Torches Thrills the Palate With Engaging Cuisine
Open for just a few short weeks in the former home of the venerable Tsunami, Torches has already developed a good buzz. With no advertising or formal announcement, the word of their opening, menu and quality of service quickly spread throughout the culinary community. This excitement led to a steady flow of curious and hungry guests within the first week.
The outside of the building hasn’t been altered much with the exception of a few blazing torches trimming the roofline and a forged metal sign which spells out the establishment’s name. The interior, on the other hand, has changed quite a bit. As you move from the foyer into the waiting area, you enter a wide corridor with a banquette and a few small slate tables running along the right side of the wall. This little row of seats provides both a nice alternative to the typical waiting area at a restaurant and a simple space in which to share drinks and appetizers or dessert with a companion. At the end of the corridor stands a large, walk-in wine room made of glass and filled with glittering bottles.
The dining room is divided in two by a wall with wide doorways on each end. Both sides are painted in shades of merlot and a soft white/gray. In the front half of the restaurant, the evening sun streams into the space, accentuating the crisp decor. The rear room is cozy, housing a few tables and the bar, which is just large enough to entertain a decent crowd of drinkers without disturbing the diners seated at tables.
The menu is eclectic, and in some cases even eccentric, but make no mistake, Torches offers guests serious food. The salads are artfully composed. The caprese has been turned into a puzzle, the tomato deconstructed, layered with basil and then pieced together again. Small ciliegini mozzarella stand to the side of soft red onions drizzled in basil infused olive oil. It is beautiful and good tasting, the onion full of flavor and thankfully lacking the expected bite. The rest of the ingredients would loose their charm in the face of a bright, fiery onion. “Mixed Greens” is the moniker assigned to another salad, an instance where the term “understatement” is more than appropriate. Topped with prosciutto, fresh figs and Maytag bleu cheese, it is perhaps one of our regions most divine offerings available for only $7. A house salad and Caesar are also represented.
The “Light Beginnings” portion of the menu lists seven appetizers, all of which cost under $11, more than half of which come in at $8 or less. Some of them are satisfying enough to qualify as meals. You’ll find delicate, rich scallops perfectly seared and served with a smoky bacon beurre blanc and fresh, barely-steamed green beans.
There are crispy chicken wings basted with Asian barbeque sauce and then char-grilled, the method imparting the remarkable and complex flavor that only a charcoal grill can. If you’re saddened by the lack of Frank’s Red Hot on these wings, have no fear, it’s been put to better use on another plate where it and a mild three pepper jelly team up to dress grilled shrimp and thick slices of andouille sausage.
Torches has developed two of its many delicious appetizers with such mastery that we ordered them twice during our numerous visits. The first is the risotto arancini. Arancini is a Sicilian dish where rice, stuffed with any number of fillings, is formed into a ball, breaded and fried. At Torches, that perfectly prepared rice is folded around smoked ham, mozzarella and mashed peas then coated in panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) and deep-fried. Served atop a plate featuring two sauces, one of charred tomato, the other of smoked ham and pea puree, each sauce occupies half of the plate in a brilliant display of vibrant color. On both occasions the arancini were executed perfectly, all of the components working in harmony while maintaining their individual textures and flavors.
The second appetizer easily worth eating twice in less than 24 hours is handmade gnocchi; sautéed with shitake mushrooms and tossed in a creamy tomato-sage sauce and Gorgonzola. These gnocchi are unlike any I have ever had. They literally dissolve in your mouth, so tender they don’t require mastication; the flavors simply glide over your taste buds. The mushrooms are sautéed perfectly, their pleasant, slightly spongy texture making them the delicate gnocchi’s ideal evil twin.
Appetizers are often a chef’s playground, there they have room to take risks and show off their versatility, and customers, due to the smaller monetary investment are willing to be more adventurous than they are with a larger, pricier entrée. But at Torches the pasta menu is where we clearly see the multi-faceted nature of our hosts.
Big Easy penne encapsulates the feisty flavors of New Orleans, with andouille, chicken, shrimp, peppers and onions all tossed in a Creole tomato sauce. Shrimp and garlic are the stars of the second offering, a carbonara with sautéed pancetta, onion, egg, white wine and angel hair. Even more surprising is the appearance of Vegetable Lo Mein, made with really fresh ingredients it stands head and shoulders above the fare found at the average Chinese restaurant. Closing out the pasta offerings, and perhaps placing “Best in Show”, is the Nickel City Mac and Cheese. Here elbow macaroni is served in a bleu cheese Alfredo sauce with Goldfish cracker crusted chicken, sundried tomatoes and green onion, then topped with breadcrumbs and broiled to perfection.
For those with enough discipline to reserve room for the main course, there are a number of very good choices. I did not taste them all; I instead opted for the three that stood out the most—things I had never seen on a menu in any of our local fine dining establishments. Kung Pao Chicken makes an appearance, and it is really very good. The more-than-ample serving of stir-fried chicken, vegetables, peanuts, spicy peppers and authentic fried rice is prepared with a flavorful ginger soy sauce. At only $12, it may be the best deal on the menu. And, if you don’t like peppers, don’t allow trepidation to deter you, they impart only an overall mild heat and are whole making them easy to avoid if one so desires.
The pork porterhouse is not only an unusual offering—it’s delicious. I suggest that you order it medium rare if you’re looking for optimal flavor and texture. Char-grilled to perfection (at Torches this is a method they seem to know exactly how and where to use), it is glazed with blackstrap molasses and served with a soy ginger peach barbeque sauce.
My third entrée experience was perhaps my favorite. Lamb tenderloins are steeped in marinade and flawlessly grilled to the ideal temperature. The sauce, made of Meyer lemons, was a perfect complement to the tender, smoky lamb and accompanying browned onion kugel.
There are a number of other selections, including salmon and ahi, but the filet mignon is thrice as nice. Served in a trio, three 3oz. tenderloins are topped with lobster butter, and share the plate with three seared scallops and three large Cajun grilled shrimp.
Dessert is lovely. With a name like Torches, it is no surprise that the luscious crème brulee arrives at your table un-scathed. That task is reserved for the waiter who carries a small torch, caramelizing the custard tableside. This process not only ensures that the guest gets a little floor show, but that the temperature and texture of the upper crust is not compromised by the trip from the kitchen to the table. On one of our visits, dessert options included a rich chai tea cheesecake served with a tuile, a scattering of fresh blueberries and caramel sauce. Deep-fried ice cream is also available, something of a novelty in WNY. Torches’ over-the-top version calls for a slice of Carvel ice cream cake (replete with all of those especially nice chocolaty crunchy bits) rolled in crushed Cinnamon Life cereal and flash fried. The result is a sweet, brittle outside and a cold creamy inside. Delicious!
Torches is the brainchild of brothers/chefs/owners JJ and Kevin Richert. Together they’ve opened the doors to a restaurant arguably dissimilar to anything else currently seen in Buffalo. “The way I see it,” JJ tells me, “is that you make really good food, treat people well and the rest will speak for itself.” Formerly, JJ was the chef at Prime 490, but left to pursue this dream with brother, Kevin and fiancée, Cynthia Berends. He and Kevin, his junior by a little over a year, first worked together in the kitchen at Nektar.
They found that their cooking styles and methods worked well together and hoped for an opportunity to open a place of their own. The Richerts are young, exuberant and passionate about food. A glance at the menu reveals an appreciation for humor and the rare trait of not taking themselves and their food too seriously. I asked them to try and nail down the kind of cuisine their offering. “We don’t want to be a cookie cutter restaurant. We don’t want to put a title on anything because we don’t want to limit ourselves. This way we are free to do what we want, to be creative and not get bored.” With that attitude and the help of sous chef and friend, John Mederski, the kitchen at Torches is sure to progress in its efforts to develop vibrant, innovative cuisine.
It was a brave move to open a restaurant in a location so laden with the spirit of its former incarnation (Tsunami), and the hopeful yet skeptical gaze of that business’ devoted clientele. “Both of us had the best meals of our life in this restaurant, when it was Tsunami. We feel very fortunate to have this opportunity to turn our life-long dream into a reality. We would like to extend a special thank you to Mike Andrejewski, Buffalo’s greatest chef (and owner of Tsunami).”
Torches is a fresh and inspiring addition to the Buffalo restaurant scene. “What makes you different?” I ask. “We aren’t willing to compromise quality, we offer a unique atmosphere, and that, combined with our shared passion and desire to be successful makes us different.”
Technique, skill and knowledgebase aside, JJ and Kevin come across more like Harley-riding rock stars than chefs, but if anything, that’s what sets them and their artfully crafted food apart from the
1141 Kenmore Avenue, 14217