The Bad Beginning (unintentional Lemony Snicket reference…):
I went to Laughlin’s Beef & Barrel in downtown Buffalo NY with a party of about 10 for a friend’s pre-bachelorette party dinner. We spent about 30 minutes at the first floor bar drinking while waiting for our entire party to arrive, at which time I had the misfortune to order the Pineapple Cake Martini (I think that’s what it was called… to my recollection, it contained: rum, pineapple juice, peach schnapps, grenadine, etc.); it was, in a word, subpar. It was watery and had an ‘off’ flavor (most likely due to crappy fruit juice), and also had an extremely patchy and messy ring of graham cracker crumbs around the rim. My maraschino cherry garnish was cutely cut and stuck on the rim of the glass, but it tasted dry and waxy (I can’t not consume a maraschino cherry if it is put in front of me…). Alas, I thought, I should have known that a drink containing fruit juice at a restaurant in Buffalo would be terrible, that the garnish would be dried out; I should know by now to not expect fresh fruit or juices, and a smarter choice for me to order would have been wine. I digress…
We were eventually given a private table in the cramped far end of the 3rd floor; in fact, we were the only party on our floor. My excitement at that fact was dissipated when I looked down and noticed that our table was really dirty - covered with food debris and dried liquid spills. Shortly afterwards, I was similarly disappointed when I went to the bathroom: the enormous mirror in front of the sink is black (but still reflective, being a mirror and all) and has a TV set behind the glass. Pretty cool, I thought, until I noticed the smudges/smears all over the glass, and then looked down to see pools of water all over and paper towels/TP littering the floor. Strike two for cleanliness, and I am starting to be scared to eat their food…
Our waitress was friendly and seemed to have extensive knowledge of the intricacies of the menu and specials. I do, however, think she forgot about us in the beginning - it took at least 20 minutes for her to bring back the waters and other drinks that we ordered shortly after sitting down. Again, I digress. I had scoped out their menu ahead of time and had been happy to see that it included far more meat-free options than I expected from a restaurant that boasts ‘beef’ as part of its name. They have a good selection of vegetarian-friendly appetizers and meat-free salads. So I ordered myself a glass of merlot (was easy drinking and was a good house merlot), Laughlin’s Farmer Cheese Pierogies (Appetizer), the Battered Onion Rings (Appetizer), and a Mesclun Salad with pears, gorgonzola, and walnuts for my entree.
The pierogi was pan fried to perfection and had a great crust on it, but the filling tasted like straight unseasoned ricotta cheese and was a touch bland. Lucky for me, during ordering I consented when the waitress asked me if I wanted sautéed onions on it - it made a world of difference and gave an otherwise bland dish most of the oomph it needed. I liked it, but it would be so much better if they added a little bit of salt and pepper (or a second, stronger cheese) to the filling and put some slightly more caramelized onions in with the filling.
The onion rings were near-perfect. Ever taken a bite of an onion ring and had the onion fall out of the breading on the first bite? These fresh and super crispy rings did not suffer from this problem. The breading stayed put. They were cooked the perfect amount of time to a lovely golden-brown crust. I could not bear to mar them with so inferior a condiment as ketchup. My only preference would be that they be cut slightly thinner (I like a slightly less fat ring), but they were by and large the most outstanding thing that I ate there.
I also had an opportunity to taste the stuffed peppers that somebody else ordered. Two enormous hot peppers were stuffed with cheese that overflowed from the top, and the overflowing part was covered with breadcrumbs and cooked to crisp golden-brown awesomeness. My first bite of the hot peppers was just a bite of the lower portion (pepper and cheese only), and it was average; but when I took some of the overflowed cheese with breadcrumbs from the top portion and combined it with the naked pepper stuffed with cheese on the bottom portion, it was magical. Weird thing though? The hot peppers were served with this generic fluffy bread that reminded me of a hot dog roll, and didn’t really do anything for the dish. Dear Laughlin’s Chef: a little more imagination, please?
As previously stated, I got the Pear/Gorgonzola/Walnut salad on a bed of mesclun greens, as did two others in our party (I added dried cranberries to it, and they opted to do so as well). The salads, though they advertised walnut in the name, all came with rather bland almonds (read: the walnuts are not walnuts). The greens were all clean, dry, and extremely fresh (you would think that would be a given, until you order a salad at Cheesecake Factory and are served 70% black decayed mulch, and are given a little sass from the manager about wanting something else). The salad was good, but not what was advertised, not what we ordered, would have been better with walnuts, and I did not feel quite so compelled to polish my salad plate as I did with the appetizers. The balsamic dressing was also generic tasting grocery store garbage that I preferred to do without.
At the end of the meal, a few people ordered coffee and tea. Chunky, half frozen creamer was served to our table with the coffee. The coffee/tea crowd was concerned that it might be spoiled, and were all pretty turned off from drinking the coffee/tea they had just ordered. When our waitress finally came back to check on us and they complained, she admitted that the only creamer they had was frozen, that they “[didn’t] usually serve brunch or anything”, and that the kitchen staff had told her not to even bother providing our table with creamer but she had taken the frozen creamer because she did not feel that it was acceptable to serve coffee without it. Now, I liked our waitress - she was perfectly nice and quite competent - but why would you not just either tell the table what the deal was, or ask them if you could substitute creamer with milk? I felt this to be worth mentioning, because it further attests to the restaurant’s lack of concern for the customer experience in a way that can only be coming from the ownership/management.
Overall, I liked the food for the most part, but the lack of cleanliness and overall consistency of the experience really deters me from wanting to give them my business. There are some very simple, basic things that they could be doing to elevate their food and the dining experience that they offer. Also? All of the things that I really liked were fried, and making fried food great is not all that hard to do. I would definitely give them another opportunity to change my mind in the future, but I will not go out of my way to try Laughlin’s again.