A review of Scarlet, a new restaurant in Downtown Buffalo, NY – Allentown, specifically. Dined on 2/13/09 and in good spirits!
“Eclectic Cuisine, Casual Fine Dining”
The very word conjures up silken images of luxurious velvet, decadent indulgences and sultry innuendos.
Well, at least for me, it does.
My state of mind revealed, when I enter a restaurant bearing this rich and almost sinful moniker, I expect some drama; a menu brimming with the most extravagant and indulgent foods, sending me over the edge of blissful ecstasy. My mind envisions opulence dripping from the walls, plush cushions and copious amounts of dense foliage. Add to that imagery, glowing reviews from a few family members and my expectations were high. Very high.
Walking into this restaurant that had set up my imagination so richly, I immediately realize that the owners of Scarlet had a very different décor in mind.
Since we eat out maybe twice a year, I expected the sensation to be something akin to not having a meal for days, in the fact that anything would taste ridiculously delicious at that point. Or maybe we would experience the opposite; finally an opportunity for a “date night,” I dreamt of a perfect evening, and perhaps nothing could possibly measure up to the high standard I was holding. Whatever it was going to be, I tried to arrive with an open mind, allowing my senses to take over; a truly primal evaluation.
We had a reservation for 6:30 and of course, as always, we were late. Parking is a nightmare on Virginia Place here in Buffalo; a one way street lined with cars, n’er a space to be found. Ever. Once we found a spot and entered the restaurant, we were greeted by a raucous bar crowd and…no one else. The crowd eyed us up and growing uncomfortable we were faced with the choice of asking the bartender where we should be or boldly head up the long staircase in the hope that a greeter awaited us on the second floor.
Looking at one another, we opted for the stairs, if not for an exit from the vulturous crowd.
Rewarded for our action, only a few steps up and we were spotted as outsiders and finally greeted. Our hostess led us up the very same stairs we were attempting alone and we arrived to the second floor dining area, a small loft area perched above the loud bar. Red brick and black painted walls surrounded the space of about a dozen tables. Above each table, clothed in pristine white linen, was suspended a white pendant light, bathing each table in an unreasonably bright light, clinical, almost; each one a brilliant island in a sea of darkness. A few lamps were red, but the effect was the same. It was different than the expected sultry ambiance, my misguided mind creating private and cozy little nooks full of flowing fabric and luxuriously draped textures. Sitting down, I had the eerie feeling that we were on display, each visitor a showpiece in an ever-changing work of art. In my everyday world of sweatpants and kidstuff, I was unable to relax with this spotlight kind of feeling.
Our waiter arrived and I asked for a recommendation regarding a Riesling sedative. I was given many good choices in a bottle, but I only wanted a glass. One glass. And with that information exchange, he crinkled his nose (really) and told me the available “one glass” choices were merely “okay.” I looked at the wine snob dressed as our waiter, crinkled my nose back at him and then ordered on my own, throwing caution to the wind. I enjoyed the wine, even if it was, just okay.
After “wine snob” was added to his resume, our waiter proved to be a shameless actor as well, playing it up for some and toning it down for others (us). After a while, I realized we were sitting between two very lucrative catches, at least from all appearances. The couple to the right were dressed in Soho chic, the couple to the left, Retirement chic. Both tables effervesced with the smell of money.
It was after this revelation that I came to believe we were becoming the victims of income profiling. Flitting back and forth between these two potentially high tippers, we had a front row seat to the debauchery. He would occasionally stop to take our plates, no words exchanged, merely sustaining our place. And then he was back to wining and dining, smile aglow, answering questions and chatting amicably. I would be lying if I said that didn’t bother us a little.
To assuage the annoyance, I continued my scrutiny of the interior. The high pendant lights were suspended from a cavernous ceiling, creating a stark effect. Echoes overlapped, but even there in the loft, it was very easy to hear other conversations. One couple in the corner was enjoying a discussion/fight and Retirement Couple talked of their evening. We tried to keep our voices low!
The physical menu was a gorgeous little thing, heavy in weight and beautifully designed. Food choices proved to be extensive, especially with the daily specials included, but abhorring seafood as we do, we were dismayed to discover that a very large portion of the fare incorporated it. Nevertheless, we were offered a few good choices.
Beautifully presented, we were served bread on a simple, square white plate garnished with 3 fancy dollops of flavored butter. I would love to tell you just how they were flavored, but we were not enlightened with this info. Though, even with my naïve senses, I believe that one might have been seasoned with chili powder. The bread’s flavor was different and very good, especially warm as it was. It was eaten quickly and we were left wanting more!
The salads were impressive and appreciatively displayed. Mike ordered the Grilled Romaine and it was large enough for a main course. The taste combinations were complex and very satisfying; a gorgonzola cream dressing with smoky bacon, apples and long, thick leaves of romaine. I requested the Field Green Salad with Warm Goat Cheese Fritters with toasted pecan vinaigrette. Wow. The dressing was unique and oh so flavorful and complimented the delicately fried cheese fritters perfectly. Truly, one of the best salads I have ever eaten. Another best was comprised of the little bites I could sneak from Mike’s plate. These were also served on large, square, white plates. Noticing a theme and looking around, every dish had this simplicity of display. Same plate, same color, different sizes.
Huh. White pendant lamps, over tables dressed in crisp white linens and food delivered on plain square white plates. Black walls. This is not at all what I expected in combination, certainly not the theme I would expect with the name.
At first, I enjoyed the simplicity of these zen plates, emphasizing the beautiful dishes arriving from the kitchen, but then I realized that because of the sparse décor, the plates begged to be exotic and gorgeous vessels in which to pump up the volume of Scarlet’s name.
Finally clicking, what was bothering me was that the depth was missing here.
Scarlet the color implies certain richness, intensity for the senses. Scarlet the restaurant, in décor and presentation together, was boring. Black walls, white tablecloths and white plates, darkness save for spots of white lights. Trendy, hip and chic, but lacking a rich atmosphere, this restaurant would have been better called something like, “Minima,” or “Bare.” And that is the exact opposite of Scarlet in my book!
As innovative and refreshing as I thought the appearance of chili powder in the butter was, I found it hiding in the homemade ketchup as well. That seemed like too much in one meal. It was good, but overused and killed the unique factor.
We ordered sandwiches for our entrees, a regular beef burger and a trendier chicken burger. The beef burger was excellent and left Mike very happy. I was unimpressed with the Chicken Feta Burger, mostly because it was logistically difficult to eat since all of its garnishes were slippery. It was a mess! And the flavor was disappointing. But, that is always a possibility when you order adventurously! I don’t regret my choice, but would never order it again. At this point, we even discussed the old truism that “there are no bad experiences if you are trying something new.” The homemade chips were good, salty and right at that sweet spot between crisp and chewy.
A few little side notes – upon walking in, we noticed a “fish tank,” really an ambient DVD projected on a screen over the bar, at our height. The choice of what was projected was somewhat weird and out of place. We thought, for the old brick and dark atmosphere, it might be better to use a crackling fire or something…sexier or romantic. A bright display of the erratic followings of a saltwater fish tank was distracting to me and seemed unbefitting of the character in the old building.
Also, either dead or dormant vines trailed up the brick wall all the way from the bar to the high ceiling. Dramatically lit, it was a very cool touch. Upon leaving, I noticed the décor downstairs was a little more striking for the bar crowd, possibly their more lucrative endeavor. The vine, splayed out at this level, “held” separate glass shelves full of liquor and appeared to be strategically placed to allow the mind to imagine they were fruits of the dramatic plant. Apparently, doing some research at home, this is known as their “Vodka Tree” and it is blooming with; you guessed it – all kinds of flavored vodka.
More expensive than we would normally choose, Scarlet proved to be a player in the downtown fine dining scene. Even though I had my imagination in overdrive, the décor works if you forget the name; simple and intimate. I was disappointed with the lack of “food for the senses”, but the actual food certainly wins some points.
Next time we might just go for the salads. They were that good, and why I would still recommend this restaurant to a friend, even though they might be so unfortunate as to meet the “wine snob.” We did tip him well, by the way, just in case you were wondering.