LOWVILLE On the outskirts of town toward the Adirondacks on the Number Four Road, theres a rustic restaurant called Memories.
Memories has been around for well over a decade, but the 100-year-old building that houses it has been home to several restaurants over the years.
Its current owner is local restaurateur Paul Virkler, who also owns the Steak n Brew in nearby Turin. Depending on current owner and current chef, the dining experience at Memories could range from dreadful to fantastic, according to my local foodie friends who joined me on the review.
About a year and a half ago, a new chef, Patrick Ryan, took over the kitchen. Since then, the food has received significant praise. Patrick is a local young man who graduated from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. He has worked in several restaurants around the country, including one in New Orleans, before returning to his roots in Northern New York.
The interior of the restaurant is cozy and comfortable. It wasnt very busy the weekday night we were there, so the hostess (who doubled as the bartender and the dining room manager) greeted us promptly and professionally and told us to sit wherever youd like.
She left menus for us to look over one page printed on plain paper, compact yet containing plenty of good choices. Four appetizers, a few salads, five pasta dishes and eight main courses. No freezer-to-fryer stuff here. Most everything is made from scratch, it appeared to us.
Our young server may have been new on the job. For some reason, she began waiting on a table that was seated after us without even acknowledging us. When she finally made it to our table, she seemed fairly knowledgeable about the dishes on the menu, though.
The orders entered, it took forever before any food arrived. My reviewmates told me about complimentary salsa and chips they had enjoyed the last time they were there. No sign of that. No bread and butter to keep us occupied either.
The bartender came from across the room to see if we were interested in drinks. Seems like that should be the servers job it wasnt like she was getting overly busy by any means.
Finally, our appetizers arrived. But we had to ask for the salsa and chips. And the bread and butter.
A healthy pile of garlic-steamed mussels ($9.95) were perfectly cooked. The blue mussels were not shy on garlic or heat. Lots of minced garlic was visible on the shells. A ramekin on the plate contained what looked like innocent melted butter for dipping, but there was some cayenne pepper in there that make it surprisingly hot.
We quickly learned that the chef is heavy-handed with the garlic, a theme that would recur throughout the meal. We also wondered if the kitchen was filled with basil plants, because basil was used liberally in many of his dishes. Even the salsa was made with basil rather than cilantro.
Grilled flatbread pizza ($6.95) was very good, a homemade, hand-formed crust topped with vine-ripened tomatoes, a nice homemade red sauce and fresh mozzarella. And lots of basil on top.
We all thought the crispy fried calamari ($9.95) was outstanding. Our server knew that the calamari rings were breaded in-house (she even outlined the shape of a small squid body by putting her fingers together), which clinched our decision to order it.
The crispy rings were then coated with a sweet chili glaze that reminded us of orange marmalade with a kick. The chef then adds a twist by tossing the tangy calamari with fresh baby greens. This ones a must-have.
Salads were standard, a nice mix of greens and veggies. Most dressings were bottled, but you did get to make your own balsamic vinaigrette from two little cruets delivered to the table. Generous amounts of blue cheese crumbles topped the salads.
Soup is an option in lieu of a salad. We found the French onion stock appropriately salty, the onions well caramelized and the Swiss cheese nicely browned. An enjoyable product.
However, it was delivered without a spoon, despite our request for additional spoons so we could all sample the soup.
After reminding her, she quickly returned with four spoons, left them with the person who ordered the soup and ran off.
Thats not right. This is a fine dining restaurant, not a diner. She should have put a spoon at each place setting.
The pan-roasted salmon ($21.95) preparation was a prelude to summer nights ahead. The filet was lightly seasoned with salt and pepper (dont let the pepper encrusted in the menu description dissuade you) and served over mixed greens with diced cucumber and tomatoes tossed in a lemon vinaigrette. A side of real mashed potatoes completed the plate.
The 8-ounce filet mignon was a bargain at $24.95. It was an impressive dish, a huge hunk of beef tenderloin (it might have even been closer to 10 ounces) topped with melted Gorgonzola and served with homemade gnocchi and pencil-thin asparagus sautéed in garlic butter.
The gnocchi were interesting not the usual potato dumplings, but more akin to tater totsseemingly rolled in grated Parmesan cheese and flash-fried.
The steak was cooked more than our request of medium-rare (it was a solid medium), but that had no adverse affect on its texture. It was tender and delicious as well as beautiful to look at.
From the pasta portion of the menu, we sampled the garlic chicken ($16.95). Chunks of boneless chicken breast were sautéed with roasted red peppers and fresh basil and finished with a garlic cream sauce, served over penne.
The sauce really made this dish, silky smooth and velvety. And garlicky. It was wonderful. Goes to show you what you can do with cream and butter if you know what youre doing.
Haddock is available beer-battered and fried or broiled with fresh thyme and lemon. We chose the latter ($16.95).
We found the fish a bit mushy perhaps frozen, not fresh? There was plenty of thyme on the haddock, but we werent entirely convinced that it was fresh, either.
And visually, it needed some help.
Can you tell this wasnt our favorite entrée?
We shared two desserts. One was a crème de menthe sundae, a real throwback to the 50s, and the other was a plate with two large cannolis.
Our server told us the cannolis were homemade, but after we asked a few questions, she clarified that the filling was homemade but the shells came from a supplier. Nonetheless, it was a very good dessert, a crispy, cinnamon-y shell with a traditional ricotta cheese filling. Nicely plated and decorated, too.
Four entrees, three appetizers and two desserts cost $131.30 before tip. And it took forever between the time we finished our desserts and when the check was presented without first clearing the table of dishes, I might add.
All in all, the quality of the food at Memories is excellent. Chef Ryan is doing an admirable job in the kitchen. His food is flavorful and imaginative; his presentations reflect his attention to detail.
But there are issues in the front of the house that need attention. This poor gal had no right serving tables. And its not entirely her fault. Someone needs to train the wait staff an owner, a dining room manager, a consultant if need be.
Wed return in an instant for the food but hope for a wait staff that knows what theyre supposed to do.
Heres some news from three of my favorite north country restaurants:
■ Café Mira in Adams is now offering Mexican cuisine on Thursday nights in addition to the regular menu.
Chef/owner Lori Wells is preparing specialties like shrimp and chorizo quesadillas, pulled pork chimichangas with salsa verde and tortilla-crusted tilapia tacos with crisp slaw and chipotle aioli all prepared with that great Café Mira flair that we know and love so well.
Margaritas are $4 on Thursdays, and theres live music Wednesdays through Saturdays.
■ 1844 House in Potsdam will be celebrating its seventh anniversary this month with the opening of a new sun porch. Guests can enjoy scenic al fresco dining for Mothers Day or any day theyre open throughout the summer. It can also be booked for private parties or weddings.
Chef/owner Brian Walker has introduced bayou shrimp shrimp, jumbo lump crabmeat and locally made andouille sausage in a creamy Cajun sauce served over rice pilaf and topped with a Low Country corn cake.
He has also brought back a spring favorite, in-house hickory-smoked pork shank with his signature honey barbecue sauce served over homemade mashed potatoes and crowned with a colossal buttermilk-fried onion ring.
Check out 1844s Facebook page for photos of these menu items and nightly culinary features.
■ At Petes Trattoria on Breen Avenue in Watertown, chef/owner Geoff Puccia is introducing a new spring menu, adding some lighter items that will feature products from local growers and suppliers. Puccia Olive Oil is being sold by the bottle, made exclusively for Geoff by an organic grower in California.
A new tap system has been installed at the bar, offering New York state-produced craft beers. The selection will rotate seasonally.
One of my favorite entrees at Petes is the Sicilian cod, broiled and topped with an anchovy, basil and rosemary crust, served over lemon butter risotto. A hot seller on the menu is the 16-ounce grilled Delmonico steak served with Utica greens (escarole, prosciutto, cherry peppers and pecorino) encrusted with panko breadcrumbs and baked.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
6218 Number Four Road
Fine dining in a cozy and comfortable rural setting
HOURS: 5 p.m. till closing Tuesday through Saturday
APPETIZER PICKS: Crispy calamari with a sweet chili glaze, grilled flatbread pizza
ENTRÉE PICKS: Filet mignon with warm Gorgonzola, garlic chicken over penne with a velvety cream sauce
DESSERT PICK: Cannoli