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Big-city vibe at Downhill Grill in Saranac Lake


SARANAC LAKE —There’s a newcomer to the restaurant scene in downtown Saranac Lake.

The Downhill Grill opened several months ago in the former Hallmark card store on Main Street. It’s easy to find, because the Hallmark sign is still bolted to the building above the plate glass-windowed storefront.

And if Downhill Grill sounds a bit familiar, there was a Downhill Grill in Lake Placid for the last 14 years, run by Joe and Ken Lawless. That location is closed, and the brothers have returned to their hometown, Saranac Lake, with years of restaurant experience under their belts.

The plain exterior doesn’t do the inside justice. It’s one big open space with spacious seating for nearly 80 toward the front and a bar area toward the back with enough stools to accommodate a couple of dozen thirsty patrons.

One wall of the dining room has original brick exposed. Another has vintage photos of the village and winter sports. The not-too-crowded space, the not-too-bright modern lighting and the not-too-loud old-time jazz music gave the room a big-city bistro feel.

We were surprised to see so many Mexican dishes on the menu—almost half. “Downhill” nachos, chile con queso, jalapeno cheddar soup, chicken fajita salad. … It’s basically light, casual dining with five slightly heavier entrees and five Mexican-style entrees.

So let’s get started.

Actually, our caring server, Lyndsey, got us started with complimentary homemade chips and salsa. I guess the Downhill Grill is pretending to be a Mexican restaurant. The chips were good—especially the deep-fried flour tortilla rectangles. The salsa was just fine.

For appetizers, there were two creative Mexican and one all-American.

Lobster and scallop queso ($12.95) — how could you not order an appetizer that had lobster in it?

This was a soup cup literally overflowing with melted cheese, spinach, tomatoes, lobster and scallops. The consistency was reminiscent of spinach and artichoke dip — similarly creamy with great seafood taste. Homemade chips accompanied.

A little more traditional, Mexican layer dip ($7.25) was presented in a larger bowl — black beans, cheese, salsa and sour cream topped with guacamole, surrounded by homemade corn and flour tortilla chips. Great for nibbling while chatting.

Guess we should have read the description of chicken strips ($7.50) more carefully: “Traditional breaded strips tossed with wing sauce and served with your choice of dressing.”

Hello, these were food service chicken fingers, four of them plainly placed on a plate and served with a horseradish ranch sauce we didn’t order. Not a problem with the sauce—Lindsey was happy to bring out honey mustard dressing. But the boring pieces of frozen and fried breaded chicken needed more than the correct dressing to be a viable restaurant appetizer.

The house salad that came with our entrees was served in a chilled glass bowl and was quite delicious, although quite plain—dark green leaf lettuce, maybe a few slices of onion scattered around and that’s about it. At the peak of tomato season, you’d think there’d be some red in there for flavor and color. Cukes would have been nice, too.

Chicken tortellini ($16.95) and blackened salmon ($16.95) were two full-fledged entrees that we ordered.

The chicken dish was very good, cheese tortellini in a creamy Alfredo sauce topped with tasty blackened chicken and decent but not memorable garlic bread placed on the rim of the bowl.

The salmon was also quite good, seasoned just right—not roof-of-the-mouth scorching. Spanish rice with noticeable cumin overtones was just a little on the dry side. Mashed potatoes filled out the plate, but we don’t know why. We wouldn’t have ordered two starches.

For one of their Mexican-style entrees, I ordered a shrimp chimichanga ($10.95) at the recommendation of our helpful waitress: “That’s the one Rachael Ray liked the best.” Lyndsey then explained that the Food Network and TV personality had visited their Lake Placid location.

Hey, if it’s good enough for Rachael, it’s good enough for Walter, right?

The deep-fried flour tortilla became a dark brown eggshell-like casing that you could crack open with the back of a spoon. Inside, unexpectedly large shrimp were exposed in a creamy sauce very reminiscent of the lobster queso appetizer.

A bed of chopped lettuce and diced raw onions came underneath, since we didn’t order the optional rice or black beans that would have added $2 to the dish. (Rachael probably sprang for the beans.)

Finally, the deal of the century — or at least that night—their fish fry half portion, $7.95 on special, $2 less than the regular price.

The beer-battered haddock was cooked to a T, although the light batter could have been brighter. Hand-cut french fries were exceptional, as were the homemade coleslaw and tartar sauce.

This was a heaping good plateful of food at a ridiculously low price. In fact, all of the portion sizes throughout the night were more than ample.

Desserts are not made in-house but rather somewhere “in the area.” We settled on two different cheesecakes, one plain and one with blueberries swirled in. Each cost $4.95.

They were basically the same, our preference being the one without the blueberries—classic in taste and texture. But too bad they had to spray them both down with fake whipped cream from an aerosol can.

Food for four cost $103.59 before tip and drinks. Four glasses of Mondavi house wine added $27.25 to the total.

Lyndsey was a very personable, patient and helpful young lady who obviously cares about her customers.

While the menu didn’t strike us as particularly adventurous, overall, it was a pretty decent dining experience on all accounts.

You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via e-mail:

The Downhill Grill

74 Main St.

Saranac Lake, N.Y. 12983

1 (518) 891-3663

The Downhill Grill, an institution in Lake Placid since 1997, has relocated to downtown Saranac Lake. Casual food with an emphasis on Mexican cuisine.

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday

11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Noon to 9:30 p.m. Sunday

APPETIZER PICK: Lobster and scallop queso

ENTRÉE PICKS: Chicken tortellini Alfredo; beer-battered haddock

RATING: 3½ forks

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