These days, people looking for someone else to cook them dinner have a kaleidoscopic array of safe menus to choose from. Fancy or budget, there’s no shortage of Western New York restaurants designed to feed all comers, sporting expansive menus like trawlers, aiming to satiate vegans and carnivores.
At 242 Allen St., the game is different. Matthew Gunther, whose background includes a stint as sous-chef at Gramercy Tavern, opened the place in January with his wife, Courtney.
The deja vu started as we sat down. In the space that once housed Sample, Adam Goetz’s experimental test bed specializing in perfect small dishes, another rare flower has bloomed.
At Bidwell, the only choice is to show up or not. The Gunthers serve up to 12 people a nine-course meal each evening.
How does the take-it-or-leave-it approach play out in an age of customer empowerment? Reservations for May disappeared in less than three minutes.
What is the draw? Besides top-notch cuisine with carefully chosen ingredients and a serene setting, what Bidwell offers is the rarest ingredient of all: the intimacy of surrender.
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The Japanese call it omakase, leaving the choice to the chef. At Bidwell, the palette is wider than fish and rice, including vegetables, meat, bread and dessert. But the essence is the same: the client must give the leader not only money, but his faith.
At Bidwell, that faith is rewarded with a compelling series of miniature meditations on an ingredient or two, whose intrinsic glories are drawn out and underscored by careful cooking.
First, a warm welcome in the form of a wooden teacup of miso broth, earthy and intense in umami, sparkling with pearls of garlic oil.
Cornell’s Waneta Potatoes arrived as golden chips, an intimate note, accompanied by a dab of carefully calibrated buttermilk herb dip to leave you wanting more.
Followed by a triumph of technique, steak tartare presented in a fluted pie the size of a peach. A steamy, buttery pastry contained two large bites of coarsely chopped beef pearls, with a crunch of juicy pear pieces and mustard seeds.
A half loaf of sourdough bread arrived on a burnished wooden tray, alongside homemade cultured butter topped with salt flakes, in a glazed pottery dish. Bidwell dinnerware relies on pottery and wood, a rustic counterweight to finesse. The crackling crust and inhalable interiors made the bread a real capacity hazard, but I couldn’t help but cut my slice, pushed on by the cultured butter, halfway through the brie.
The maitake mushrooms on salted oatmeal with egg yolk was my first salty oatmeal, but hopefully not my last. More productive than risotto but still distinctly grainy, this was a primo porridge, especially considering the bronze-fried mushroom bites. The richness of the yolk was luxurious but might overwhelm the soft undertone of the dish, but this was the dish’s first public outing, and Gunther was considering much smaller quail egg yolks to compensate.
Rainbow trout from the Hudson Valley gave another eureka moment. Light heat strokes left its flesh creamy and yielding, a revelation after thinking the fish was going from flaky to parched. Perched on Oles Farm braised red cabbage and applesauce to melt its lushness, it was an all-star New York dish, its revelation alone was worth the overnight trip.
Then came the agnolotti, postage stamp-sized ravioli filled with fresh ricotta, over the gentle buzz of mashed squash and a chorus of crunchy granola. If you could make lighter spelled, squash and cheese pasta, I would love to meet her. Five dumplings, five sighs.
Duck breast, skilfully cooked, contrasting crisp chicharron skin and pink meat. Three phases of carrot – pickled coins, roasted spears, and tangy, fruity carrot puree – each has its own conversations with the husky duck.
Triangles of toasted, cake-like brown butter pudding topped with toasted meringue ended our ride on a sweet note.
You won’t get these dishes on your Bidwell night, and that’s by design, but you’ll get something else good, as soon as the Gunthers can. The menu listed 12 farms, dairies, orchards, mills and a fishery in New York State that Gunther relied on for our meal.
Beverages, not included in the sticker price, include homemade sodas, beer, and wine, including wine pairings.
Was I satisfied? Yes, but not uncomfortably. It was, as an old friend liked to say, elegant smugness.
The relative quiet of the room added to a serene evening. Bidwell is less like a restaurant and more like having dinner at your friends house, and they can seriously cook.
That said, Bidwell won’t be what most people are looking for in a bite. Which is really lucky, given that reservations are going faster than Taylor Swift tickets. Reservations for June become available on May 1, precisely at noon.
If you’re looking for a unique night, well, that’s different, in a city that has as many high-flying taste experiences as Six Flags has thrill rides, can I recommend the Nine-Course Confidence Drop?
242 Allen Street, bidwellbuffalo.com.
Times: 6:30 p.m. seats. Reservations for June become available at noon on May 1.
Atmosphere: your friend’s dining room.
Wheelchair accessible: yes.
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