Along the Lake Erie shoreline, it’s easier to find a spot to surf than a special meal within sight of the waves.
Your chances improved in November, when Alex Diaczenko, the chef who in 2015 opened luxe Italian frontrunner Lucia’s on the Lake, got behind the stove at Lago 210. It’s slightly closer to Buffalo, and a lot closer to the surf, a water’s edge restaurant on the brink of discovery. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, its Ukrainian-American chef started making Ukrainian dishes to raise money for refugees, in addition to his regular, tiny menu. More on that later.
A half-mile south of his old spot, Diaczenko is filling a dining room again. Since it’s a converted hot dog shack, the task is admittedly much simpler. It weighs in at just over 20 seats, including the compact bar.
That doesn’t include the patio. When summer comes, it promises to be prime real estate for sun-seekers. Manager Amanda Krouse is out front taking care of customers, giving service a distinctly hands-on feel. There’s a selection of wine, beer and a full bar, with Krouse on the shaker.
With fewer slots on the menu, Diaczenko wastes no chances in making an impression. Stuffed peppers ($18) are a Buffalo mainstay and at Lago 210, it can be read as a statement dish. Here’s a place that wants to take your favorites further. Split Hungarian yellow chiles are roasted, then filled with cotija and other cheeses, and spicy chorizo. Underneath is roasted tomato and pepper sauce, amplifying the Mexican angle, with warm flatbread doing mopping-up duty.
Brussels sprouts, the improbable “it” vegetable of 2021, has one of its finesse moments of 2022 at Lago 210 ($10). Quartered and deep-fried to a crisp, they sprawl over miso-maple sauce, much to the table’s satisfaction. Crowning it all was a shining topknot of housemade kimchi, whose crunchy funk gave these tiny, blessed cabbages another dimension.
Notably, Diaczenko rang the cherries without resorting to bacon, the cabbage crutch, making his effort suitable for vegetarians. The kimchi is vegan, by the way.
So is the cauliflower steak ($22), an honest-to-goodness satisfying vegan entrée, which is rare as hen’s teeth round these parts. Carefully caramelized cauliflower rides roasted-red-pepper-and-nut pesto called romesco, with plumped golden raisins for fruity sweetness.
Don’t read too much into that, though, because then comes the shrimp and grits ($29). Smoked, spicy andouille appears as crisped-up garlicky pork croutons. A half-dozen fat tail-on shrimp arrive nestled in velvety grits that taste more like cheddar than corn. Rousing salsa verde, alive with green chile, cilantro and lime, cuts through the heaviness to make it a dance party of a dish.
Chicken skin done right is its own course in any truly boffo roast chicken effort. Diaczenko crusts a breast and leg with za’atar, the Middle Eastern mixture of thyme, sesame and tangy sumac, for an aromatic, gently crispy counterpoint to the tender flesh beneath ($27).
Underneath it was tzatziki, the garlic-cucumber yogurt sauce, turbocharged with charred jalapeno for a lick of green fire. Cracked fried potatoes and sweetly astringent lengths of roasted carrot rounded out the platter, enough to feed two.
Those dishes are on the standard menu. Lately, Lago 210 specials have been dedicated to raising money for Ukrainians in need. Diaczenko was born in Rochester, to Ukrainians who fled to survive World War II. Proceeds from three Ukrainian dishes based on his mother’s cooking lessons go to refugee aid.
Even in peacetime, I would have recommended Diaczenko’s Ukrainian-style beet soup ($8). Borscht is Slavic soul food with beets, potatoes and cabbage in deep ruby broth zippy with vinegar. It arrives with a dollop of dill crème fraiche and yet more fresh dill fronds.
Cabbage rolls filled with meat and grain are called holubtsi (“little pigeon”) in Ukraine. Diaczenko’s version ($23), a pair of burrito-sized packages stuffed with pork and beef, are presented in a jammy roasted tomato sauce and a halo of salsa verde.
For a sausage platter ($28), Diaczenko worked with BABS Sausage to fashion a Ukrainian-inspired link of beets, cabbage and pork, and kovbasa, a characteristic Ukrainian smoked sausage. (The chorizo and andouille he uses is also from BABS, run by Six Friends Cabernet chef Jessica Arends.) Sliced and served over a potato pancake, with a thicket of Barrel + Brine red sauerkraut, and more dill crème fraiche, it would have been my favorite of the three. But you can’t beat borscht.
Desserts ($8) come from Sweet Pea Bakery in Hamburg, which Lago 210 owner Audrey Zybala opened in 2015. Everyone adored the gooey butter cake, like butterscotch custard in a chewy crust, served with whipped cream. Everyone agreed it would be even gooier, in a good way, if it was warmed up first. A Polish honey cake was a dense forest delight, calling for black coffee despite the hour.
Zybala’s place doesn’t promise the cheapest, or the fastest, bites along the Lake Erie shore. What Lago 210 can offer is a meal with heart, and the chance of sunset for dessert.
4038 Hoover Road, Hamburg (lago210.com, 716-246-3022)
Hours: 4 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday. Closed Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: starters, $10-$28; entrees $16-$49.
Atmosphere: shoreline relaxation.
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten free: many choices.
Outdoor seating: coming soon.
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