees West at this point, but there's little doubt that this new restaurant's going to need some work - particularly in the kitchen - if it's going to survive on Transit. Down the same street, the same dollars can buy a comparatively excellent meal at Amaretto Bistro, while fewer dollars can score a strong, homey dinner at Carmine's, amongst many other options. To the extent that 78 Degrees West has the looks and the service to stand out from its nearby rivals, it has a chance of winning some fans, but the food's really going to need to improve in order to justify its prices and the expectations they raise. We'll update this article if we venture back to give it another chance in the future.
Editor's Note: We have closed further comments to this review based on suspected astroturfing. Note that readers continued to submit a variety of comments, ranging from experiences paralleling ours to highly suspicious "everything is perfect" ones; we have declined to post further comments on either side.