Dollar Store Dining
Inspired by an article that ran in the food section of the New York Times a few months ago (â€ś5 Cooks, $40, 5 Dishes, 3 Dessertsâ€ť, 3/26/2008), YUM set out to find a restaurant with a chef game enough to compose a four course meal with food found solely at one of the city's many dollar stores. Always up for a challenge, chefs, owners (and incidentally, brothers), JJ and Kevin Richert of Torches Restaurant rose to the task. Armed with a mere $25 and a very small â€śpantryâ€ť consisting of salt, pepper, cooking oil, butter, lemon and garlic, this was a challenge that required creativity and resourcefulness...as well as a brave taste tester.
Enter Adam Fix, college student, Buffalo Rising contributor, and all around good guy. Those of you that don't frequent dollar stores may be surprised by what can be found there. Among the aisles of batteries, plastic dishes, craft supplies and lotions are small packages of basic pantry goods, a plethora of candy and other snacks and, in some cases, a refrigerated area offering up a modest selection of anything you might expect to find at a discount supermarket.
We chose the Dollar Tree location in the strip mall on Great Arrow and Delaware Avenue. It's a small store, but the Richert boys were able to rustle up enough goods to make up a meal.
First Course: $6
The first course consisted of a cold green bean salad tossed in a light dressing made of thinned sour cream, marmalade and lemon zest. Grilled beet and potato slices accompanied it, drizzled with balsamic vinegar and a beet reduction.
This was a nice dish, though the beans, having been frozen, were admittedly water-logged. Taste tester Adam felt that the dressing was good, the acid from the lemon cutting through the sweetness imparted by the marmalade. All in all a dish, that with some tweaking and the upgrade of fresh green beans, is a good one. Chef Kevin recommends marinating canned whole potatoes in Buffaloâ€™s own Chiavetta's sauce, and cooking them, skewered, on the grill. They're a budget conscious item that has proven to be a big hit at their home cookouts.
Second Course: $3
The second course was the clear winner. We've all had our share of ramen noodles, and Adam, being a college student, isn't too far removed from his noodle experiences to appreciate the transformation crafted by the Richerts. I've never seen ramen quite like this before, Chef JJ showed me the light plastic package, which could also be used as a cooking vessel in the microwave. Inside lay the ramen noodles, a fork, a foil seasoning package marked â€śCHICKENâ€ť, and two clear packages, one containing dried scallions and peas and another holding a combination of sesame oil and soy sauce.
The noodles were par-boiled, thoroughly drained, and then tossed in a hot wok with the contents of the sauce packet and some of the frozen broccoli and green beans. Served with the deep fried breaded shrimp (which tasted almost entirely of breading) and some of the sweet chile sauce, it was actually very good. Adam pointed out that students spend a lot of money on take-out Chinese food, food that isn't nearly as good as this. The investment in an inexpensive table top deep fryer or a decent wok could easily be compensated for by the ability to prepare good and inexpensive approximations of cheap Chinese food at home.
Third Course: $8
The third course was a little scary. Beef roulade stuffed with casino-style clam, wrapped with bacon and served on a crusty slice of grilled garlic bread. It paled in comparison to the previous course. Despite 24 hours in marinade, the beef--a small and thin cut to begin with--was chewy and, well, creepy. The bacon was its only saving grace. I can't say that Adam was any more eager to dive into this dish than I was. At some point, no amount of skill can cover up an ingredient of very poor quality, though the Richerts gave it a good try. Much tastier was the broccoli gratin that accompanied it, made with frozen broccoli, white American cheese slices and a garlic breadcrumb topping, it was salty and rich.
The flounder that shared the plate was good; breaded with chopped pistachios and garlic breadcrumbs, it was served with some of the sour cream, marmalade and lemon zest sauce used to dress the green beans in the first course. It was well repared and better than many of the fish fries served at local restaurants.
Fourth Course: $8
The fourth course seemed a relatively safe bet, no proteins with suspicious origins here. A milkshake made of Strawberry Whoppers and strawberry ice cream was tasty, though of an odd texture. JJ explained that the ice cream was full of ice crystals and had little or no milk in it. It didn't seem to bother Adam, who enjoyed it and the flamingo straw and miniature glass the Richert boys served it in (also from the dollar store). A tart shell made of crushed almond cookies and butter was really good, especially with the coating of melted milk chocolate used to keep it from getting soggy. Topped with non-dairy vanilla pudding it was garnished with a cappuccino tuile and a chocolate leaf made by painting a real leaf from the Richertâ€™s yard with melted chocolate. It was a nice presentation of a pretty simple concept.
Certainly anyone can craft a good meal with $25 and a quick stop at the supermarket, but the limitations of using ingredients whose individual value is no more than $1 is a challenge indeed. The Richerts were quick to point out how many of the ingredients would have prepared portions suited to a family of four, or in some cases, even six. â€śThis isn't much different than what I do at home,â€ť stated JJ, â€śI hunt around in the cupboard, make things with canned goods. And by the wayâ€”that sweet chile sauce was some pretty good stuff. So were those Strawberry Whoppers. I had to go out this morning and buy some more.â€ť
Torches is a fine dining restaurant with a thoughtful and interesting menu featuring high-quality products.
1141 Kenmore Avenue, Buffalo 14217