7.12.2016

Uneven Seas Abound at Riley’s by the River


A night out in the Bay is not something I’ve indulged in some time. There were many, in my 20s, when Skiffs Bar seemed a world away from Watertown, a place to meet people from all over the country and occasionally, a teacher I knew from high school. These days, though, Alexandria Bay can sometimes feel overly glaring for a more seasoned gal such as me. The touristy atmosphere and continual bustle sit in contrast to peaceful Clayton, which is more my style, generally speaking.

So I’ve been looking for the perfect dinner spot to write about in Alex Bay – to recapture the attraction I felt to this village in my younger days. Recently, we tried out Riley’s by the River to see how it fit.

Riley’s sits directly on James Street, front and center to all the action in Alexandria Bay, and across from Captain Thompson’s floating empire, which used to have its own restaurant, and which is owned by the same family. You can see the river from the windows dominating one wall of the dining room, and Uncle Sam Boat Tours’ launch space, which also is owned by the Riley’s family.
 

What’s not made up of windows inside Riley’s is all attractive dark wood and coffered ceilings – its innate elegance made more casual by bistro and pop culture-themed décor. A diner would be comfortable here either in a sundress or shorts and a t-shirt – the ambiance dictated by whoever happens to be eating, whether couples or families. When people are in the Bay, they’re mostly on vacation, and that easy feeling is reflected here.

We were impressed right away by the presentation of the shrimp cocktail ($10.99): five shot glasses lined on a white platter, layered with house made cocktail sauce, large, succulent steamed shrimp, a bite of lobster meat, and a slice of lemon. The cocktail sauce tasted tangy and fresh – unlike the somewhat stale flavor the stuff in the jar can have. The small bit of lobster topping each shrimp added sweetness to the overall flavor, and having a slice of lemon for each serving meant you never ran short of that hit of sharp citrus essence which so well pairs with fresh shellfish.


Loaded potato chips ($8.99) were every bit as junky and decadent as the shrimp cocktail was refined and modern, to our glee. Homemade crinkle cut fried potato chips formed the base of this dish, served on an old school sizzle platter. Perfectly cooked, tender and juicy pulled pork topped the chips, but unfortunately, there’s wasn’t much of it. I had to actively hunt for some to sample in order to take notes on its flavor, because there was so little of it – certainly not enough on the platter, as a whole, to have a bite of pork with each chip.

Cheddar cheese covered the chips, with scant drizzles of both BBQ sauce and ranch dressing. I was pleased with the ranch, as the cool, herbal flavor served to counter the aggressive sweetness BBQ can often bring to the party, but honestly, again, there was so little of both these sauces, most of the balancing was unnecessary. Mostly, this dish was melted cheese-covered chips – savory, crisp, but with much less BBQ flavor than we expected when we ordered it.

Our waitress was fun, joking and entertaining us, and we enjoyed her so much, we didn’t realize for a while that she was doing a lot more socializing than she was actually waiting on our table. Our dirty appetizer plates sat in in a pile in the middle of our table for the duration of the entrée course.

The vegetable Panini ($10.99) came dressed with one of my favorite ingredients: goat cheese. Have you tried it? First off, it’s tangy – with loads of flavor and personality but none of the salinity you get from feta. Secondly, it’s creamy – you can use it almost as a spread, to add moisture without the fatty, bland mouth feel of mayonnaise. It’s a brilliant sandwich cheese, honestly, and when paired with grilled vegetables, you get a wonderful combination of sweetness, earthy dimension, piquancy and richness. The toasty flatbread anchored the sandwich with charred flavor that just contributed more to the delight of eating this treat.


The sweet potato fries served alongside were not such a delight. These originated from the freezer, if I’m not mistaken, and were lacking the earthy sweetness and caramelized depth you usually get from a homemade sweet potato French fry. They were bland and undercooked.

Fettucine alfredo with shrimp ($20.99) was overall, fairly tasty, but I’m sad to report: the pasta was overcooked by a good bit, so the overall chew factor was gummy. The sauce was rich with cream but underwhelming when it came to the authentic, nutty aged flavor of real parmesan cheese. And for $21, only three shrimp were topping this massive bowl of pasta. Now, shrimp are what they call a loss leader in the restaurant business – people love to order this sweet seafood, but there’s typically no profit to the enterprise when they sell them, because the wholesale product is expensive and consumers typically won’t tolerate much mark-up. So skimping on portion size is not unusual for this product.


Conversely, pasta and cream are cheap, and since there was almost no real cheese flavor going on in this dish, I would suggest the price tag could have withstood a couple more crustaceans. Even the diner who ordered this, one of the easiest to please in my crew, was disappointed with how few shrimp were in her dinner. I don’t blame her. For $21, you needed to bring it with either great parmesan flavor or lots of shellfish, and this dish delivered neither.

The delmonico steak ($26.99) was sunk before it even got sailing, because while the menu at Riley’s brags that all the steaks are cut in-house, this thing was about a third of an inch thick – way too thin for this cut of meat. It was grievously overcooked from the requested medium, grisly and tough. What a shame that this typically rich, juicy protein was (forgive the pun) butchered so terribly.

I was excited for the mushroom compound butter served on top, but it had little seasoning, and couldn’t save the rubbery, bland protein upon which it was perched.


To further add insult, while the steamed broccoli florets were wonderfully fresh and cooked perfectly crisp-tender, there were only six small ones served with this $27 plate. The small baked potato was fine, but delivered with very little butter to fix it up. Since no bread course came with our meal, there was no extra on the table to steal for the spud.

A bigger portion size ruled the chicken parmesan ($16.99), which was anchored by a thick, ungainly fried breast, rather than a pounded cutlet. It was under-seasoned, and therefore tasted more like fried breading than anything else. A bright, loose tomato sauce seasoned with dried Italian seasoning coated a mountain of spaghetti surrounding the chicken. This was a huge pile of really uninspiring food, to me. As in, I was not inspired to eat more than a single bite of it. It all lacked the hallmarks of a classically authentic Italian-American red-sauce dish – the slow-cooked tomato gravy flavored with aromatic vegetables, garlic and fresh herbs, juicy, flash-fried protein, and aged cheese. This brought to mind a dish comprised of canned, jarred ingredients thrown together because chicken parmesan is a required item on north country menus, rather than a family recipe handed down through the generations.

Regrettably, things did not perk up with the fish tacos ($11.99). The crunchy fried cod nuggets nestled in these three flour tortillas were utterly flavorless. The lime slaw in there with them had a hint of personality, but not enough to save the white fish blandness. And rather than serve them with some salsa, a flavored crema, some pickled chile peppers, or any other kind of south of the border accoutrements, these came with a side of fries and ketchup.


Look, please don’t attempt Mexican food, or even Tex-Mex, if you can’t deliver on a single of its telltale flavors or ingredients, OK? Let’s agree to a pact on that. In fact, don’t attempt any ethnic cuisine if you aren’t familiar enough with its tenants to comprise a dish that makes sense. In San Diego, where fish tacos are king, the fish pieces would have been dressed with lime juice and salt immediately after leaving the fryer, then finished with crunchy cabbage, a white sauce perked up with ancho chile powder and maybe some avocado puree, and a fresh lime wedge alongside. Each taco would be topped with fresh cilantro. You need those verdant, strong ingredients to bring the fish to life. Otherwise, you’re stuck with what we got at Riley’s: a tasteless mouthful of flour tortilla with mild, plain fish and a tiny blip of sour citrus. No thank you.

Oooo-kay, let me step off my culinary soapbox. That was very preachy. I apologize. Apparently, I have big thoughts about chicken parm and fish tacos that I needed to work out. But you understand where I’m coming from, I hope? Even in a tourist town, you expect that if a dish is on a menu, there’s going to be some level of competence in its preparation. These two dishes illustrated that a lot of food is being served here just to make money rather than to really cater to the customer. If you’re going to be a professional cook, you’d better be able to actually execute the cuisine your kitchen promises to crank out. Or you’re not living up to your end of the bargain the diners make.

We plunged forward into dessert, even though, with the exception of the Panini, we had been really disappointed by the entrees. The coconut cream pie ($6.99) was homemade, and the stand out of the course. The pastry cream actually tasted like coconut and vanilla and wasn’t too sweet. The crust was a little blonde for me – I like a crunchier, darker and more developed flavor, but this was still a creamy, yummy dessert.


The skillet cookie ($6.99) oddly, was not cookie dough baked in a cast iron skillet, but instead a cookie placed in a skillet and warmed up. Now, a warm chocolate chip cookie is always better than a cold one, or no cookie at all for that matter, so I guess I can credit that; but to me, the whole point of the skillet is for the cookie to be caramelized and crunchy at the edges and warm and gooey in the center, which this was not, at all. The whole thing was crisped through, and even the melting vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce over top couldn’t save it.

We had been anticipating the salted caramel vanilla cream puff ($6.99) through the whole meal, because how good does that sound? But this was another creamy, but ultimately bland dish. Even the salted caramel failed to taste like anything at all. Where was the salt? The cream puff was denser than the word puff implies, and whatever filled it was unidentifiable, flat, flavorless goo.


 

If you remember way back to the shrimp cocktail, we had high hopes for this meal. That dish was creative, well-executed, tasty and somewhat inspired, with the twist of lobster topping each bite. The vegetable panini was good, as well, but just about every other dish that arrived at our table had major issues. None of it was worth its price, and the overall experience was underwhelming, especially considering that our fun, cheerful waitress kept on leaving dirty dishes at the table as she brought new ones to us. That’s a pet peeve of mine that’s hard to overlook when you consider that this casual dinner for five came to $158.92.

I give Riley’s by the River a five on the BHS scale. While the view commanded a high rating and things began so well early in the meal, dinner here is, frankly, not worth what it costs. Diners in Northern New York work too hard for their money to waste it on overcooked, poorly cut steaks, three shrimp drowning in a sea of overcooked pasta, or utterly bland, non-seasoned food. I dislike even more the notion of visitors experiencing a meal like this and thinking this is the best we have to offer when a view of the St. Lawrence is at stake.

I hope such hungry travellers, instead, will find their way to Foxy’s in Fisher’s Landing, or the Seaway Grille inside the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel in Clayton, where they might enjoy a glorious sunset over the river plus a terrific meal. This was an uneven repast, for us, and I find myself frustrated that, despite a couple of decent dishes, I can’t recommend this well-positioned eatery to diners looking for a great dinner with a view.
Riley's by the River Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
Stop back soon, as I'll have reports from Rochester and Saratoga Springs, plus more from NNY and the Southern Tier right here on the blog. We may no longer have food reviews in the Watertown Daly Times, but I promise not to fail you here! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

11 comments:

  1. Down the shore I often find that what I'm paying for when I go out to eat is either the view or the ambiance. I swear so many things are unseasoned or not seasoned at all, and overcooked. Maybe you have a little of that going on in season here?

    MFD would be pleased with the individual lemon for the shrimps.

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  2. Riley's really is fucking garbage. Just need ONE GOOD RESTAURANT in A-BAY.. for such a popular area, there really is nowhere to get a decent meal there.

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    1. Because....ABay. Nothing but a bunch of bars and drunken idiots.

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    2. not as bad as your garbage mouth ben

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  3. I remember the good old days, when you could go to The Captains Mate across from Uncle Sams and get a good meal or a not too fancy breakfast. That and Tommy's , they weren't terribly fancy but good food!

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    1. i like Dock of the Bay,or if your trying to find a decent meal at a decent price,that Ice Cream stand on the corner cooks some awesome food and the price is reasonable,they call the cook,Mother Hen cause he is feeding everyone the same fried foods for half the price,so its not just ice cream.

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    2. Ive also heard that Coffee Pot Kathy's is good. Has anyone eaten there?

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  4. Totally agree on the overpriced and bland food. Went on a Sunday at 5:30 and it took 15 minutes to take our drink order, 45 minutes for a cheese quesadilla (bland), French dip with little au jus because it had spilled on the plate and overcooked french fries, and Fetuccini Alfredo with watery thin white sauce and corn(?) on the side and no bread. Glad we didn't try to eat before the 7:00 Twilight cruise on the Uncle Sam cuz we never would have made it.

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  5. not since Dr Lazaro, have I read such a competent review! Nice work.

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  6. Absolutely LOVE The Ship Restaurant & Lounge ! Never have had a disappointing meal there .

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  7. Absolutely LOVE The Ship Restaurant & Lounge ! Never have had a disappointing meal there .

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