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At home, yet away, at the Hilton Garden Inn’s Great American Grill

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The newest addition to the recent rash of chain hotels opening in Watertown is the Hilton Garden Inn.

The lobby of the hotel is a pleasant one, a large open area with pristine new furniture and high atrium ceilings. As soon as you enter the front door, your eyes scan the check-in desk, the L-shaped bar and the dining area with its understated lighting that looks out onto the parking lot.

It felt like we were somewhere else — a little like being on vacation at a new and different resort in some faraway place.

The restaurant is called the Great American Grill. The menu is quite bistro-ish: garden veggie wraps, crab cakes, bruschetta, flatbreads, California wedge salad, stuffed shrimp, filet mignon, chicken Alfredo and whole wheat pasta primavera.

Chef Matt Hudson is doing the cooking. Matt has gained a following the past few years with his fine work at the Lyric Coffee House and Bistro in Clayton.

But first, let’s start at the bar. One side of the “L” is right out in the open; the other side is tucked into a small alcove. Maybe 20 stools, at most.

There’s a nice selection of wines by the glass and several beers on tap (Blue Moon and a specialty Sam Adams, we noticed). Lots of vodka and gin choices for the martini-inclined.

Zech was an easygoing and knowledgeable bartender, quite at home in his domain behind the counter. He had no problem recommending a Riesling to one of our hard-and-fast Chardonnay drinkers. A friendly guy and a good salesman, too, he even offered a taste of the Riesling before pouring. And he looked like a pro, all duded up in a white tux shirt and black bowtie.

After some enjoyable bar talk we drifted into the dining area. We looked for a coat rack or someplace to park our coats and were directed to a coatroom. It was locked, so we just placed them on chairs at an adjoining table. Only two or three of the two dozen or so tables were occupied.

Tables were nicely appointed but not too fussy or formal, keeping a relaxed feel to the room. Our waitress, Jen, was the epitome of Southern hospitality, genuinely concerned about our comfort and well-being throughout the evening.

The menu is not terribly extensive though generally pricey by north country standards. But there are some interesting choices.

We went seafood wild with our appetizers: fried scallops ($8.95), Maryland-style crab cakes ($7.95) and a very decadent “tempoura” lobster tail ($13.95).

The scallops and crab cakes were fine — well-prepared and well-presented and of good quality. The scallops were delicate, with a nice crunch from the coarse panko breadcrumb coating. A touch of heat from the chili cream sauce was a nice complement. The crab cakes were tasty, lightly pan fried and served with Cajun remoulade.

Lobster tempura (not tempoura!) was beautiful — a clever and striking presentation. The meat was mostly removed from the tail, lightly battered and tucked partway back into its bright red shell.

It was served with a gooey sweet chili sauce, which didn’t seem to work with something as special as lobster.

There are a half-dozen tantalizing grilled flatbreads available. We shared a pesto grilled chicken version ($10.95) that more resembled a round pizza than the customary rectangular-shaped flatbread.

The crust was thin and crispy, complete with actual grill marks underneath. The toppings — slices of grilled chicken breast, mozzarella cheese, pesto sauce and diced tomatoes — were OK, except the pale winter tomatoes were sad. You could tell just by looking that they would be tasteless.

But the flatbread was distractingly tepid, which certainly didn’t enhance our enjoyment of it. And it called our attention to the fact that most of the appetizers could have been hotter as well.

After an unsuccessful attempt to substitute the $9 California wedge salad for the complimentary garden salad (we were willing to pay an upcharge), the side salad was delivered, a lovely mix of spring greens and assorted veggies. Unfortunately, it was drenched with the house Italian dressing.

I ordered a cup of the soup of the day, which they were able to sub for the salad. The potato-bacon soup was loaded with large chunks of potato in a creamy broth with the distinct flavor of bacon. Tasty, but it would have been even better had it been served hotter.

Chicken puttanesca ($17.95) was delicious, two nice-sized chicken breasts sautéed just right with tomatoes, black olives and capers in a buttery white wine sauce.

Grilled salmon ($18.95) was nicely done. It had that nice crunchy outside/tender inside thing going for it. A pleasant touch was the al dente-tender grilled asparagus that came with both the salmon and the chicken. Way better than the soupy frozen veggies served in too many restaurants.

We splurged on the 16-ounce rib-eye steak ($27.95) and were not disappointed. It was tasty and perfectly cooked to our call of medium-rare. Who cared that it was plopped on top of bland rice pilaf. Where else could it go? It was so huge it hung over the edge of the plate.

Penne pasta al forno ($17.95) brought back memories of the baked ziti we used to make at home years ago. Penne tossed with marinara, ricotta and sausage was topped with mozzarella and baked.

It was generally meat-poor, especially since the menu indicated it was baked with sliced sweet sausage. There might have been some ground sausage in there, but you really had to hunt for it. Not a dish we’d rush back to have in the future.

Just about every plate was brightened with either colorful edible orchids or “bull’s blood” beet microgreens; those might be more effective if used a little more sparingly.

For dessert, funnel cake bites ($5.95) were a must, finger-friendly bits of fried dough topped with powdered sugar and what we believed was real maple syrup.

It was like being at the fair in the middle of winter. They could have been served hotter, but then again, what couldn’t?

Chocolate molten cake ($5.95) is what it is: a dense cake exploding with melted bittersweet chocolate, topped with vanilla ice cream. Personally, I think it’s run its course, but that wasn’t necessarily the consensus around the table.

And it should be mentioned … the coffee was very good. Often you have a good dinner and the coffee tastes like dishwater. Not the case here.

Dinner for four with four starters, four entrées and two desserts came to $154.15 with tax but before tip.

Jen addressed the food temperature issue with the kitchen. Matt was very receptive to our criticism and is taking measures to ensure his food is served hotter in the future.

Overall, the Great American Grill is on the right track. The problems we experienced can be overcome and the food has lots of promise. For people journeying to Watertown to shop or locals looking for something a little more special than what the chain restaurants offer, the Great American Grill is worth a look.

You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via email: wsiebel@wdt.net.



Great American Grill

at the Hilton Garden Inn

1290 Arsenal St.

Watertown, N.Y.

788-1234

www.watertownthousandislands.hgi.com



It felt like we were somewhere else—a little like being on vacation at a new and different resort in some faraway place.



HOURS: Open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.

Dinner served from 5 to 10 p.m. daily except Sunday, whenservice ends at 9 p.m.



APPETIZER PICKS: Fried scallops, lobster tempura



ENTRÉE PICKS: Chicken puttanesca, grilled salmon, 16-ounce rib-eye



DESSERT PICK: Funnel cake bites



RATING: 3½ forks

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