Before you even walk into JT’s Urban Italian on Elmwood Avenue, just know that the restaurant is already winning.
This corner of Elmwood and West Delevan used to have a dilapidated, grease-smeared gas station that drained the life out of everyone who looked at it. Now, a large black modern building sits neatly in its place, and features JT’s at street level. So yes, it’s better to have modern upscale food as an option on this corner, as opposed to dusty Slim Jims and 40s of OE.
On a recent, sunny Friday afternoon, the bay windows at the front of JT’s had been pulled away to give the place an indoor-outdoor feel. From the sidewalk, you could easily chuck an iced coffee behind JT’s bar. Instead of lobbing my Frappuccino – I watched people mill around inside and felt the energy of a crowd excited to embrace Elmwood’s newest gem.
Inside, JTs is distinctive, sleek and modern. The restaurant’s deep violet walls and dark ceramics give off a primal coziness, while the modern fixtures indicate good taste. Simply put, JT’s is like one of those places you’ve probably walked past in Toronto or Brooklyn, where a professional crowd talks about trips to Aspen or the hot tech start-up they work for.
“There have been quite a few people that have said to me they don’t feel like they’re in Buffalo when they’re in here; cause it’s got that cool vibe,” Liz Vesneske, a representative for JT’s, told me on a recent visit.
At the bar, you can either look out onto Elmwood Avenue, or look directly into the kitchen – and see two hulking stone ovens staring right back at you.
Obviously, the open kitchen is more than just a design touch. Under the watchful eye of Oliver’s alum Lennon Lewandowski, JT’s kitchen is cranking out modern takes on both Italian food and American pub fare: The menu lists BBQ ribs just below Saltimbocca, and calamari next to onion fondue.
“We want anybody to come in and be able to enjoy JT’s,” Lewandowski told me with his distinctive Buffalo-Italian accent. “It’s set up to host families, a date night or large groups. So you could pretty much do anything here.”
The menu is designed to be flexible in so many ways. It leans a bit toward the ‘shareable’ format, but plates don’t have to be shared. It features steak-and-potatoes and shrimp linguine, but the menu also has options for foodies. In particular, the baby octopus with black spaghetti jumped out at me, a foodie.
“That’s one of those foodie type things,” Lewandowski deadpanned. “That dish is my interpretation of one of my favorite dishes I’ve ever had, and it’s gotten a great reaction.”
I asked if that dish asks diners to be a bit adventurous.
“I mean, a bit,” he said. “Baby octopus, at this point, is pretty ubiquitous. It’s not like that out there anymore, and black spaghetti, flavored with the squid ink, is just unbelievably delicious.”
Another menu highlight is the veal sirloin medallions, served with sage, prosciutto and a marsala sauce.
“This dish right here is a rockstar,” Lewandowski said pointing at the menu item. “It’s Saltimbocca – which means ‘jumps in the mouth’ and that’s really what that dish does.
“We take a whole strip loin and just cut it right down to little veal steaks. Then, we layer it with sage and prosciutto, sear it quickly, put cheese on top, melt it and then pour hot marsala sauce over and get a little oily, buttery bean escarole underneath.”
I asked if that’s basically veal marsala.
“Sure, you could say it’s like a veal marsala,” he conceded. “But if they’re thinking veal marsala and they get that – their mind will be blown.”
The young chef patiently explained to me that a lot of techniques are layered on top of each other to create almost every dish on his menu, citing the barbecue ribs as a prime example:
“Those are cured. Then they’re braised. Then they’re double-roasted to char up with the barbecue sauce. You get ‘em, pick up the bone and it goes–” he made a ‘brrrrt’ sound and swung his pinched fingers down, to indicate meat slipping off the rib bone.
The desserts and the cocktails at JT’s are clearly on point, IMHO, but it’s the wine list that also really bears mentioning. It takes up both sides of an 11” x 17” silk-finish cardstock, and features a lot of highly-rated bottles. The wine wars are clearly heating up locally, and it looks like JT’s is opening up yet another front based on these initial offerings.
On recent visits during JT’s soft opening phase, the crowd veered toward professional and well-heeled. However, I was told JT’s has been serving a lot of families, and has high chairs for the kids who come in. Lewandowski said he can tell the different crowds — made of mostly families, couples or professional — based on the food that gets ordered from his kitchen.
“On Friday, they’re eating lighter than Saturday. On Saturday, we’re selling a lot of entrees. On Sunday, we’re selling all pizzas. On Tuesday, it’s back to families where you sell some of the small stuff and then the adults are getting dinners.”
He emphasized that JT’s is going for high volume, not high end.
“This is not fine dining, you know? It’s fun and it’s fine food.”
JT’s Urban Italian
Where: 905 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo
Hours: 5 pm – 11 pm, Monday – Thursday, 5 pm – 12 am Friday – Saturday, 4 pm – 10 pm Sunday