These days, people looking for someone else to cook them dinner have a kaleidoscopic breadth of sure-to-please menus from which to choose. Fancy or budget, there’s no shortage of Western New York restaurants designed to feed all comers, sporting menus expansive as trawler nets, aiming to sate vegans and carnivores alike.
At 242 Allen St., the game is different. Matthew Gunther, whose experience includes a sous-chef stint at Gramercy Tavern, opened the place in January with his wife, Courtney.
Deja vu kicked in as we sat down. In the space that once held Sample, Adam Goetz’s experimental testbed specializing in little, perfect dishes, another rare flower has bloomed.
At Bidwell, the only choice is whether to show up. The Gunthers serve up to 12 people at a nine-course meal each night.
How’s the take-it-or-leave-it approach going over in a time of customer empowerment? Reservations for May were gone in under three minutes.
What’s the draw? Besides first-rate cooking 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, allowing the chef to choose. At Bidwell, the palette is broader than fish and rice, including vegetables, meat, bread and dessert. But the essence is the same: The customer must give the chef not only money, but their 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 emphasized through careful cooking.
First, a warm welcome in the form of a wooden teacup of miso broth, earthy and umami-intense, sparkling with beads of garlic oil.
Cornell-bred Waneta potatoes arrived as golden chips, a homey note, alongside a dab of buttermilk herb dip carefully calibrated to leave you wanting more.
Followed by a triumph of technique, steak tartare presented in a peach-sized fluted tart. Wispy, buttery pastry held two big bites worth of coarse-chopped beef pearls, with crunch from juicy pear coins and mustard seed.
Half a loaf of sourdough bread arrived on a burnished wooden tray, alongside housemade cultured butter topped with salt flakes, in a glazed pottery dish. Bidwell’s dishware leans to pottery and wood, a rustic counterweight to the finesse. Crackling crust and inhalable insides made the bread a real risk to capacity, but I couldn’t help necking down my share, prodded on by the cultured butter, halfway to Brie.
Maitake mushrooms on savory oatmeal with egg yolk was my first savory oatmeal, but not my last, hopefully. More yielding than risotto but still distinctly grain, this was some primo porridge, especially factoring in bites of bronze-seared mushrooms. Richness from the yolk was luxurious but risked overwhelming the dish’s gentle voice, but this was the dish’s first public outing, and Gunther was considering much smaller quail egg yolks to compensate.
Steelhead trout from the Hudson Valley yielded another eureka moment. Gentle nudges of heat left its flesh custardy and yielding, a revelation after thinking fish ranged from flaky to desiccated. Perched on braised Oles Farm red cabbage and applesauce to ground its lushness, this was an all-star New Yorker of a dish, its revelation alone worth the night’s journey.
Then came the agnolotti, postage-stamp-sized ravioli filled with fresh ricotta, over the sweet hum of squash puree and a crunchy granola chorus. If you could make a lighter pasta from spelt, squash and cheese, I should like to make its acquaintance. Five dumplings, five sighs.
Duck breast, expertly cooked, contrasted chicharron-crisp skin against rosy meat. Three phases of carrot – pickled coins, sweetly roasted spears and bright, fruity chile-carrot puree – each has its own conversations with the husky duck.
Triangles of toasty, cakelike brown butter pudding, topped with toasted meringue concluded our ride on a sweet note indeed.
You won’t get these dishes at your Bidwell night, and that’s by design, but you’ll get something else good, as of-the-moment as the Gunthers can muster. The menu cited 12 farms, dairies, orchards, mills and a fishery in New York State whose work Gunther relied on in our meal.
Beverages, not included in the sticker price, include housemade sodas, beer and wine, including wine pairings.
Was I full? Yes, but not uncomfortably so. It was, as an old friend liked to say, an elegant sufficiency.
The relative hush of the room added to a serene evening. Bidwell feels less like a restaurant than eating dinner at your friends’ house, and they can seriously cook.
That said, Bidwell isn’t going to fit what most people are looking for in a bite out. Which is fortunate, really, considering that reservations go faster than Taylor Swift tickets. The reservations for June become available May 1, precisely at noon.
If you’re looking for a unique night, well, that’s different, in a town that has as many topflight gustatory experiences as Six Flags has thrill rides, may I recommend the nine-course trust fall?
242 Allen St., bidwellbuffalo.com.
Hours: 6:30 p.m. seating. Reservations for June become available at noon May 1.
Atmosphere: your friend’s dining room.
Wheelchair accessible: yes.
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