kids timberland Creativity abounds at Oshun
Among the charms of Oshun, the new downtown restaurant, is hearing guests perk up when you give directions, naming the landmarks that signal its location. Tell people you’ll meet them between the Electric Tower and the Goldome building, and even Buffalo rookies can find the place.
Once I stepped inside, and took in the long room lined with lit murals, before I even scanned the menu of adventurous seafood centered dishes and eight different oyster varieties, I found myself asking, “This is Buffalo?”
It is difficult to explain why a sleek, ambitious restaurant in downtown Buffalo felt so surprising. I had even seen photos. Perhaps my ingrained cynicism, a certain resistance to the “downtown Buffalo revival” storyline, was showing.
Oshun kitchen manager Brett Brennan presents crispy pork cutlets and a cabbage roll with tomato bacon sauce and kohlrabi. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)
Whatever it was, Oshun has heard a lot of “Ohs” as people step into a space perhaps better known as a shoe store. The bar is to the right, the dining room on the left, with booths and tables and tall glass windows at the corner to take in the cityscape.
Seats are available at an oyster bar, where a blackboard lists the available oysters and other seafood specials. Behind glass, shuckers work on orders of bivalves, which are piled on mountains of shaved ice. An open kitchen reveals cooks hustling to give waiting servers the plates they need.
Despite the big city feel, the pricing is still Buffalo, with nothing over $17.
Chef owner Jim Guarino, who started with Shango Bistro in University Heights, has divided his menu into bivalves, cephalopods, crustaceans and fish, both warm and cold. Meat and “vegetables and grains” appear, too, though there’s no directly vegetarian entree. He noticed me while shucking and came over to say hello.
The oyster bar at Oshun, Jim Guarino’s restaurant that specializes in seafood in downtown Buffalo. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)
If your ideal seafood treatment is minimal intervention, Oshun will either convert you, or make you angry. Most dishes I tried exhibited overt creativity, with unexpected ingredients. That can be a blessing, or a curse, depending on your palate, and the dish.
Delicious successes included an appetizer of seared bay scallops ($10) over coconut rice with tangy tomatillos and freshly popped corn. It was bizarre to look at, one bite scallops hidden under a snowy blanket. I found it an engaging detour through sweet and sour, soft and crunchy, with popcorn an odd but able companion to tender nubs of seafood.
If that sounds just too freaky, I commend the fried catfish ($12) to your attention. Often muddy in flavor, these filets were cast in a wispy crust and raised up with smoky bacon vinaigrette that was so terrific I wondered why I never had it before. It was served with a fresh slaw of chayote, radish and scallion, which helped cut its richness.
Shrimp with cornbread, melon balls, coffee sauce and jalapeo ($12) was another off the charts combination whose flavors pleased. Sweetness from melon, a bitter note from coffee, and shaved red onion framed the plump shrimp well.
The whole roasted rainbow trout with grilled pear salad and Manchego cheese. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)
Fried calamari is nothing new unless you toss it with fruity tamarind pineapple sauce and the fragrant licorice notes of Thai basil. The pop of grilled corn kernels beneath it preposterously right cemented its status as a can’t miss dish.
Add to those delights raw oysters, eight kinds from Atlantic and Pacific waters, presented with an attention to detail at $2.50 apiece. Plump, briny and pristine, they were enjoyable despite a few gritty moments.
Other seafood dishes were mixed blessings. Roasted rainbow trout ($17) covered in arugula and shaved manchego cheese made an experienced fisherman cook quite happy. Accompanying vegetables fell short, with woody tough grilled fennel wedges.
King crab salad ($15) was enjoyable even though the tempura coated crab leg segments, perched on pillows of caper spiked crab salad, had gone soft before arrival.
Sauted snapper filet ($13), topped with a sweet and sour cooked salsa with caper berries and fresh oregano, was fishier than expected, more like mackerel. It got pushed aside.
Some creative pairings went too far, adding ingredients until they distracted from the dish’s heart, the joy of fresh seafood. Tuna tartare with “everything bagel” spices ($9) was raw tuna that tasted like toasted garlic and poppyseeds instead of fish, with chewy croutons.
Salmon crudo ($9) was admirably fresh raw fish surrounded by intriguingly deep tasting black garlic puree, then topped with pickled mushrooms and crunchy bits of truffled duck skin. “I wish they’d stopped at the mushrooms,” the fisherman said. “You want to taste the freshness.”
The ornate decorations on Oshun’s walls give customers a reality check. “Is this really Buffalo?” (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)
You can get potatoes with your meat, too straightforward salt roasted fingerlings with sour cream ($6). A more luxurious side was sizzled broccoli and mushrooms on cheese grits ($6). I couldn’t hold its undercooked spears against it.
Jerk chicken ($16) was a thrill, too, though not anything a Jamaican would recognize. Tender, tasty bone in grilled chicken pieces are bolstered with fritters that tasted like molten bananas Foster.
Dessert was a strength, worth the $8 despite the absence of chocolate. Light as a feather butterscotch pot de crme was topped with crunchy squiggles of black pepper tuile. Chai bread pudding, tea sorbet and caramel sauce created a ridiculous combination. A fig composition paired a grown up Fig Newton in better pastry with fresh figs, lavender sauce and buttery mascarpone ice cream. Then there was the tray of fresh baked, soft snickerdoodle ish cookies with a salty pretzel pressed into them, served on the baking tray with vanilla ice cream.
Oshun’s bar during off peak hours gives a sense of the care taken in the decor. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)
The charms of the room left me feeling optimistic about not just the restaurant, but its city. I’m a cynic deep down. Yet at a table in Oshun, fed well and surrounded by reminders of a time when Buffalo roared, I found myself imagining downtown Buffalo coming back to life.
One restaurant doesn’t change a city’s fate. But Oshun provides a place to have a drink, a few oysters and dinner while discussing Buffalo’s future. If cars can drive down Main Street again, anything is possible.