A Fireside Chat

It was with big hungry anticipation and lots of good cheer that my entire family, plus Melinda, headed out to the Fireside at Partridge Berry Inn last month for my little sister’s birthday feast. The reopening of Partridge Berry Inn has been the buzz in Watertown of late, and we had been eager to visit; in fact, an earlier attempt to dine there was thwarted when we called for reservations and were told we couldn’t be seated until 9 p.m. on a Saturday night. This time, we called several days in advance, and our party of nine was accommodated.

That anticipation was immediately rewarded by the stunning new interior of the Fireside. French country, but not frou-frou, whomever picked the colors, accessories, lighting and wall coverings knew what she was doing. It’s gorgeous without being too feminine, but neither does it veer too far off in the space’s previous direction of mounted game and wagon wheels.

And straight out of the gate, the food did not disappoint: popovers, still hot from the oven, served with fresh strawberry butter. OMG. First of all, popovers are not a very common finding here in the U.S. – they are light, eggy, airy little cups of wonder, and in this case, a conveyance system for butter mixed with sweet strawberries – this was a fantastic pairing.

As a table, we ordered the crispy artichokes with cheese fondue and shrimp cocktail as appetizers. Both were home runs. The tempura-fried artichokes were fabulous, and the ingenious cheese “fondue” dipping sauce had the sufficient sharpness to cut the richness of the batter. Who wouldn’t want to dip fried things in cheese fondue, right? This is a hearty appy, inventive and delicious. The shrimp cocktail was very well done. When I worked closely with restaurateurs in my days with the Sackets Harbor Chamber, I learned that restaurants make no money on shrimp cocktail, and often lose money, because the product is simply so pricey. So I’m always impressed when a chef uses a good-sized shrimp for this dish, and then goes a step further and actually innovates the plate. In this case, Chef Shawn Vendetti is gracing these enormous, perfectly cooked babies with a basil oil that is dynamite. I give him props for making an effort on an offering that is probably a profit suck for his kitchen.

The next course was a little more controversial. The salad was resoundingly approved of – with a tangy, honey balsamic house dressing. But a few of us ordered the pumpkin and sweet potato soup of the day, and not everyone agreed with me that it was silky and delicious. My sister’s boyfriend and my Mom both found it too sweet for their palates. Also, Josh (Mary’s boyfriend) and I got into an argument about the dairy product in the soup. He won – it was heavy cream, but I swear I detected some crème fraiche lending a bit of tang to the proceedings. The only negative I could come up with was that a few rosemary stems had made it into my bowl, as well as bits of bay leaf, and I had to fish them out as I ate. But this was certainly superior to other winter squash soups I’ve had, which often come off cloyingly sweet or too thick.

The most controversial soup in my young blogging career

A notable thing about Fireside is the varied menu. While I’m betting the Culinary Institute-trained Vendetti can do even more in the way of creativity than he’s boasting currently, the menu is extensive, with gourmet touches, yet still tame enough for conservative NNY palates. While it would be nice to see a fish other than salmon, tuna and haddock - say halibut or snapper - and pork belly or shoulder are a little more exciting than the featured tenderloin, I understand that in Watertown, you’ve gotta provide what will sell. Luckily, our crew ordered a good range of dishes so that I could recap properly.

I’ll start with my choice, which was scallops and a spinach and mushroom risotto. I wasn’t blown away by the flavor of the dish, but I will say that the execution was flawless. The scallops were perfectly cooked, not overdone and rubbery, but blessedly also not underdone, which is a common scallop trap. The risotto was cooked properly al dente, but I would have liked more flavor to be coaxed out of it. I’m not sure what was missing…wine? Butter? A better grade of parmesan cheese? I couldn’t put my finger on it, exactly, but when you add what can be watery ingredients like spinach and mushrooms to a dish, you need to season everything individually and give each its own preparation, and maybe a jamming restaurant kitchen just isn’t the place for that kind of finesse? I was pleased with my dinner, but not overjoyed. You’ll see from the photo that no one cleaned off the rim of the plate after adding what the menu called roasted-garlic tomato crema, but tasted like vodka sauce to me (it was still yummy). That’s a tiny detail that isn’t a huge deal at a lot of places, but for $18 a plate, might be something to note.

I always clean my plate; will you clean it first, though?

The macho men of our table, my brother and stepdad, ordered steaks, and both gave mannish grunts of delight. The only one I tasted was Dad’s hanger steak, which is a rare cut of meat for a restaurant menu. It can be very tough, but the chef knew what he was doing, slicing it on the bias and coaxing exceptional beefy flavor out of this difficult cut. Dad was pleased, and so was I. The steaks were served with mashed potatoes, which were given a thumbs-up from the masses, and a cool little medley of crisp-tender julienned veggies, which were delish. Mom also indulged in the bovine selections, giving a resoundingly positive review of her succulent filet mignon.

I don’t know if the hanger refers to somewhere you park planes (hangar?) or something on which you hang your shirt, but it’s delicious either way

My father ordered the haddock francaise, which surprised me. He usually likes his seafood deep fried, and in a captain’s platter-kind of way. But he was very pleased with this offering, and said his fish had a great batter and was very tasty. Melinda got the lobster ravioli in pink vodka sauce. She loved this dish, and I agree that it was yummy. I will say that I was surprised that the ravioli were an off-the-shelf product, which is what they appeared to be. I would think a CIA-trained chef would be cranking out homemade raviolis. However, because the menu is so broad and the restaurant so busy, perhaps the kitchen staff is spread a little thin to be crafting homemade pastas? That said, it was a solid dish, and I guess tastiness wins out over homemade in most cases.

Stripey yummy lobster goodness

Josh likes to please me, or so I tell myself, so he ordered the chicken vendetti. I wanted someone to order it, because I figured it must be pretty good if the chef named it after himself. This chicken breast stuffed with fontina cheese, spinach and mushrooms, then wrapped in phyllo and baked, had a great texture and was tasty. The melty fontina really made it.

The winner of all the entrees was the special of the night, mahi mahi in a coconut, almond and sweet potato crust. My stepmother wins first prize for ordering this masterpiece. Although it looked a little messy on the plate, it was absolutely divine. I would never have thought to combine coconut with sweet potato and put it on fish, as I tend to shy away from sweet combinations in my savory dishes, but Chef Shawn had a stroke of genius with this mahi. It was tender without being mushy, and not overly sweet, but perfectly balanced. Bravo! If this is on special when you dine at Fireside, don’t miss it.

Mahi, oh mahi

The portions were large throughout the evening, and believe me, not one of us required dessert. But requirements don’t scare me, my hungries! Our end of the table was brave enough to order a few, in the interest of, um, science. Yeah, science. That’s it. All of them were heavenly – and all of them were gargantuan. Melinda’s bananas foster crème brulee, the best of the bunch, was big enough for a family to take a bath in. Actually, that sounds like kind of a good idea. A crème brulee hot tub of creamy, dreamy taste sensations! Next in the ranking was the hot fudge cake, which was dense, rich and chocolatey, as God intended. Third was my carrot cake, which I barely made a dent in, but was nonetheless delicious, not too spicy and chock full of fresh carrot flavor. Mary’s apple crisp brought up the rear. It was good, but not great. One of my favorite things on all the desserts was the whipped cream, which was homemade, and fantastic. It was chilled down and thick, almost like ice cream, and I could have eaten a bowl of just that, had I not already eaten my own body weight that evening.

This is my dessert collage. Do you like?

The service during our dinner was impeccable, but I have heard rumors that others have had not-so-positive experiences with the wait staff. I will admit that the staff knew I was a blogger, and that my sister and Josh are friends with a large share of the front and back of the house employees – so my judgment may be impaired on that issue. Our server, Ted, took wonderful care of us. If there are such issues at hand, I hope the management resolves them quickly, because I’d hate for people to miss out on all this good food due to poor service.

A quick vote in the democratic state of Big Hungry rendered a score of nine on the BHS one-to-10 scale. Overall, this was a really fabulous meal, and Partridge Berry Inn has once again ascended to the throne of Watertown/Black River’s poshest special occasion haunt. You will not eat here cheaply, and I would say the setting calls for at least business casual attire, but I also wouldn’t put the Fireside at the formality level of, say, the Jacques Cartier Room at the Riveredge. You could come here with your family for a celebratory dinner, everyone will be able to find something on the menu they like, and no one will feel overwhelmed with the fancy. It’s just right. And isn’t that what dinner should be?

My recommendations to Chef Vendetti and his corps of kitchen staffers is to simplify, if only slightly. While the far-reaching menu ensures that every patron will find something to his or her liking, it also means they’re stretching themselves pretty thin back there. Small touches like thoroughly sieving the soup, perfectly seasoning the risotto, and cleaning the rims of the plates, are, of course, small. But when a family in the recession-ravaged Northcountry is shelling out possibly hundreds of dollars for a special night out, these are touches that should be completed. I don’t know, maybe I’ve watched too much Top Chef, or maybe my risotto is really outstandingly fabulous (hee), but when you’ve entered the realm of fine dining, details matter.

The Fireside at Partridge Berry Inn is certainly serving up some of the best food in the area, on par with other favs like Joey’s at the TI Club, and the Ives Hill Country Club. It’s so wonderful to see the Northcountry embrace some of this higher-level dining with gourmet flair. I encourage you to plan an evening out this winter at the Fireside. I know you’ll enjoy the elegant ambiance and scrumptious cuisine as much as we did. Make it a date night with your sweetie before the rush of the holidays envelopes you – you won’t regret it!

Check back in next week, when Big Hungry Shelby takes a little trip down to the Southern Tier for some wild game and free spa services! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

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