The Epicenter of the Thousand Islands’ Culinary Rise

When I was a girl, dining out in the Thousand Islands typically meant Alexandria Bay, and it was considered fancy. Bonnie Castle, the Riveredge, or Edgewood dining all meant dressing up – for a wedding or for dinner before prom or some such occasion. Of course, the democratization of good food and restaurants has gone a long way to making dinner with a view into something more accessible to the masses.

In 2018, Alex Bay has some catching up to do in comparison to its once-sleepy neighbor, Clayton. From the always-busy 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel, to the always-delicious Clipper, the elegant Johnston House and the new jewel DiPrinzio’s, Clayton has gotten its act together at exactly the right time. Leading that charge is The Chateau, down Route 12, with the most spectacular views, attentive service, and deliciously upscale cuisine this side of the St. Lawrence.

I’ve been dying to eat at the Chateau, and finally stomped my foot hard enough this past weekend to get my way. Why was that necessary? I think fine dining still has a mountain to climb in the Northcountry in terms of acceptance. When a menu sports words like curry, wasabi, bottarga, and sumac, many folks are intimidated by the threat of ingredients they’ve never tasted and whether they’ll be plunking down $18 for a salad they might not like. That’s not an accusation I’m casting in the direction of the diner nor The Chateau’s experienced executive chef, Christian Ives, but it’s an observation I made first hand as my party took our seats and perused the menu last Saturday night.

But let’s back up to the opening strains of the symphony The Chateau is waiting to play for you. As you enter Fairview Manor, this onetime nunnery will immediately set you at ease and transport you to a more genteel plane. The hearths are decorated with flowers, the 18” thick stone walls are insulated by acoustic panels to create a hushed interior, and the balcony off the main level welcomes you with a panoramic view of the river. The entire restaurant is inviting, clean, and comfortable, and a cocktail at the bar while you wait for the rest of your party to arrive will afford you with an eyeful of the international channel that makes this corner of the world so special.

Service is attentive though not overly formal. I liked that we were asked if we preferred sparkling or still water – a European traditional that’s a nice touch stateside. In addition, we were informed that our table was ours for the evening, inviting us to relax and exhale - no turn-overs expected here. The wait staff also is very patient and knowledgeable about menu questions, and willing to address diners' concerns about those more challenging ingredients. At least two of the guests in our party have more conservative palettes, and our waiter Damien was great about accommodating their requests.

Right out of the gate, the amuse bouche, or “mouth amuser,” of the evening pleased almost everyone at our table. I thought it was an absolute slam-dunk. Pork, cilantro, and an assertive punch of lime tucked into a crunchy, fried wonton garnished with fresh tomato and pickled red onion kicked off our meal with the perfect amount of mmmmmm. One person detected heat in hers, but everyone else tasted a savory dumpling packed with flavor, and were glad for it.

Another crowd pleaser were the dinner rolls, which are usually a pretty hum-drum milestone in a restaurant meal. At The Chateau, the impossibly ethereal, fluffy rolls are brushed with butter and sprinkled with parmesan, and served with a peppery olive oil infused with rosemary and other herbs and seasoned with sea salt. They were irresistible, and really delicious.

The fried green tomato and crab salad dish served as dinner for one of the more conservative of our diners, and while the sumac vinaigrette and saffron promised on the menu worried her, she ended up absolutely loving her meal. Chef Christian is a master at taking a complex suite of ingredients and balancing them perfectly to deliver flavors that are intricate but nuanced. In this dish, the creamy saltiness of the pistachios in the crust of the tomatoes gave them personality which played perfectly against the citrus punch of the lemon and the sumac dressing the jumbo lump crab salad. That acidity counterbalanced the sweetness of the shellfish, and the brightness of the microgreens on top pointed the whole thing up. It was wonderful and light, a fantastic dish if you want to hold on to summer just a moment longer.

Our other picky eater went for the sea bass, despite her concern about wasabi, curry, and crabmeat. But this dish, like the last, was a sonnet rather than slam poetry. The fish was as mild as possible, with a gorgeously moist, delicate texture. The risotto didn’t deliver a curry wallop, but rather a depth of flavor to carry the fish upon – its flowery saffron and earthy curry anchoring the subtle bass.

The beef tournedos also advertised a curry marinade, but didn’t bring with them any of the strong scent or spice of Indian food. The beef was impeccably tender, and well-seasoned, while the lobster on top was buttery and rich. A large portion of mashed potatoes alongside were earthy and creamy, and the garlic red wine reduction was silky darkness upon the tongue.

My order was the duck en croute, and I was enchanted from the first bite until the last. The lavender- duck fat glaze leant fragrance without a flowery taste, and the duck was cooked with a gorgeous blush at the center. The potato/chanterelle mushroom/blue cheese gratin that came under the duck was richness incarnate, and you have got to taste it. Duck is a sweeter meat, so to have the intense umami of the blue cheese and mushrooms with it was just delectable. A little bundle of broccolini alongside brightened up the rich plate, and a maple butter sauce under it reinforced the sweetness and was wonderful with the vegetable.

We couldn’t help but order dessert. One of them was a tableside bananas foster presentation, and you all know how much I love that. Watching the flame of the banana liqueur is such a fun sideshow gag during a meal – and the results were sweet, creamy, and just plain yummy.

Even better was a key lime pie that backed nicely off what can be an either too tart or too sweet confection. This one was extremely creamy, with the piercing citric tang of lime zest, but enough panache in the velvety topping to balance it out.

The peanut butter pie was a masterpiece of textures – lightly crisp layers along with a chewy base and a creamy filling that also somehow avoided an overly saccharine finish that claims so many chocolate and peanut butter efforts.

While we were inhaling all of this amazing food, we also had a magnificent overall experience. Damien kept the drinks fresh and treated us to extra rolls when asked, we had this beautiful view out the windows, and we felt enveloped in the warm atmosphere they’ve taken pains to create at The Chateau. The deft hands at the work in the kitchen created cuisine that was enormously satisfying, never heavy and never fussy, despite the elaborate menu descriptions.

I give The Chateau at Saint Lawrence Spirits a 10 on the BHS scale. I almost never do that, but there really was no way our experience could have been improved – it was delightful. It was one of those evenings that causes you to linger as you step out of the building towards the parking lot, reluctant to bid farewell to friends or to let the spell break. And that’s the real magic of this place – you are lulled by the flavors Ives and his team weave together into a meal here, compounded by excellent wines and cocktails and set to the rhythm of the St. Lawrence River. It’s a heady composition, and it’s one you should add to your list. For a place with castles perched on islands and sailboats decorating every splendid sunset, we're a bit short on magic. This isn't your mother's Thousand Islands, but you should make sure to make it yours.