By Michele DeLuca
Niagara Gazette — Last summer, at least once a week, I walked by the construction site of the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute, impatiently charting the progress.
Finally, I began to see signs of life at the new Niagara County Community College location.
The Barnes and Nobles opened first, and that made me nearly giddy. Once inside, I learned my favorite retailer was providing a bookstore for the students, and not only sold school books and cooking uniforms, but a small selection of best sellers and cookbooks. Even better, the whole back of the store was filled with culinary items, such as upscale knives, wine glasses, tureens and salad bowls that could make really wonderful gifts for people like me to purchase as shower or wedding gifts. Or even a little something special for ourselves.
One chilly fall day, I was walking by the building, thinking about finding somewhere to buy soup and noticed the school had opened for classes. Happily for me, the sandwich shop in the lobby was also open for business.
There were a couple of students and a man with a chef’s hat behind the counter. I saw chicken soup listed on the overhead menu so I asked whether it was canned. Silly me. The man in the chef’s hat told me proudly that it had all been made from scratch, right down to the broth. I ordered a cup and took a sip. To this day, I can still recall the flavor of that soup, with fresh herbs and finely diced vegetables. It was divine.
I was very impressed. That day, I walked about the lovely two-story lobby, admiring its magnificent fountain, and its glass enclosed cooking classroom, along with the retail wine store and pastry/chocolate/ice cream shop just off the book store.
Then, I peeked inside at the new fine-dining restaurant, Savor, which was still under construction. It was lovely, with dark brown woods giving warmth to the ice blue colors and glass. I could see the nearly completed open kitchen, wood fired pizza oven. I noted the giant windows were actually glass doors, which could open to the street for patio dining in the summer.
It was clear to me then that this school was something special. Then, a few weeks later, I noticed that the restaurant had opened.
The very next night my husband and I stopped in to have a glass of wine and some appetizers at the bar.
My husband ordered the duck — a dinner actually — and it was served perfectly in delicate slices, on a bed of tiny black lentils. I had the blue point oysters Rockefeller and they were elegantly perched on a bed of sea salt. The red wine, vibrant and rich, was served in polished globes, and as good as I had hoped.
We enjoyed talking to the two friendly bartenders, both who told us of their extensive experience in other restaurants, including one of them at the Buffalo Country Club.
Then, we talked with the assistant manager, Nicolas Seveno, a sommelier and native of France, who started making wine as a boy at his grandfather’s side, later landed an impressive position in the Berkshires and who now presides over Savor’s extensive wine list.
It was a happy night for me. I had been waiting a long time for the Culinary Institute to open its doors and bring much-needed excitement to downtown Niagara Falls.
I went back to Savor as soon as I could, to talk with some of the customers and the staff.
On a recent weekday, veteran Gazette photographer Jim Neiss and I found the place bustling at lunch time.
“The locals have been hugely supportive,” NCCC’s Mark Mistriner, the school’s business and hospitality chairman, told me that day.
The restaurant is run by a veteran staff, including Niagara Falls native Dana DeFazio, its manager, who trained at Disney, and whose family owned DeFazio’s Stadium Grill for 50 years.
Each day DeFazio leads the handful of students who are interspersed among seasoned veterans including head chef Calvin College, last employed at the Brookfield Country Club.
As I roamed about the restaurant that day, talking with guests, I met a table full of laughing ladies from Lewiston, dining there for the first time. The plates from the kitchen were enthusiastically applauded by Linda Carlson and her friends, who were enjoying chili, burgers and salads.
“We were impressed when we walked in the door,” Linda told me.
The ladies were seated at the “Chef’s Table,” and I think that is my favorite part of the restaurant design. The table, which seats about 10, can be reserved in advance for dinner, and is adjacent to the open kitchen so guests can chat with the chef through a tasting menu that includes items such as Meyers Ranch beef tournedos with bone marrow crust and miso glazed wild Chilean sea bass. Wines are hand-selected by Nick to match each course.
I love the idea of a chef’s table. There are no other such tables that I know of in the entire region.
In total, I get the impression that that planners of this amazing school stretched their imaginations to make sure local students received the most cutting edge, culinary education possible.
Mistriner said he and NCCC president James Klyczek and several other school leaders toured eight other culinary schools before deciding upon the design of the new facility. “We choose some of the best attributes of each,” he said. “There is not much like this place between here and Manhattan.”
Just in case it appears I have my cheerleading outfit on, I remind readers this is a “commentary” and I am simply commenting. As such, I must advise one thing: Go and see for yourself.
In the face of all the region’s struggles, the Niagara Falls Culinary School is a triumph and, without a doubt, something to believe in.
Contact Michele DeLuca at 282-2311, ext. 2263.IF YOU GO WHAT: Savor Restaurant in the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute WHERE: 28 Old Falls St. WHEN: Open Wednesday through Sunday. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Lunch Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner Hours: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. FOR MORE INFORMATION: Phone: 210-2580 or visit online at www.nfculinary.org Lunch menu sampling Mediterranean grilled pizza with baby artichokes, niçoise olives, oven roasted tomatoes, red onions, fresh feta cheese, cilantro, garlic confit 10 House-made gnocchi, slow-cooked bolognese sauce and fresh burrata cheese 12 Spaghetti alla carbonara, crispy pancetta, english peas, scallions, whipped eggs, Parmigiano Reggiano 10 Beef tenderloin in the grass, spinach, arugula, asiago, garlic aioli on a French baguette 15 Chargrilled burger, barbequed caramelized onions and gorgonzola on a fresh challah roll 10 Ham & turkey club, smoked bacon, oven roasted tomatoes, Boston lettuce, mayonnaise on a fresh rye bread 10 Dinner menu sampling Confit duck dumplings with fried leeks, sundried cherry jam and orange crème fraiche 9 Caesar salad with romaine lettuce, anchovies, house baked croutons, parmigiano reggiano, Caesar dressing 6 House made gnocchi with slow cooked bolognese sauce and fresh buratta cheese 15 Spaghetti alla carbonara with crispy pancetta, English peas, scallions, whipped eggs, Parmigiano reggiano 15 Meyer's Ranch delmonico with smashed red potatoes, onion ring and maître d'hotel butter a l'ancienne 32 Osso bucco with risotto alla milanese, gremolata, mediterranean veal jus 32 Sous vide & seared scallops with corn polenta, pearl onions, fennel salad, basil "caviar", beurre blanc 31