Buffalo and her Chow

14 Jun

Lamb with mint chutney - Frenchie: Paris April 2011

Buffalo Chow has regrettably folded again. The news came somewhat unexpectedly yesterday, when the site was essentially scrubbed of all content and shut down. The author of another local food blog, Natalie Eats Buffalo, sent a Twitter Direct Message to Buffalo Chow to ask what was up, and an epic rolling Twitter saga explaining why, commenced yesterday afternoon.

In a nutshell, Buffalo Chow went grudgingly with friends to the new Olive Garden on Transit, and decided that they’d review it, and in so doing order all the cocktails on the drink menu. They did – only a couple of the drinks were any good. The food they ordered, complete with clumsy un-Italian names, was “good” in direct proportion to how drunk one was. The cost – outlandish. Then, the aha moment:

The three people who had wanted to come didn’t enjoy their meals. But I did. And we’d waited way past our reservation, paid a ridiculous price for it all, and no one was really, truly thrilled.

I went to write it up for Buffalo Chow, and realized something. No one would care. This restaurant, as much as it represented just about everything bad in dining today, was packed to enviable levels.

My review wasn’t going to change that. Three out of the four people who had just eaten there would, despite their meals, come back again. And even I, the person who disliked the place the most, had found a way to make the most of the experience. The food sucked, but… so what?

And that’s how Buffalo Chow ends. In this town, restaurant reviews are barely about the food any more. They’re about the people and stories. The photos in the Buffalo News are barely about the food – they’re people sitting around chowing down on stuff that doesn’t even look good.

Local [publications] are there to tell you stories about the people who started the places, about why the ingredients come from this or that farm… [Does the chocolate in that ice cream really taste distinctive? No? Well, let’s talk about where the chocolate came from, or how the ice cream was hand-packed with love by an actual person rather than put into the carton by an evil robot bent on stealing American jobs or something. It’s ridiculous.]

@ccharvella writes, “Follow @buffalochow right now for an explanation of why s—ty chain restaurants are not the answer.” I have no issue with chains. For me, it’s always – always – about getting the best food. The rest is all storytime, all filler. Excuses. But around here, [while] it’s becoming storytime, our favorite restaurants are nosediving. I can’t even point to my own review of Chophouse. They’ve lost two chefs since we wrote it, and after two bad meals, we’re not excited to go back. Same w/ King & I. Sun Garden. Many others.

I love Buffalo. Love WNY. Want so, so badly to see this city and region do well, to embrace great food, to become successful again. But our system here is broken. Too broken for me to fix it. Too broken for me to start a business in the city and change things. Too broken to know that a restaurant review that I read on a local web site wasn’t written by a friend of the owners, or owners themselves.

@chinakatsunflwr writes, “@buffalochow amen. WNY embraces mediocrity, from food to fashion.” @chinakatsunflwr, it’s hard to know where the mediocre tastes end and the shilling begins.

From day to day, it’s honestly tough to know whether (lots of) people here don’t know or don’t care about quality food.

So for the people who read Buffalo Chow, thank you. For those who care about food quality, thank you. For those who can see [through] the BS that’s been printed in local media here about local places, thank you. I know you’re out there. I appreciate you. You’re the smart ones.

@nateatsbuffalo writes, “@buffalochow I respect and understand your decision, but you will be SO missed! I guess this leads me to ask: what’s next?” @nateatsbuffalo – I’m not going to string people along w/what’s nexts. We have two alternatives that we’re discussing. One is WNY-changing. Seriously on that. Like, huge. But it is highly unlikely to happen b/c of WNY corruption. The other is less ambitious and more doable.

When we decide the road to take, we’ll tweet it. Right now, we’re still discussing + exploring. But reviewing Olive Garden is not worth it.

I write reviews for the Spree, and they’re nowhere near as food-centric or thorough as Buffalo Chow’s. My philosophy of reviewing restaurants underscores the fact that working parents are probably paying a fortune in babysitter fees just to leave the house, and a place has to not only get the food reasonably right, but everything else has to be good, too. The place should be comfortable, the welcome should be gracious, the servers should be prompt, not in my face, but ready to help with suggestions for wines or specialties. I think the story behind the food is interesting, but only when the food is good. I agree with Buffalo Chow that the story is irrelevant excuse-making if the food sucks.

I had recently went to the Steer on Main Street in order to review it. I ordered a burger, the menu entry for which had a lengthy description of how awesome it was: “locally raised hormone-free beef house ground grilled over charcoal and wood fire”. Well, maybe it’s the hormones and long trip that make other burgers in other places taste good, because what I got was a machine-formed overcooked, dry hockey puck doused in a sriracha mayo. We also tried the wood-fired “pizza” and the homemade tater tots on the side. The pizza was a dry, floury, crackerish flatbread with Ragu and mozzarella, served in a rectangular shape and was done in an oven that was nowhere near hot enough, hence the crumbly, undone crust. The tater tots were overcooked and prepared in what tasted like borderline rancid oil. The meal was so awful that I couldn’t eat again for over 24 hours – not sure if it was the sriracha mayo or the horrid tots that did it.

The service? It was ok, but the food was so awful that the story, or the ownership, or anything else one might point out about the Steer didn’t matter at all.

On the other hand, there are some places – like Lake Effect Ice Cream – that make some great things, some so-so things, some misses, but they keep trying and experimenting with ingredients and flavors. To me, the story sort of matters with them because there are too many ice cream joints in town that blindly scoop Perry’s or swirl something that comes out of an Upstate Farms carton. There aren’t many places that make their own ice cream (Charlap’s, Sweet Jenny’s, and gelateria Sweet Melody’s come to mind). So, although Lake Effect’s cappuccino mocha may be a little bland, I’ve always been delighted with Date at the Zoo, chocolate, salty caramel, and Loganberry.

We plan on doing a podcast soon with Buffalo Chow, with input from Chris Charvella, who works in the restaurant supply business to discuss all of this. Read Chow’s entire post here.

24 Responses to “Buffalo and her Chow”

  1. Ray June 14, 2011 at 10:41 am #

    Years ago, my wife and I were in the cafe of the Russell Hotel in London, blocks from the British Museum. So naturally the couple at the next table was from West Seneca. All we heard was how sad they were that they had to settle for this gorgeous place because they couldn’t get into the Hard Rock, and how disappointed they were not to be able to get tickets for Cats (which by then had played at Sheas a half dozen times).

    The stupid, it burns.

    • Alan Bedenko June 14, 2011 at 11:14 am #

      The worst theater experience of my life was an evening spent at the Winter Garden watching “Cats”.

      Our seats were up in the balcony, and we were seated across the aisle from some possibly connected legitimate businessman looking types. At one point in the show, there is a loud “bang”. The gentleman across the aisle from me leaped out of his seat, ready to race for the exit thinking there was a hit underway.

      As for me, the whole time I listened to that nonsensical pop-lite music, I wondered where the hell the orchestra was.

  2. Sean C. June 14, 2011 at 11:12 am #

    I don’t know why you would expect more from the Steer, you are from WNY right? It’s never been known for more that a frat-boy watering hole with shitty food & service. I bet 45% of the revenue is from Red Bull with another 45% coming in from vodka. Buffalo Chow was good, we still have Buffalo Eats. I’d also like a to see something similar to urbanspoon but maybe on a more sophisticated level. 

  3. MJC June 14, 2011 at 11:16 am #

    I completely understand Chow’s frustration, but that is the way it is and the way it will always be – and not just locally. A sizable percentage of the population is going to enjoy Olive Garden, listening to Nickelback, watching Fox News and laughing at “Two and a Half Men”.

    However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t countless people who expect more for their dollar and who rely upon quality reviewers like Buffalo Chow to provide an uncensored glimpse at area restaurants.

    I, for one, found several places I now love thanks to this site. I may have never tried them otherwise. I say they should check their cynicism and realize that many of their best-rated restaurants are extremely successful. Quality does sell in Buffalo. Just because the new Olive Garden is successful, that does not mean that Buffalo is a culinary cesspool. Olive Garden is successful everywhere, probably for no other reason than their breadsticks.

    But we need voices like Buffalo Chow to continue to challenge this industry. Their departure again leaves Janice Okun virtually alone in this arena. And I swear she has actually been trying to write better reviews since Chow took her on.

  4. RaChaCha June 14, 2011 at 11:32 am #

    Wow, just how bad is a restaurant chain when *one visit* causes a soul-sucking existential crisis of epic proportion–? Like the old joke about photographing someone or something so horrid it would break the camera — how truly epically soul-crushing is a restaurant that breaks a blog — and blogger–? In one visit–?!

    The Restaurant That Ate My Soul!! Now in Pano’scope!

    And if the restaurant itself isn’t enough soul-crushing, the location is! In WNY, Olive “Garden”s are on Maple Road in Amherst, Walden in Cheektowaga, and McKinley Parkway in Blasdell. Following the same formula, the next one is due in a Military Road plaza in Niagara Falls. Good thing it won’t be in walking distance of the Falls themselves — or all those high bridges — or there would be problems.

    Visit the Olive Garden! We send your soul to the Hospital-iano!!

  5. Eisenbart June 14, 2011 at 11:52 am #

    What it boils down to is consistency and familiarity. If there is a genuine local Italian restaurant ran by actual Italians who have cooked their entire lives who make the most astounding food situated next to an Olive Garden most people will go to what they know. They may not get out much. They may not have the money. They may not have the time. When they are making the decision they ask themselves how much will we have to spend at a local restaurant, how long will it take, how good will it be? In the end most people will go to Olive Garden.

  6. Leo Wilson June 14, 2011 at 12:02 pm #

    OK, maybe I’m part of the problem. I like Perry’s iced cream. I think they put out a good quality product. Sure, it’s no gilato in Rome, but it’s consistently good stuff and the people that run the place are decent folks who pay vendors on time.

    I also enjoy a good, simple fish fry in a quiet little place that doesn’t have 30 people jossling their drinks over my meal, a burger that makes the lettuce shiny with grease and tastes like there’s a lot of cheddar on it.

    Buffalo isn’t Venice or Paris or even Marseilles in the off season, but it’s also not Salt Lake City where there are no restaurants other than chains and there’s no local cousine that doesn’t come with a dirge.

    If Buffalo Chow wants to write reviews about charming shops with brick-oven pizza made in a thousand years old brick oven and rows of rotisseries being gas broiled in the front window, they are making the right choice: go to Sigonella. Buffalo isn’t that place. It is a shame to lose another good neighbor, but neighbors are free to follow their hearts.

  7. Mike In WNY June 14, 2011 at 12:16 pm #

    I can empathize with Jeremy’s disgust with facets of the food scene, however, he is doing himself and his readers a disservice by not leaving past reviews online. They were a valuable resource for people looking for serious food reviews.

    Cats also happens to be at the top of my worst theater experience list.

  8. Kevin J. June 14, 2011 at 2:37 pm #

    I can also say that “Cats” was/is a theatrical abomination; I witnessed this show at Shea’s in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Of course, I believe Andrew Lloyd Webber is the Anti-Christ of 20th Century musical theatre and Broadway.

  9. Bills Fan June 14, 2011 at 2:46 pm #

    This Buffalo Chow guy seems real emo. Tell him to throw some Cute is what we aim for on and he’ll relax. 

  10. Kris June 14, 2011 at 4:07 pm #

    I think the buffalochow folks need different dinner companions.

  11. longtime ex-pat June 14, 2011 at 5:39 pm #

    Emo? The writing strikes me as more hipster: I can just picture the group setting off for Olive Garden ironically – no one with any knowledge of Italian food (or food in general) would expect anything other than mediocre from Olive Garden.

  12. STEEL June 14, 2011 at 11:56 pm #

    So there are bad restaurants that people like to go to and that is a reason not to write about good restaurants?  Am I missing something?  By the way American culture embraces crap from top to bottom – have you seen the grammys lately?

  13. Dan June 15, 2011 at 1:37 am #

    They go to new Olive Garden on Transit (so probably new staff and packed), already hating OG…find out that it’s everything they thought it would be, get mad at the entire Buffalo food scene, fold their operations, and blame society.

    Are they mad at the food reviewers, the restaurants of WNY, or both?! Why don’t they show everyone how it’s done and become restaurant owners? It’s easy to find problems, but more respectable to find solutions.

    • Alan Bedenko June 15, 2011 at 6:04 am #

      One doesn’t need to be a chef or restaurateur to know what it means to have a good, quality experience in a restaurant.

  14. Michaelrcaputo June 15, 2011 at 8:15 am #

    I, too, felt sad and increasingly disappointed in my hometown and the growing mediocrity of it’s environs – even the food. Then I had an epic transformation of my opinion over one meal: last night we celebrated our anniversary at Daniel’s Restaurant in Hamburg. Eat there. Your wallet will be considerably lighter but your faith in Buffalo food – nay, the region in it’s entirety – will be restored. Daniel made us a meal tastier than anything I’ve ever had in Manhattan, Barcelona, Paris, or anywhere. Go. Eat. Revive. You’ll thank me later. But I can’t help you get over Cats. Sorry, that shit is permanent. 

  15. RaChaCha June 15, 2011 at 9:22 am #

    Anniversary congrats!

  16. Dan June 15, 2011 at 9:40 am #

    Alan,

    Agreed on the restauranteur part. I just find it lame that he sees something that is broken (mediocre food and reviews) and began a crusade to fix it, but then quits because it’s broken. Where’s the resolve? Closing shop with OG being the final straw is a weak excuse. Americans in every city will (for the time being) flock in large numbers to OG. That’s just the way it is – you can’t make a blanket statement about a region based on its popularity of OG.

  17. Jesse June 15, 2011 at 10:45 am #

    God damn the disaffected hipster “Buffalo is so gauche” crap makes me ill.  Good riddance to snobby rubbish.  Maybe that’ll mean one more free seat at Louies.

    • Alan Bedenko June 15, 2011 at 11:04 am #

      Having met Jeremy, I can attest to the fact that he’s neither a hipster nor particularly melodramatic.

      Although it’s quite clear that Buffalo is a quantity > quality town when it comes to food. How many people go to Frank’s Sunny Italy for massive portions of simply awful food?

  18. JSmith June 15, 2011 at 10:53 am #

    Even the snobbiest foodiest city in the country has an Olive Garden overflowing with a 30 minute wait. I don’t think you can draw any conclusions about the inevitable culture of mediocrity in Western New York from this.

    Sounds to me like they were tired of doing the blog (again), and just wanted a melodramatic way to make an exit.

  19. Leo Wilson June 15, 2011 at 11:51 am #

    Last night I used this article to guide someone to Sweet Jenny’s. Thanks for the reference, Alan.

  20. bud boomer June 15, 2011 at 11:52 am #

    more and more i’m realizing that people are using the term “hipster” to describe anybody who likes what they don’t like….it’s kind of annoying.

  21. larry June 16, 2011 at 3:50 pm #

    what do you expect-this is a big fat lazy town-and some of these local restaurants could easily find their way onto kitchen nightmares- with the chains your getting consistent crap

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