In July of 2009, only a couple months after we started Buffalo Eats, the entire city of Buffalo was talking about being featured on the Travel Channel’s hit show No Reservations. Anthony Bourdain made the trip to Buffalo (during the winter of 2009) because of two videos that Nelson Starr submitted for the “FAN-atic” season 4 contest. Nelson was one of the finalists but ultimately lost to Danya Alhamrani and her bid for Saudi Arabia. However, he made such an impression on Tony that we eventually got our time in the spotlight 2 seasons later in their Rust Belt episode (watch the Buffalo segment here).
After his appearance, Nelson became one of Buffalo’s “Culinary Ambassador’s” and started working with some really cool people to showcase what Buffalo has to offer. Along with his buddy John Paget (whom he worked with for his No Reservations audition tapes), they filmed 4 episodes of “All Access Pass“. It was short lived series but I was introduced to some fantastic restaurants; Chow Chocolat, Bistro Europa and Swannie House to name a few. I met Nelson back in May of 2009, a couple weeks before the airing of his infamous episode, and we had a great meal at Charlie O’Briens.
I reached out to Nelson earlier this week and asked if he’d like to be our newest Buffalo Foodie, here’s what Nelson had to say about his favorite places to eat in Buffalo….
Where are some of your favorite places to eat in Buffalo right now?
Nelson: On the higher end, I love eating at Bistro Europa or Sea Bar. Both places have such a unique approach to their menu and specials. Europa is actually very reasonable for lunch, say, and their homemade everything, including desserts, exudes a level of food-love that is practically impossible to find almost anywhere else. That place is a foodie’s dream come true. Also, I think the menu, concept, and bar is fantastic at Blue Monk. The execution is not always quite as reliable as I’d like but the intention of that place is brilliant and is just the kind of thing Buffalo needs more of. Having a distinct concept is huge with me – and is obviously the future of the restaurant business today. It’s hard to explain why Buffalo is so slow to grasp the idea that doing one or three things really well is where things are headed – and what diners, whether they consciously know it yet or not, are actually looking for.
Where do you like to grab a drink and hang out on the weekends?
Nelson: I hardly ever go out like that anymore, sadly. But, when I do, I am a creature of old habits when it comes to bars. I tend to wind up at Hardware, the Old Pink, Nietzsche’s, Mother’s, Coles, Blue Monk, or Sportsman’s. The cocktails at Sample are the best in town so I’ve quite enjoyed a drink there as well. I’ve been meaning to stop by Betty’s – but never seem to get there – as well as so many other places. My apologies to all on that.
If you had a friend visiting from out of town, where would you take them to show them a good “Buffalo” time?
Nelson: Probably to one of the aforementioned restaurants, augmented earlier with some Buffalo “old school” stuff (like Ted’s, wings, beef on weck, etc.). I’d probably go to see some music at one of the above clubs and then drinks at those same places. We’d probably end up at the Old Pink last – if it wasn’t a packed weekend nightmare. A super cool place to go earlier in the night would be the Adam Mickiewicz Library … for drinks and a tour of the Library! That place is a Buffalo treasure. If you need to eat late, Mother’s is always a life-saver – and respectable in my book any day.
What are some food memories you have from your childhood?
Nelson: I grew up in Ken-Ton just down the street from Ted’s and Anderson’s on Sheridan. That’s why I’ll always feel a special connection to those places. I used to get Anderson’s lemon ices when I was real young (never custard for some reason). My Grandmother would always take me to the zoo and then to Carol’s (a hamburger stand, long-since gone). Another favorite was Pat’s. Pat’s was just down the street (Sheridan Drive) from Ted’s and was an excellent rival. We liked it about as much as Ted’s, actually. Plus, it had this cool garage-style patio. It’s long since extinct. But those are my childhood places. As far as family meals, my Grandmother again was the grand dame of cuisine. Her chocolate ice-box cake (made with creme de cacao) was the best – along with her famous pineapple upside-down cake (so caramelized and perfect!). My Grandfather giving out strips of Thanksgiving day turkey skin – crisp and way too salty – is also a fond memory.
Food wise, what do you wish Buffalo had more of?
Nelson: That’s easy: really great, love-of-food and customer-driven restaurants. There are so many cooks and chefs that really do care but their hands are tied because they can’t afford “real” ingredients – and the time, effort, and budget (be it staff or whatever) to do things right. You can’t do food right if you don’t use excellent ingredients (the frozen and thawed stuff doesn’t cut it). A chef has to have great ingredients and those ingredients have to be prepared perfectly and consistently. Service, while important, comes second to me (mostly), although that could be improved greatly as well. These standards, when correlated to a well thought out, singular concept, can make a place a “to die for” experience. The problem in Buffalo is that you still have too many places trying to put forth huge, seemingly random, menus – where everything will undoubtedly be a giant compromise and where no staff or budget could ever hope to present those “dishes” properly. The thing Buffalo needs WAY more of are joints where a cogent style, theme, idea, region, ingredient, or concept is explored and mastered. Do one thing and do it perfectly – do it as well as ANY place in the world! The smaller the menu, the better for me. Just master that. Blow my mind. If I want choices, I’ll go to a Greek diner. I want art – be it Grant Achatz or the perfect fish and chips. High-brow, low-brow?…those distinctions are finally evaporating. A perfect, so-called comfort food meal can please me as much (or more) than most misadventures in haute cuisine. Yes, there may be a point to Buffalonians not being able to afford all these expensive restaurants. But then surely Buffalo chefs can and must figure out how to give them something they can afford – but done with a super tight concept and technique. Like chicken wings? Yes, sort of!
We’d like to thank Nelson for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. You can watch Nelson’s video “Buffalo: You’ll Eat It Up“ that was made for Visit Buffalo Niagara (keep a look out for more videos to be released). Nelson is a professional musician and you’ll be able to see where he’s playing next by following his website (currently being re-designed).