Today my dining review spotlights China Star (4001 Sheridan Drive, Amherst, 631-7198), a generic-looking Amherst storefront hiding a chef who can throw Sichuan fireballs straight down the center of your plate. I say chef instead of cook, because his dishes demonstrate adeptness at subtler, more intricately balanced dishes than you find at your average Chinese storefront in the 716 area code.
One small but telling sign is the chile vinaigrette hidden at the bottom of a bowl of Chili Minced Pork with Noodle ($4.95) and ladled over pork-stuffed pasta tidbits in Wonton with Red Chili sauce ($3.95). It's sweet and sour, sure, but subtly -- underneath it's all toasty roasted chile tempered with garlic and ginger.
(There may be other places doing that right now, but I don't know of any. But I would like to: send tips to firstname.lastname@example.org, please. As restaurant reviewer, I see my work as helping lead a public conversation, not preaching from a pulpit. So I need to know what people who think about food are thinking.)
Having thrilled to the work of Sichuan-skilled chefs in Manhattan (Grand Sichuan International) and Flushing (Spicy & Tasty), I suspected that this fellow, who I got to meet briefly but couldn't really converse with, had other surprises worth experiencing. Show me what you've got, I thought.
When I ordered the "Sauteed Spicy Peppery with Crab or Pork Intestine" ($14.95), I said, "crab, please," because I did not leave the house that day intending to expand my horizons in a visceral dimension. But Lili Wang, the proprietress, said they were out of crab.
"I guess I'll have the intestines." I said it because I was willing to suspend my disbelief, and put myself in the hands of a chef whose name I do not know, but whose work I'd appreciated.
I was rewarded. In this case, at least, I added a dish to my personal list of things to enjoy every once in a great while. Or when people harrumpf that there's no good reason to cross the city limits to eat in Amherst.
It got me thinking. I haven't been writing the main restaurant review for long, but I have been eating in Buffalo restaurants for 30 years. There's a lot of sameness out there, places playing it safe with the chicken breast, garden salads and chocolate cake. Honestly, I can't blame the folks in charge. Restaurants are businesses, and the prime directive is to stay in business, providing livelihoods for owners and employees, so they are generally risk averse.
I wonder, though, if people aren't ready for more new and different than restaurant owners know. In the Internet age -- where people get hungry for dishes and cuisines they've never had, only seen on televisions or computer screens -- the masses can be keenly aware of what they're missing.
The Buffalo area has zero vegan restaurants that I know of (please email me if you know one). Only one strictly vegetarian that I know of (Palace of Dosas). No hardcore traditional tapas, a fully Spanish place. No Arab restaurant that makes its own pita bread. Portugese. Moroccan. No Peruvian place that slings tangy, smoky wood-fired rotisserie chicken.
I could go on. (Better, I should write a story about the great unmet hungers of Buffalonians. Send nominations for "The Next Great Cuisine to Obsess About Now That We Have Ethiopian" to email@example.com.)
But many of the restaurants we do have could try a little harder. I'm not saying offal is the answer, the zenith of culinary experience, but it's a subcategory worth talking about, a measurement of risk-taking. At Bistro Europa, Steve Gedra, Buffalo's Mad Hatter of Meat, recently sold out a calves brain special. He could do that because he has cultivated a group of regulars who would basically eat anything, fauna or flora, that he put on his specials board. Because he said it was yummy, and they trust him.
This is not to say restauranteurs should try to be Steve Gedra. One is enough.
But, dear owners, would it kill you to take a chance? To try to tickle some fancies? Maybe run a few odd specials that the kitchen's top dog really, really loves. Let that be enough reason to put their brainstorms on the specials board: the man or woman who's exhausting themself in the kitchen, making money for me despite all the challenges and co-workers and the snow, really wants to try to feed this to customers.
If those dishes strike a chord, you might expand on them. If that happens, maybe more customers might stop in, even if you're not on the way home and don't have a parking lot. If enough customers learn to trust the kitchen, you can sell them all manner of diverse experiences. Even guts.
It doesn't work? You can always go back to chicken Caesar.
(Yes, that's the dish in the picture above, a good dose of intestines for two to four interested parties. Photo by Rick Criden. Here's another set of China Star photos by Kevin Purdy featuring Double Cooked Pork ($9.95, good but I like Peking Quick One's better), Chong Qing Spicy Chicken (in review), and Spinach with Ginger Sauce ($5.25, a piquant, agreeable greens treatment).)