Gluten-Free Good Neighbors: Merge - INTERVIEW
blog by Julia Jornsay-Silverberg • August 08, 2013 @ 8:39am
The knowledge and awareness of Celiac has come a long way over the past five years. When I was diagnosed with Celiac in 2009, the availability of gluten-free products had already made tremendous strides compared to when my sister was diagnosed with the disease five years prior.
Having both a sister and a mother with Celiac made it much easier for me to adopt a gluten-free diet. In cities like Buffalo, known for being slow to adopt the latest trends, finding good gluten-free food that is easily available can be challenging. Because of scarcity, I have grown to appreciate any Buffalo restaurant that is knowledgeable and accommodating of the gluten-free diet.
One of Buffalo’s forward-thinking restaurants, Merge, 439 Delaware Ave., Buffalo, has done an incredible job at providing gluten-free dieters with an expansive list of menu offerings.
Merge was founded in January 2009 by sisters Sarah and Eliza Schneider, who shared a lifelong dream of opening a restaurant together featuring vegetarian and other progressive food options.
“Offering gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian options seemed to fit in well with all of the other elements we were introducing to the Buffalo food scene,” said Sarah Schneider.
For gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian diners, browsing Merge’s menu makes you feel like a kid in a candy store. Of the 35 items on the menu (including soups, salads, appetizers, raw dishes, sides and entrees), only seven dishes contain gluten.
“We try to be creative in offering gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options that you couldn’t make at home or find anywhere else,” said Sarah.
Merge’s extensive and creative list of menu offerings certainly separates it from other restaurants in Buffalo. The Schneider sisters have not only succeeded in creating an eclectic menu, but they have transformed Merge into more than just a restaurant. It’s a place you want to spend time at.
“Merge is a hip, New York sort of environment,” Sarah remarked, and she isn’t the only one who thinks so. Local blogger Krystal Sondel echoes the sentiment and even felt inspired to write about it on her “Lovin’ On Buffalo” blog.
Dining at Merge is an experience which goes beyond the positive atmosphere and the quality of the food. The wait staff is extremely friendly and very knowledgeable of how specific menu items can be altered to accommodate dietary restrictions.
Similarly, the decor at Merge is colorful and bright. A quick glance around makes you feel as though you have stepped foot into an art gallery. The walls are covered with art produced by local artists which is available for sale and rotated on a monthly basis.
To top it off, live music starts at 7 every night they are open—5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 11:30 a.m to 3:00 p.m. on Saturday—which creates a positive vibe and relaxing atmosphere.
The ambiance at Merge is just one of the factors which has enabled the owners to create a loyal customer base—my latest visit on July 16 was my fourth and certainly won’t be my last.
We started off with the Caprese pizza, which can be made with or without gluten. The pizza comes with tomatoes, red onion, basil, pesto and fresh mozzarella with a balsamic reduction drizzled on top.
The gluten-free pizza dough is baked fresh in-house resulting in a mouth-watering, perfectly baked pizza which is big enough for one to eat as an entree or ideal for a group to share as a snack. The crust is both doughy and moist which is rare, as gluten-free pizza is typically thin and dry.
“Honestly, I prefer the gluten-free pizza over the regular one. The chef is able to extract the gluten while still using a wheat-based crust and it turns out lighter and crispier than pizza with gluten,” remarked Jimi, one of the waiters. (Update, Aug. 9, 3 p.m.: Owner Sarah Schneider clarified that a wheat-based crust is not used in the gluten-free pizza and that the waiter’s statement was simply unfounded.)
The Caprese pizza happens to be the most popular gluten-free menu offering—and for good reason.
When asked to divulge the secret of her success in mastering the art of gluten-free pizza crust, Sarah remarked, “We have hired a series of fantastic bakers throughout the years who have improved the recipe over time. We have grown organically to incorporate new twists on recipe items because each chef brings their own knowledge, expertise and creativity to the dishes.”
In addition to the Caprese pizza, Sarah remarked that the most popular gluten-free items on the menu are the pasta dishes and the ginger coconut stir-fry.
I ordered the ginger coconut stir-fry for my entree and I can honestly say that it was one of the most delectable entrees I have ever eaten in Buffalo. It is especially perfect if you’re looking for a light yet flavorful summer dish.
The entree includes toasted nori, broccoli, red peppers, carrots, red onion, ginger coconut sauce and organic soba noodles. The noodles were fat, soft and closely mimicked the taste and texture of udon noodles. They served as an ideal complement to the mix of fresh, crunchy vegetables.
What truly made the dish was the ginger-coconut sauce. The hint of ginger helped bring out the subtly sweet coconut flavor.
In addition to the Caprese pizza and the ginger coconut stir-fry, I tasted the beet salad and the maple bourbon chicken, which were both extremely tasty due to the high quality of the ingredients and the creativity behind each of the dishes.
The beet salad was light, fresh and colorful. The salad comprised fresh greens, roasted beets, strawberries, pickled red onion, sunflower seeds and sprouts with a white balsamic vinaigrette.
The beets were thinly sliced, fresh, sweet and roasted to create a soft yet still crunchy texture. The sunflower seeds, sprouts and goat cheese (optional), while seemingly simple, created a harmonious mix of flavors and textures.
“We incorporated a half-acre hobby farm in 2012 where we grow our own herbs, peppers and other vegetables. Sustainability is one of our biggest values,” said Sarah.
In addition to sustainability, the Schneider sisters feel strongly about using local, seasonal fruits and vegetables which are incorporated heavily into the menu.
“We offer organic chicken and wild fish. Although we do specialize in gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian items, we feel strongly about providing options that everyone can enjoy,” Sarah remarked.
Case in point: the maple bourbon chicken entree.
The braised organic chicken leg is served with rosemary roasted potatoes, bourbon-soaked peaches and sauteed kale. I’m not typically a fan of mixing sweet and savory, but Merge won me over with this dish. It is rich and filling.
The chicken was juicy with a hint of maple, and the skin had a crisp texture to it. The potatoes were crispy on the outside and soft on the inside and absorbed more of the maple flavor than the chicken, giving them a hint of sweetness.
The kale was bright and tasted like fresh, crisp spinach. The maple bourbon sauce tied the entree together and was good enough to lick off the plate, which I almost considered doing.
Although we were completely stuffed and satisfied, we had to order dessert because Merge offers a gluten-free cobbler which I’m fairly certain was made with me in mind.
Not only is the cobbler the only gluten-free version I have yet to find, but it is the ultimate dessert if you’re looking for a relatively healthy way to satisfy your sweet-tooth.
The dessert is served warm with a variety of fresh seasonal fruits and is topped with two small scoops of vanilla bean ice cream with a warm salted caramel sauce drizzled on top. It melts in your mouth with every bite.
Of all the Buffalo restaurants I’ve tried, Merge offers the most eclectic and creative menu from start to finish for gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian dieters.
“Merge is unlike other restaurants because of our variety and versatile menu items. We accommodate the individual’s preferences. I don’t know many other restaurants that can be so versatile and cater to different nutritional needs,” said Sarah.
The dishes are innovative and the food is exceptional. The use of fresh, local ingredients and the focus on local musicians and artists clearly demonstrates that Merge is a community-centric restaurant which aims to please the patrons of our Queen City.
“Gluten-Free Good Neighbors” is a blog series written by The Buffalo News’ digital project coordinator Julia Jornsay-Silverberg, who has Celiac and feels passionately about educating the local community about how to adopt a gluten-free lifestyle in Buffalo. Be sure to check out the first post in the series which highlights Just Ask Josh. Don’t forget to check back on the second Thursday of every month for more tips, trends and stories.