Food from the heart, drinks for the soul.
From professional musician to top bartender, you can find the name Frank Ryan in the Buffalo Bartender’s Hall of Fame and you can see the man in the Seneca Niagara Resort & Casinos fine dining restaurant, The Western Door behind the bar, mixing the best drinks in Western New York.
“You have to be where people can find you,” says Frank. Probably a philosophy from his musical days but Frank has approached his bartending career in much the same way and it’s worked for him.
Just like mixing music notes together to make his runaway songs, Frank now uses all kinds of spirits, bitters, liqueurs and mixes to create his runaway drinks. His first award winning drink, the Crystal Clementine you’ll find on the Western Door drinks menu. He made it for me during this interview. Crystal Clementine: Svedka Clementine Vodka, DeKuyper Cheri-Berri Pucker and Orange Juice, a melody of tantalizing flavors.
Unlike most bartenders who mix drinks based on pure science, Frank mixes cocktails and infuses spirits purely for flavor. He’s a master mixologist proudly boasting that the first eight blended martinis on The Western Door drinks menu are his babies. The signature drink he’s most proud of is the Seneca Sweetheart. It’s the perfect blend of DeKuyper Watermelon, Bacardi Grand Watermelon and Pomegranate Juice. After sipping one I have to say it definitely falls under the category of eyes rolling to the back of your head delicious.
I wondered how a musician became an award winning bartender and he explains, “I started out mixing drinks every Tuesday night at home in my basement.” Well, that sounds to me like a band schedule but Frank is a very nontraditional bartender.
Behind the bar are two large glass jars with magical concoctions of marbles and fruit. These are Frank’s vodka infusions. Each year he plays with different seasonal fruit and you can look forward to tasting them in one of his specialty drinks. Frank poured me the strawberry infused vodka over ice and I immediately got a bold burst of autumn strawberries, you know the ones at the end of the season that are super, candy sweet? Oh Frank, try to resist mixing these, these are beautiful savored neat, over rocks.
Like me, if you’re wondering about the marbles in a vodka infusion, Frank explains, “You fill the (infusion) jars with marbles until there are enough marbles to reach the top of the spigot. This means the fruit never gets to the spigot to clog it up.” Another brilliant Frank Ryan invention that I’m going to use in the summertime with my own fruited waters. Thanks Frank.
I can’t help but wonder if any of this deliciousness spills into the kitchen but unfortunately, it doesn’t. The concept is that the drinks are an accompaniment to the kitchen, but never do the two intermingle. I suppose that makes sense, although I can’t stop thinking of a strawberry vodka infused panna cotta (hint, hint Chef Joe!).
Western Door Room Chef Joseph Belardi is a relatively new chef brought in as part of the new culinary program at the resort. He may be young but he’s not inexperienced and he’s already making significant changes to the traditional fine dining restaurant.
“My secret is to start with the best (quality ingredients) and do it well. If you cook from the heart your food will be great,” says the Italian with just enough hand gestures to make you salivate over every word. “When you’re paying $75 for Kobe beef, $44 for a porterhouse or $35 for a fillet, it’s got to be great.” Chef insists his beef is full of fine marbling and is dry aged for at least 48 days.
The Western Door is a popular steakhouse in Western New York State. The 200 seat restaurant can easily be grilling up 200 steaks on a weeknight and can almost double that on a weekend. So how does each steak get grilled to perfection? “Our steaks are simply seasoned, crisscrossed on the grill four-times then broiled to the customers liking. We don’t cook it in the oven where the air circulates all around it. We broil it so the heat is top down.” Besides a cooking method that gives him ultimate control, chef explains, “it’s either me or Tommy on the grill. Tommy’s great, he can tell the temperature of a steak just by looking at it.”
Chef Joe has added a few new dishes to the menu. A man with a love for comfort food, Joe has up-scaled his Pork and Polenta to gourmet levels. He starts with tiny slivers of raw garlic that he inserts into the bone-in (loads of flavor) pork butt. It’s then marinated for 24 hours, seared, submerged in pork fat, covered, and cooked low and slow for 8 hours to become fork tender. On the plate the pork is sitting on a polenta crouton rich in cream and roasted garlic. It’s dressed with shaved fontina and prosciutto. It’s Joe’s signature dish and even though it may be overshadowed in a steakhouse, it truly is out of this world.
On The Western Door menu you’ll find traditional dishes like Clams Casino with new additions like Chef Joe’s Lobster Mac & Cheese. From a man who grew up making home-made pasta with his grandmother, this new reincarnation of everyone’s beloved comfort food includes large chunks of pink and white, sweet lobster, loads of lavishly creamed smoked cheddar cheese and a crispy topping of crumbs make from their popular focaccia bread.
Joe is an obsessed chef, he loves to read about other chefs like Thomas Keller and Anthony Bordain on his days off. He’s also a chef full of surprises. He dedicates his life to perfecting steaks but he secretly longs to sear the perfect fish. “When you get a perfect sear on that skin, when it’s cooked properly, it’s, well, there are no words for it. It’s just so good.” When most chefs cook food the way they like to eat it, Chef Joe cooks it until it’s the best it can be. That’s real talent.
A typical evening at The Western Door could go something like this. Start with one of Frank’s martinis and a Chilled Seafood Tower of lobster, shrimp, King crab legs, clams and oysters. Sip and nosh in a lingering atmosphere with soft lights and the sounds of chiming silverware at work in the background. Next, a steak. Perhaps the popular 20-ounce Bone-In Rib Eye Steak with a bottle of Cabernet from the wine cellar. If you feel like it, you can add Diver Scallops, Alaskan King Crab or a juicy lobster tail. Wind down the evening with a light Crème Brûlée and one of Frank’s browns (bourbon, Grand Marnier or single malt scotch)
For me? I like to buck the trend and dine in style with a Foie Gras Burger, a crock of Lobster Mac & Cheese and one of Frank’s signature martinis. The Western Door can be as casual as upscale allows. It can also be theatrical with tables that look over the gaming floor or if you don’t have a front row seat to the action, Frank will accommodate with a bit of inside theatrics; a tableside mixed, layered martini. The Man Overboard martini is a blend of Malibu Coconut Rum, Midori Melon Liqueur and Pineapple Juice. Just as a Caesar salad can be made tableside, Frank pours a shot of Gaetano Blue Curacao and Grenadine into the martini and it magically layers in the glass.
The Western Door may look a little formal, it may be a bit theatrical, it may offer the best food in Western New York, but it’s the friendliest place on earth to share a meal.