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Martin Cooks gladly bucks the trend - INTERVIEW

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

With the closing of Prime 490, there was one fewer upscale eatery in Buffalo’s West Side, a neighborhood that boasts plenty of smaller treasures like Santasiero’s, Five Points Bakery and Marco’s Italian Restaurant, but lacks in the category of fine dining—aside from Left Bank.

The bold project of Martin Danilowicz and Amelia Nussbaumer—Martin Cooks—a 12-seat, reservations-only restaurant inside the popular Horsefeathers Community Market at 346 Connecticut St. (see below, right), the first-year collection of vendors that served as a winter locale for many of the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers Market participants.

Danilowicz has worked at a slew of Buffalo restaurants over the last few decades—Duo, Just Pasta and Osaka, to name a few—but Martin Cooks marks his first foray into ownership, a liberating experience for the well-traveled food creator.

“It’s unfortunate working for someone else,” Danilowicz said in an interview last week. “It’s tough because the owner will always have a say. Now I can do things a little more unorthodox—push the envelope a little bit.”

At the same time, though, Danilowicz doesn’t want to go by the designation of “chef,” primarily because the term is much more hallowed to him than it is to many Americans who toss it around flippantly.

“A chef is someone who’s changed the way we look at food,” Danilowicz explained, “and I don’t think I’ve been able to do that yet.”

The owner’s limited-seating, reservations-only concept is atypical for Buffalo’s food scene, but Danilowicz—after mulling the concept’s fit in Buffalo for a few years—was convinced by the success of similar projects like Chef’s Table at the Brooklyn Fare, Fridge in Hong Kong and Blanca in New York City.

Some of the concept’s perks are obvious—patrons can watch closely as Danilowicz and Nussbaumer prepare and plate each course with the freedom to ask questions and probe the minds of wizened culinary figures. The intimacy is increased by the fact that Danilowicz requires those making reservations to include all of the names in the party and all dietary restrictions, showing elevated attention to the individual eater.

“Amelia has a good eye for things,” adds the owner of Martin Cooks, who chose to work closely with Nussbaumer, the former owner of The Eights Bistro, after collaborating through on-site cooking at the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers Market. “We do butt heads sometimes, though. I think the word ‘vegan’ scares people.”

Danilowicz’s plan is more tempered than his culinary peers, as he only asks for $50 for a six or seven-course meal rather than the $150-to-$200 demanded in other markets.

Stressing healthy ingredients and modernist techniques—a “leap of faith” in Buffalo—Danilowicz doesn’t hide that Martin Cooks will be science-driven, and he still plans to teach a cooking class on Tuesday nights.

“It’s easy to cook steak, pork belly, lamb shank or short ribs, but it’s a lot harder to cook a carrot and make it taste really good,” the owner commented.

Danilowicz understands the popular trend of sourcing local ingredients, but he believes that it’s been over-emphasized.

“It’s trendy now, but I get bored from it. Just serve me good food—I don’t care where it’s from,” he said. “You don’t need to force that information down someone’s throat, and I don’t want the customer to have to think too much.”

Though Danilowicz mentioned that he plans to source some product from Plato Dale Farm in Arcade, he’s willing to travel to find the best ingredients.

“Twenty years ago, I made a regular tomato dinner for Just Pasta, and I made the drive twice per week to Youngstown to pick up the produce,” he recalled. “I’ll get the best possible product—if the best tomatoes were in China, I’d get them from there.”

While Newell Nussbaumer’s recent Buffalo Rising piece on Martin Cooks lends more specifics through describing the tasting menu, Danilowicz said that he enjoys cooking Mediterranean and Asian food particularly—the former through the influence of Lebanese friends and the latter stemming from his job catering to a Korean family for a year and his past at Osaka. 

“I like learning [different] cultures,” Danilowicz explained. “When you know what someone eats, you know who they are.”

A few reservations remain for dinner this weekend (716-259-9306), and plans for breakfast, lunch and Saturday brunch follow June 1. Here are some hints for what to expect from those:

**Breakfast: Muffins, scones and bagels will be the featured items here—a tight menu that stresses quality.
**Lunch: Focus will be on smorrebrod, an Danish open-faced sandwich with smoked meat and pickles on top of a dense, nutty rye bread. “It’s very hearty,” Danilowicz described.
**Brunch: Not your typical waffles, pancakes and bacon type of brunch, Danilowicz said. When asked for an example of a possible option, he mentioned kim chi, rice and a soft-boiled egg housed inside a nori roll.

There’s admittedly substantial risk in opening a fine-dining restaurant in a shaky-yet-promising neighborhood. Danilowicz believes his restaurant could have the power to lead a transformation of the neighborhood, a trend he’s seen throughout his travels.

He points to Pastis, planted initially in New York’s meatpacking district, which is now one of the “hottest addresses in New York.”

He mentions Moto, an avant-garde Chicago restaurant originally planted in “one of the worst neighborhoods [Danilowicz] has seen in his life.” Now there’s an art gallery, a shoe store and a second restaurant nearby, brightening the area’s landscape through a culinary risk.

Martin Cooks could add fuel to the West Side’s rejuvenation, an area that boasts potential-laden projects like the West Side Bazaar and Five Points Bakery, among others. Or, Martin Cooks could fade into oblivion, a noble attempt to bring upscale cuisine to an unfamiliar area. Time will tell.

TAGGED: amelia nussbaumer, fridge, just pasta, martin cooks, martin danilowicz, new restaurants, plato dale farm, west side buffalo, west side restaurant

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