The First Watertown Daily Times Column: Sea Your Way to Clayton

So, you all know, try to discourage people from using the food critic label about me, because the reason I love writing about food is that I’m a fan – I want to support the people who are passionate about feeding others rather than critique them. While I do provide candid feedback about what I’ve eaten and experienced, typically, if I really can’t find something positive to say, then I just won’t publish that review.

With my new column for the Watertown Daily Times, however, I think a more critical palate is in order. The folks of the north country want value and good grub when they dine out; I respect that, and so I want to highlight the best places to feed your family in the region, and let you know if I think there’s a place you maybe should avoid for one reason or another.

For my first review in the paper, I chose one of the newer gems dotting the Northern New York landscape – the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel in Clayton and its warm, craftsman-style dining room branded the Seaway Grille. The hotel looms large at the end of Riverside Dr. in Clayton, next to the recently re-gentrified Frink Park, and hugs the shoreline of the St. Lawrence with promises of gorgeous views and luxurious accommodations. I haven’t stayed there, but luckily, anyone can access this glittering waterfront retreat just by walking in and ordering a drink or a nosh.

The best part of the ambiance of the Seaway Grille is the entire wall of windows that open up to that vista of water. It’s posh but not frou-frou – jeans and a nice top would be fine here, and I’m sure vacationers have and will dress even more casually.

One of our diners chose to start with a bloody mary, and as this is one of my favorite cocktails, I stole a sip. It was decorated with a skewer of green olives, a big lemon wedge and long, lean spears of both celery and asparagus. The drink itself was bursting with that lemon flavor and a generous helping of horseradish for kick. I ordered the Little Black Dress Sauvignon Blanc – a pretty mundane entry-level dry white, which at $7 for a big glass worked just fine, thanks.

The bread basket was a standout. I feel like a lot of places forget to make these complimentary items as special as everything else, but at the Seaway Grille, you get homemade olive bread, sesame bread and poppy seed flatbread PLUS a trio of toppings: sweet whipped butter, Italian herb butter and olive tapenade.

The olive bread was warm, savory, and studded with Kalamata black olives. I love the funky, earthy personality Kalamatas deliver; in this yeasty, soft bread, they added complexity and pungent pleasure. A smear of the oregano and basil-spiked Italian herb butter leant even more flavor, creating two perfect bites to perk up the appetite. The tapenade was clearly made in-house, chunkier than jarred varieties and comprised of both green and Kalamata olives. It was delicious. Try a spoonful on, like, an old cracker, and I’m pretty sure it would still be tasty.

We went for the pink peppercorn-dusted scallop appetizer ($12). The grilled radicchio, goat cheese, and shallot-Riesling cream making a bed for those bi-valves stole the show here, though the scallops themselves were beauties – just a hair undercooked, like I like ‘em. An overcooked scallop is texturally akin to a pencil eraser, but even a just-cooked-through example can have a stringy consistency and lack the sweetness you want from the shellfish.
That sauce, though – it was masterful. The radicchio brought a smoky, caramelized sweetness to the peppery, rich sauce. The little bits of goat cheese, scattered like icebergs in Northern waters, lent creamy, tangy notes to all that glorious saltiness. This was a well-balanced dish created by someone who really thought about how all the flavors would meld.

The diners around us were enjoying the seafood scampi and the veal osso bucco on special – I wish we’d had more people with us in order to try these. In fact, all the tables around us seemed sated and well attended-to, even though I had heard in advance that service was slow here. Our waitress, Sammie, was delightful, chatting us up about her likes and dislikes and giving us the skinny that several executive chefs are at the helm in the kitchen.

The Orchard Harvest Salad ($11) was mostly good, but did contain the one downfall of our entire dinner – mealy apple slices that tasted like a mouthful of dirt. Ew! But here’s the good thing – they were in big slices, so we avoided them after a first bite.

We quite enjoyed the salad’s sparkling orange-cranberry vinaigrette, which was bright and tart without being stringent. The mixed greens, well-seasoned grilled chicken, candied walnuts and dried cranberries formed a light base for the fantastic dressing, and a bit of sharp cheddar cheese leant body. Find a better apple, and this salad would have been a home run.

The roasted half duck ($32) wafted to the table with the fragrance of the finest roasted chicken in all the land. We all just sat there and smelled it for a second before even digging in. But then the lemon mushroom risotto smacked me across the face and made me fall in love. It was redolent with garlic and leek flavor, grounded by whisper-thin slices of brown mushrooms, and pointed upwards on the palette with that citrus flourish. The consistency was perfect – a very tricky concept in the world of risotto, which is slow-cooked short-grain rice that becomes creamy via constant during cooking. This version was loose enough not to give off a gummy mouth feel, but tight enough so as not to be soupy. I loved it so much that I made yummy noises with every bite, and threatened to marry it, making me into Mrs. Lemon Mushroom Risotto.

But don’t think for a second that Mr. Risotto overshadowed his protein date. The meat was tender and moist, flavorful, and really the best you could want from poultry. If you haven’t tried duck, think about really good dark meat turkey – it has a deeper flavor than chicken, but is not gamey in any way. The crispy skin on this version brought it all home and made this one of my favorite duck dishes ever to get shoveled into my face with wanton abandon.

The other two components on this plate Рan acidic, sweet bacon jam and bitter, crisp-tender saut̩ed bok choy, complemented each other and the savory duck to round out the dish perfectly.

Grilled swordfish ($28) was elevated with a verdant cilantro-honey glaze that tempered the somewhat bland flavor this firm, oily fish can sometimes deliver.  A powerfully lemony gremolata, which is a condiment of herbs and vegetables in the same vein as pesto, was in this instance made with licoricey fennel. It was absolutely scrumptious, crunchy and bright – such a brilliant idea to serve with fish.

To balance all of that acidity and a very generous portion of fish, a scoop of bacon-chipotle mashed sweet potatoes were buttery, with the latent smoke of chipotle peppers, the salt of bacon and the perfume of vanilla. This was just a gorgeous plate of food – devoured so fast, I’m surprised I snuck in enough bites to even describe it to you.

After all this lusciousness, it should have been no surprise that desserts were serious business here. Homemade all around, we loved the lightness of both the key lime and chocolate peanut butter pies ($8 each).  The key lime was lacking the lip-smacking tartness you get with traditional versions, but wasn’t made heavier by the creaminess that abated it – it was just airy and nuanced. The peanut butter slice was topped with little chunks of brownies, and while rich, avoided cloying sweetness with its stunning, light texture.

But the shut-the-front-door, this-place-is-awesome moment came when Sammie sauntered over to our table with a plate of three chocolate-covered cherries sitting atop little clouds of whipped cream. They are complimentary with every meal here, and even if those blasted apple slices had been on every plate, these beauties would have made it all worth it. But to cap off a pretty terrific meal, they were the craven, classy, outstanding icing on the cake. They were the cherry on top, literally.

Sammie told us they’re made fresh every day, and that she sneaks them all the time from the kitchen. I don’t blame her! These were not your run-of-the-mill boxed cherries, and this is not merely “hotel food.”

The Seaway Grille is pricey, yes. Dinner for three, with one beer, a cocktail, and one glass of wine plus desserts, ran us $131 plus tip. However, the view, friendly service and comfortable, immaculate atmosphere were worth five dinners out at your pick of Arsenal St. chains.

This is not a spot you’re likely to make your new Saturday night regular. That said, there is a bar menu featuring chicken wings and burgers in the $10-$12 range. If they’re treated with a fraction of the care of the dining room menu, I’m betting that’d be a deal of which I’d be likely to take regular advantage, if I lived closer.

This is occasion dining – not the very top, Jacques Cartier Room-level opulence you’ll find in Alex Bay, but still elevated and special. I award the Seaway Grille a nine on the BHS Scale – my affectionate term for the grading system I’ve developed for my blog – which will be the new “forks” system for this column. The BHS Scale goes one to ten, with ten being over the top, groan-worthy, blow-your-mind perfection that haunts my dreams, five about average and perfectly serviceable, and a three the base level of a restaurant I will even sit still in past the drinks portion of the dining experience. If it’s below a three, I’m probably not sticking around to order a full meal, is what I’m saying.

I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s review, and that you, too, enjoy a meal at the Seaway Grille. When I have good food, my first instinct is to share it with others – I’m an old Italian nonna at heart – and there is really good food to be found here. Give it a try for yourself, and let us know what you think – food, above all, needs to feed our hearts and minds just as much as our bellies. I found the duck, risotto, gremolata and pie at Seaway a treat for all five of my senses, and I’ll be “seaing,” my way back to this grille soon enough. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

1 comment:

  1. Kick-ass review Shelby. We went to Harbor Hotel the day after we checked Gabe out and had a similar experience to yours. My wife had the scallops and I had the best tofu ever. That bar and patio area out by the water looks like a good option too in nice weather. Speaking of which, how do you think they will do in the winter with most of the town shut down?