Word of a new chef and an appealing online menu brought us to Ives Hill Country Club on a Wednesday evening.
There were a handful of patrons at the long, attractive wooden bar when we arrived around 6 oclock, but no one was at any of the tables in the spacious lounge. We four pretty much doubled their business when we walked through the door.
But it is a little early in the season, and we assume this comfortable space will be filled with thirsty golfers in a matter of weeks. We do know theres a pretty good crowd on Friday nights when they provide live entertainment in the lounge with legendary Watertown musicians.
The beer drinker in our party was amazed that there was no tap system only beer by the bottle. He began with a citrusy Blue Moon, a popular wheat beer served with a slice of orange, but not on this particular night they were out of oranges.
For house wines, their Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio both come from Columbia Crest, a reputable winery in Washington state.
Time to head to the dining room. Our waitress led us through a heavy, awkward commercial fire door that separates the two rooms.
The dining room is attractive dark wood beams creating a coffered ceiling, multicolored woods in the wainscoting along the walls, white tablecloths and napkins on square tables, wooden chairs with cushioned fabric seats. Overall, there was a feeling of sleek comfort that makes sense in the environs of the golf course.
But the night we were there, the room was absolutely empty. Doesnt the public know Ives is open to the public? Not a bad thing we had the undivided attention of our veteran waitress of six months and the new chef and his kitchen crew.
While we were perusing the menu, a gift arrived from the kitchen a platter filled with almond-stuffed dates, wrapped in bacon, then skewered with small balls of fresh mozzarella, garnished with slivered scallions and homemade chili aioli.
I asked our waitress the reason for the special appetizer. Because we have a VIP in the house, she replied. Someone at the bar blew our cover, and the entire staff was on their tippy-toes, knowing that the WDT restaurant reviewer and his team were there for dinner.
We dont believe that knowledge materially changed our experience, with the exception of the gift appetizer from the chef, one which he plans to add to the menu. It did seem to affect our waitress, however, who endured some bumbling moments at times, despite my ensuring her that everything was going to be OK.
The menu consists of appetizers, salads, Sicilian pizzas, upscale burgers and eight dinner entrees that include chicken, seafood and steak.
The salads are huge (we saw one delivered to the bar while we were there), as you would expect for $10 apiece. We skipped them as difficult to share and ordered a Toscana pizza ($12), one of four Sicilian-style pizza offerings also very large and definitely sized for sharing.
Sicilian pizzas are characterized by a thick and puffy crust thats chewy but not too doughy. This one was perfect, as you would expect from a chef who came to Ives from Goodfellos in Sackets Harbor, where wood-fired pizza is the focus.
Toppings are ample a base of crushed tomatoes along with kalamata olives, red onion, scallions and cheeses (the last line was cut off on the menu, so we werent sure exactly what kinds, but feta was one), topped with slices of roasted tomato. The menu did list cilantro as an ingredient, but we couldnt detect any.
Its great to see a regional dish like Utica greens ($12) on the menu. This traditional dish of sautéed escarole, bits of prosciutto, hot cherry peppers and toasted breadcrumbs was served in a large soup bowl along with two triangles of crisp garlic toast.
The greens were spicy, but not overly so, but they were also a bit watery, more like a soup, and without any great presentation. Green stuff in a bowl, and lots of it.
Goat cheese and sage croquettes ($10) were nicely done relatively mild but rich discs of cheese coarsely breaded and delicately fried to a golden brown attractively presented on a plate garnished with colorful lettuce leaves, basil aioli and dots of fiery red chili sauce.
We appreciated the contrast between the crispy exterior and the smooth, creamy filling. Couldnt detect and flavor of sage, however.
At this point in the meal, we asked to see a wine list, but there wasnt one. Our server did her best to recite some popular choices.
That resulted in one glass of La Crema Chardonnay, an upscale selection, and a premium beer, a Hennepin from Ommegang brewery in Cooperstown. (Reciting a wine list is like reciting a long list of specials by the time you get to the last one, youve forgotten what the first one was and you lose interest.)
As we scanned the menu for entrees, one person in our party mentioned hed looked at the online menu and had already settled on the roasted organic duck breast, which, disappointingly, was not on the menus we were given.
He asked our waitress about it, she asked the chef, and we were told that it states in the online menu that the menu is subject to change based on availability of product.
The menu also includes something called raviolo. Weve had what wed call raviolo (the singular of ravioli) elsewhere, one very large filled pasta decorated to the hilt, but our server didnt seem to understand when we quizzed her about it.
So the raviolo ($19) dish was actually several ravioli described as stuffed with Maytag blue cheese and prosciutto and served with a wild garlic and shallot cream sauce.
Maytag blue is very mild, almost undistinguishable as blue cheese were used to. It was difficult to spot any prosciutto in the filling. The sauce was thick and creamy, but we couldnt catch much of a wild garlic flavor. A garnish of wilted greens and lettuce brightened what would have otherwise been a dull-looking dish.
The shrimp entrée ($19) on the menu was totally different from the online description. Sautéed shrimp were tossed in a cream sauce with trumpet pasta and toasted almonds, garnished with three wide, oversized clumps of crisp maple bacon.
Although the shrimp were not very large, they were plentiful. The sauce was rich and creamy; the almonds were an unusual and delicious addition. This dish had a lot of textures and flavors going for it.
I think our favorite entrée was the salmon filet ($20), served, according to the menu, over rosemary-infused bearfuso risotto and fresh herbs.
The salmon was excellent flavorful, nicely cooked, not dry. The risotto had a good consistency, but lacked personality. Pungent rosemary is pretty distinctive, and we couldnt detect any rosemary, or fresh herbs of any kind.
And then theres the bearfuso risotto. What the heck is bearfuso? Our waitress said it meant wine-infused. Well, all risotto starts out with wine to deglaze the pan and coat the rice.
OK, we may look dumb, but we have smartphones. A quick Google search and we found burro fuso, which is the Italian term for melted butter. So we could assume the risotto we ate had butter swirled in at the end.
Another example of a hopped-up menu description that came with an insufficient explanation.
How can you make chicken parmesan different from the next place? Slap a full pound of it over macaroni and cheese and see who bites.
The Pound of Parm ($21) was an obscene portion, enough to feed a family of four. OK, they used gigantic organic chicken breasts (what did they feed those chickens, anyway?) and annatto cheddar (sounds fancy, but annatto is just a natural food coloring) in the mac and cheese. But close your eyes, and it was no better or worse than any decent chicken parm.
There were three house-made desserts available the night we were there, priced at $7 each.
Tahitian brownie cake was similar to a cheesecake, we thought, with a very thin brownie crust underneath. I thought Tahitian cake was more like a pound cake, so this was a little different. Cut into four pieces (just for us?), it was nicely presented.
Frangelico-soaked spice cake was a big slice with a layer of dates and walnuts finished with a sweet, sweet icing. If there was Frangelico in there, the hazelnut flavor was lost in the overly sweet icing.
Amaretto cheesecake was a classic, very well executed not heavy, not too sweet, with a slight citrusy taste. We couldnt taste any amaretto, though.
Dinner for four cost $151.15 with tax. Tip, beer and wine were additional.
First impressions, gleaned from examining the website in advance and reading the actual menu once we arrived, were that the restaurant promised to be a fine-dining destination.
In the end, we felt a little disappointed. Perhaps if the menu had just given plainer descriptions of the dishes, without the fancy talk, our expectations wouldnt have been as high and we wouldnt have felt like wed been let down or misled.
And if you say youre going to use a certain ingredient or do a certain preparation, be sure to do it. Otherwise, leave it out of the description.
Also, keep the website maintained. Ives home page has the accurate list of upcoming weekly entertainment; surely it wouldnt take much more effort to keep the menu updated.
Theres a relative shortage of nice restaurants with real chefs in Watertown. Its obvious that Ives is trying to fill a number of niches at once and we dont see that as a flaw at all. The bar is fun, the food was good with generous portions and the atmosphere very pleasant.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ives Hill Country Club
435 Flower Ave. W.
The bar is fun, the food was good with generous portions and the atmosphere very pleasant.
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday
11 a.m. to10:30 p.m. Friday
4 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday
OUR PICKS: Goat cheese croquettes, Toscana pizza, salmon with risotto, Shrimp with almonds, pasta and bacon
RATING: 3½ forks