Sometimes, when I'm enjoying an especially tasty restaurant meal, or munching on some homemade candy, or even just scraping the vegetal goodness from a simple steamed artichoke, my thoughts will wander from what's happening in my mouth and I'll find myself once again floored by the minor miracle that is cooking. Who first looked at that artichoke, for instance, and thought, "Hey, let's eat that"? And how long did it take for some intrepid soul to figure out the least painful way to make the spiky thing palatable? Oh, don't even get me started on baking, which involves so much scientific trial and error that a lab coat might be more appropriate than an apron.
Like other forms of art, cooking involves surveying your finite number of raw materials and, with a healthy pinch of your own imagination, crafting something greater than the sum of the parts. And restaurant cooking often carries with it the added pressure of hitting upon ideas that are both yummy and distinctive, food that will appeal to your guests and make them remember that your establishment is the only place to experience what you bring to the table.
With that in mind, read on for eight unique dishes that, at this point in Rochester culinary time, each call but one restaurant home. If you think we're in error, and can find one of these dishes on another local menu, please correct us by commenting on this article at rochestercitynewspaper.com. And if you'd like to nominate a unique dish for a future version of this article, please send an e-mail with the dish and restaurant to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bacon is a nearly irreplaceable ingredient, adding elements of salt, grease, smoke, and substance to everything it blesses. No matter how ubiquitous it becomes, though, bacon will never, ever be good for you, and some just can't eat it anyway. But even the most diehard carnivore should be satisfied with the CLT ($9) at the Tap & Mallet (381 Gregory St., 473-0503, tapandmallet.com), an inspired vegan creation consisting of lettuce, tomato, and, acting as the bacon surrogate, smoked coconut. Sandwiched between two slices of tangy sourdough and married with a traditional hummus, the CLT is positively ingenious, the crunchy yet chewy coconut adding an air of savory meatiness even as it alleviates the guilt occasionally brought about by bacon's depressing drawbacks.
I could see why it might be called the Yeti Burger ($8.50), but Jen Clark, bartender at Monty's Krown (875 Monroe Ave., 271-7050), was kind enough to answer my obvious question: "Because it's just so... huge." No actual abominable snowmen are harmed in the making of a Yeti Burger, assembled from a pair of grilled-cheese-and-bacon sandwiches with a juicy hamburger in between. (Want a fried egg in there, too? Of course you do; tack on a buck.) Served with a side of yummy Cajun tater tots, the delectably sleazy Yeti Burger is only available on Mondays, though Clark says the Krown can usually handle requests for it whenever the kitchen's open, which is weekdays 5-9 p.m. Still, limiting yourself to one Yeti a week is probably wise.
Tucked away in a nondescript strip mall in Greece, Kobe Steak & Sushi House (2496 W. Ridge Road, 225-8555, koberochester.com) has spent the last two years setting the bar for inventive sushi offerings quite high. Besides the sublime oyster shooter ($7) that incorporates a quail egg and a tangy, tomatoey base, as well as the outrageous tuna dumplings ($9) stuffed with crab and seaweed salad, Kobe serves what the restaurant refers to as sushi pizza ($13). Pie-like in shape only, the sushi pizza is a riot of flavors and textures, starting with a traditionally Chinese scallion pancake that gets topped with creamy avocado, spicy tuna, crumbly tempura bits, and salty bursts of tobiko. There's easily enough for two people to share as an appetizer, or maybe one selfish person.
Tavern 58 at Gibbs (58 University Ave., 546-5800, tavern58.com) is without a doubt one of Rochester's unsung gems. The server said that the restaurant makes everything in-house and from scratch, including the onion-sprinkled buns that cradle the American bison burger ($16.50). Bison meat, for the uninitiated, is a lot like beef, except a little mustier, a little gamier. Now, that might sound unpleasant, but if you've ever had the privilege of sinking your teeth into a well-aged steak, you understand that funky kind of charm. The burger gets gilded with melted cheddar, roasted pepper slaw, Tavern barbecue sauce, and crispy tumbleweed onions, and it comes with a pile of sweet-hot pickle slices as well as housemade potato chips. Substitutions for sides are welcome, meaning that Tavern 58's stellar German potato salad is also an option.
In Italyporchetta often involves a whole pig that's been boned, re-stuffed with its own guts, and then spit-roasted. But at Rocco (165 Monroe Ave., 454-3510, roccorochester.com) the porchetta sandwich ($9) served at Friday lunch is a simpler affair. A massive pork shoulder is smeared with a wildly aromatic rub made from garlic, rosemary, orange, and fennel, and then wrapped in a brined pork belly that will form an addictively crispy armor by the time all that pork emerges from the oven 12 hours later. After a little rest the porchetta is sliced and served on a fresh-baked roll with a splash of its own flavorful juices, the minimalist presentation belying the vivid flavors. (Full disclosure: the writer is employed by Rocco, and she's usually the one to haul this gorgeous beast out of the oven on Friday morning.)
What is it that makes the humble tater tot so damn good? Not quite a hash brown, not quite a French fry, it was the highlight of many a meal for most kids, and for reasons beyond the free-flowing Heinz ketchup. In recent years restaurants have recognized the nostalgic power of the tot as well as its gastronomic potential, finding ways to incorporate the stubby little tubes of shredded potato into their roster of deep-fried delights. Leave it to Edibles (704 University Ave., 271-4910, ediblesrochester.com) to class things up with its surprisingly sublime truffle tots ($7, $5 as a side), which are standard-issue tater tots that have been kissed with earthy truffle oil and umami-rich porcini salt, then served with a smoky chipotle aioli. Ketchup is so 20th century.
These days, it's more shocking when a Rochester restaurant doesn't offer its own version of that Rochester culinary institution known as the Garbage Plate. Most places refrain from tinkering with a winning formula, but some creative chefs will put their own spin on it. Which brings us to the Pond Plate ($9.99), added to the menu this year at The Frog Pond (652 Park Ave., 271-1970, eatatthefrogpond.com). The basics are tried-and-true: mac salad, home or French fries, onions, yellow mustard, a sneaky-hot meat sauce, and some sort of protein, be it burgers, hot dogs, chicken, or sausage. The signature coup de grace?A pair of breaded frog's legs sticking out the top. Some lazily claim frog's legs taste like chicken, but they're actually a bit more complex, with a succulence that hints at a life spent in the water.
A proper, civilized meal ought to end with dessert; just a little something to signal to your body that it's time to quit stuffing your maw. And though most of the restaurant's desserts rotate regularly, the luscious chocolate mousse ($6) at the Owl House (75 Marshall St., 360-2920, owlhouserochester.com) is usually a constant. Both gluten-free and vegan, the chocolate mousse might be relatively guiltless, but it's not what anyone would consider innocent. Avocado is blended with cocoa into a velvety and deeply chocolate purée, then topped with fresh, seasonal sliced fruit (last time I was there it was strawberry, apple, and pear) and a scattering of pleasingly bitter cacao nibs. Enjoy it after one of the Owl House's other singular offerings, like the Saigon ($8.50), its zesty vegetarian take on a bánhmì. Or just have some chocolate mousse for dinner. You're a grown-up.