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Waxing lyrical over a meal to remember

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CLAYTON — How the heck did the Lyric Bistro hook up with Ralph Capalupo?

Ralph is the new chef at the Lyric. He grew up in Utica, in a family that celebrated food. He honed his butchering and charcuterie skills there before journeying to Oregon, where he worked in several high-end restaurants and opened his critically acclaimed eatery.

He’s back in the Thousand Islands, where he spent many summers as a child. Clayton’s historic movie theater was converted to a coffee house about seven years ago, serving fancy coffees and fine pastries. They expanded their food offerings in 2009 by introducing bistro dinners. Now Ralph is here to take the food to another level.

High ceilings, hip lighting — even a balcony — give the restaurant an interesting and intimate feel. Pastel-colored tablecloths overlaid with black ones covered each of the 15-or-so tables inside, further tastefully appointed with cloth napkins and small candles. A half-dozen bistro tables out front were shaded by large, brightly colored umbrellas.

We snuggled into an alcove table by the front window. Cristin was our pleasant waitress, a most capable and experienced server. She presented us with the simple, one-page menu consisting of three salads, three “small bites,” five mains and two desserts—small and perfectly diverse. And since there were four in our party, we got to sample most everything on the menu.

It’s a menu that will change throughout the summer, depending on availability of local meats and produce and Ralph’s whim as he discovers what’s fresh and available throughout the north country.

The wine selection is small and thoughtful as well—nine choices, well-researched and right-priced, available by the glass or the bottle.

A glass of Acrobat Pinot Gris ($6.50) from Oregon was perfect for a summer evening — crisp, slightly fruity and well-chilled. Kenwood “Yulupa” Merlot ($6) was rich, buttery and full-bodied with powerful fruit notes. La Playa Carmenere from Chile ($6) was a truly noble wine, especially smooth with a touch of pepper and berries.

At the same time, Cristin brought us a basket of warm bread and whipped butter. Not just any old bread, but bread from the 115-year-old Columbus Bakery in downtown Syracuse. It’s made fresh daily using quality ingredients and no preservatives.

Salads top the menu list, so we began there with a beet salad ($10) and a classic Caesar ($8).

The Caesar was simply perfect. The greens were cold, crisp and fresh and not drowning in the homemade dressing, finished with freshly shaved Parmesan cheese.

The beet salad was a sublime offering. The beets were perfectly done; small, sweet and a deep red. The mix of the smooth beets with accents of crunch from sunflower seeds, slightly spicy baby arugula along with the saltiness of grated pecorino and house-made ranch dressing was a great marriage of tastes and textures. A perfect summer salad.

The chef prides himself in his cured meats, Cristin told us. His meat plate ($10), served on a small wooden cutting board, included a country-style paté and a duck remoulade along with cranberry chutney, pickled cucumber and grainy brown mustard.

Ralph made everything on the plate. It was truly outstanding. In traditional “country” style, the paté was accented with small morsels of very flavorful meat. The remoulade was more of a spread, duck fat providing moisture and flavor. Crostini was provided for the occasion. His cranberry chutney consisted of dried cranberries, walnuts and a dash of vinegar and spices.

Soup of the day ($6) was chicken soup with spaetzle. The broth was a golden color with a deep, alluring flavor that we couldn’t identify. The spaetzle (tiny egg dumplings) were very light.

Don’t put something in a menu description if you can’t back it up. “The Best” mac and cheese ($8) was wonderful, certainly one of the best we have eaten.

It featured the local River Rat cheddar wrapped around cavitappi pasta with a buttery bread crumb gratin. The cheese sauce was smooth and creamy; the twists and turns of the corkscrew pasta were excellent for grabbing the cheesy goodness.

While shrimp scampi conjures up a vision of shrimp swimming in garlic butter, the Lyric’s sautéed scampi ($18) was not that at all. The sauce consisted of Key lime, garlic, cilantro and chili. While these are all strong flavors at risk of overpowering the shrimp, it was all delightfully understated.

The shrimp, six of them, were impressively large (13-15s, if you’re into shrimpspeak), draped over quinoa pilaf. Quinoa is a small grain gaining in popularity recently. Ralph pilaf-ed the quinoa by adding tiny diced zucchini along with diced onion. It was a very complex play of the grain and the excellent sauce.

We ordered the mallard duck breast ($24) to be cooked to a medium doneness, a bit more than the recommended medium-rare. The breast came sliced with the skin ever so slightly crisp; the flesh tender and perfectly done to medium, just a hint of redness in the very core.

It came with a fantastic polenta with portobello and shiitake mushrooms, along with a port wine sauce made from the cooking juices of the duck. The dish was elegant, well-presented and very flavorful.

The wild line-caught salmon ($24) was yet another stunning entrée. The presentation took us by surprise since the fish came out skin side up, allowing the natural oils from the skin to baste the fish, best we could figure. After flipping the fish in order to better cut it, we dug into a great piece of salmon that had been simply seasoned and pan-seared.

The accompaniments were as good as the fish itself: cauliflower puree along with small wedges of potatoes finished with brown butter and tiny capers and arugula on the side.

We almost didn’t order the buttermilk fried chicken ($16) served with mashed potatoes, gravy and steamed broccoli. Sounds pretty ordinary, right? What a mistake that would have been.

This is not your grandmother’s fried chicken. Or the Colonel’s. It was somehow fried to a deep golden crispy-crunchy crust while the chicken was as moist as can be. The chicken was amazing—moist, tender and flavorful in a way none of us could recall ever having experienced.

We debated for a long time what the secret ingredient was to give the chicken an almost nutty flavor. Ground allspice? Chinese five spice powder? Ground pecans?

We were just finishing our entrees when Chef Capalupo made an appearance at our table. He was very willing to share his “secrets” with a table full of foodies.

First the chicken. He soaks the chicken in buttermilk overnight, adding Madras curry to the buttermilk. Then he dredges the chicken in flour to which he has added more curry powder and Hungarian paprika before frying the chicken parts.

The soup was a double stock, prepared one day, strained and chilled overnight. Then additional bones were put into the stock for a second round of simmering. It was then finished with a drizzle of sherry vinegar.

This was better than Bobby Flay visiting our table.

The dessert menu contained three items: a brownie sundae with ice cream and caramel sauce ($8), a blueberry brown butter cake ($8) and a double chocolate cream torte ($5).

The torte was very rich, very dense and very chocolatey. The frosting was a chocolate cream with dark chocolate bits decorating the entire surface.

The blueberry cake was more like a very large muffin with whole blueberries in a coulis that had been stirred into the batter.

The brownie was just a little dry. It was topped with standard vanilla ice cream and set atop a light and delicate homemade caramel sauce.

Dinner for four not including our wine came to $150.41 with tax.

What a treat to have a server who knew when to replace missing silverware, clear dirty plates and keep water glasses filled — as well as having a thorough knowledge of the food she was serving.

She allowed just the right amount of time between courses, she was aware of our needs without hovering and was quick to find answers to any questions we may have had. Christin was a gem.

But Ralph is clearly the star here. For those of us who love to eat, to savor food, textures and tastes, Chef Capalupo is our man. His food is fabulous. The Lyric has latched on to something very special.

Our only disappointment was the lack of patrons in the restaurant the night we were there. We were one of only three tables. But I’m pretty sure all that is about to change. …

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







Lyric Bistro

246 James St.

Clayton, N.Y.

686-4700

www.lyriccoffeehouse.com



The Lyric has a talented new chef, taking the food to another level.



HOURS: Open at 8 a.m.

Lunch served 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Dinner served 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday



“SMALL BITES” PICKS: Chef Capalupo’s meat plate, “The Best” mac and cheese



ENTRÉE PICKS: Sauteed scampi, mallard duck breast, wild line-caught salmon,buttermilk fried chicken



DESSERT PICKS: Blueberry brown butter cake, double chocolate cream torte



(Note: The food selections may change occasionally depending on product availability.)



RATING: 5 forks

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