MORRISTOWN — Cattleman's is back in Morristown.
Morristown's only full-fledged restaurant has reopened. Most recently it was known as Josephine's Marina Bistro, and by all accounts was a culinary disaster. The old Cattleman's Restaurant was a casual eatery with a fun bar that had been around for quite some time.
Its new name is Cattleman's Steak and Ale. Owner/manager Ian O'Brien has teamed up with chef Keir DeMars to offer a combination steakhouse and American bistro that's a "family-friendly, community-oriented, fun place," according to Mr. O'Brien, who was quoted in a Watertown Daily Times article last month.
First impressions are important. There's an attractive new sign out front with a painting of cattlemen rounding up the herd. But at the foot of the entry door there was a #10 Redpack tomato can overflowing with cigarette butts. Inside, loud music was blaring at a bar that was virtually empty, except for the bartender. A quick trip to the dingy restrooms was not a good experience.
In the dining room, each table was dressed in classy fashion with a black tablecloth over a white one, white cloth napkins protruding skyward from empty water glasses. Large windows facing the St. Lawrence River offered a view of a spectacular sunset over Brockville, just across the way.
Dim lighting is provided by overhead chandeliers — with a few bulbs missing — fashioned from old wagon wheels. Cold air was blowing from a floor vent close to our table on a night where heat was certainly needed.
Our waitress looked sharp in her long bistro apron. She brought serve-yourself water to the table in two half-liter carafes. A manageable menu consisted of two soups, two salads, a half-dozen or so appetizers and a like number of entrées.
There's also a page of burgers, wings and subs for the bar crowd or those wanting a lighter dinner.
We began with appetizers. The shrimp skewer ($8) was excellent. Three of the biggest shrimp I've had in a long time (in shrimpspeak, U-10s) were wrapped in bacon, boldly seasoned and beautifully broiled. Cocktail sauce was thick and tasty, with the perfect amount of horseradish.
Calamari ($8) also was nicely done. Tender ringlets and tentacles were hand-breaded in the kitchen, giving a nice crunch on the outside, and not at all greasy.
Homemade marinara was done right, sweetness coming from finely diced onion. Put that in a jar and we'll buy some to take home.
While the description of chicken tenders made it sound like a house-made product, our server was kind enough to tell us it was the frozen stuff that you see everywhere. So we decided on another restaurant supplier item (just 'cause we'd never had it before), deep-fried mac 'n cheese bites ($6). Bite-sized blobs of something spongy (mac 'n cheese, we figured) had a soft, almost mushy exterior coating. I guess when we read "deep-fried" we were expecting something different. They might make for good late-night bar food, but left much to be desired for dinner. A very nice bourbon and smoked bacon cream sauce that accompanied wasn't enough to salvage this appetizer.
Since entrées come with choice of a small salad or soup, we got to sample each of the salads and soups on the menu.
We did consider an interesting-sounding soup special, twice baked potato soup. When we ask for more of a description, our server paused and replied, "I'm not sure. I wasn't back there when they made it."
So we stuck to the menu, and did very well. And the portions were not small, by any means.
Mushroom soup was dark and earthy (made with portobellos, we assumed), thickened with heavy cream and garnished with crumbled bacon.
A full crock of French onion had no shortage of caramelized onions in a satisfying stock, topped with lots of good melted cheese. Delicious.
House salad consisted of a nice combination of greens, including romaine and spring mix together with strips of red pepper and slices of onion. A thicker-than-usual balsamic vinaigrette, our choice, came on the side.
Traditional Caesar salad was made with the softer, greener portion of romaine leaves, a not-too-garlicky dressing, and croutons, and was finished with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. The menu said it came with an anchovy draped over it, but that didn't materialize. Probably most people (except me) wouldn't care, anyway.
We're halfway through the meal, and it's uncomfortably cold in the room, so we bring that to the attention of our server. At our suggestion, she fired up the gas-fired fireplace. Shortly after, the central heating system seemed to kick in, but the room never got up to temp.
Cattleman's is a steakhouse, and prime rib tops the menu. We were there on a Thursday and they were out, so we ordered the 16-ounce rib-eye "medium rare to the rare side" and it showed up exactly that — practically still mooing.
Cajun-spiced is an option, but we took it plain ol' grilled to appreciate the full flavor of the choice meat. Asparagus, just in season, were cooked to a perfect al dente. The shoestring "house cut signature seasoned French fries" were a nice attempt at something special, but they came out so over-salted, they were inedible. Too bad.
The 8-ounce portion of Atlantic salmon ($14) is baked on a cedar plank and finished with a crust of crystallized sugar. It didn't show up on a cedar plank, which would have been really neat, but it was fresh and tasty, although quite undercooked toward the center. We were OK with it, but the people next to us sent theirs back. Perfect asparagus filled out the plate along with skin-on garlic mashed potatoes.
The only chicken on the menu is prepared pan-seared or Cajun-blackened. Not very exciting. So we ordered the beer-battered fresh filet of haddock ($14). "Fresh" is what attracted us to it, so we weren't concerned when our server told us it was coated with Panko bread crumbs rather than a beer batter. Flaky fish with a crunchy coating — my kind of fish fry.
It came with a very interesting side, "dirty rice." Dirty rice is white rice cooked with chicken livers or giblets which give it a brown or "dirty" color. I doubt they went to all that trouble, but we were surprised to see pearl onions blackened in the kitchen and added to the brown rice along with bits of green pepper and kernels of corn.
Halfway through dinner a basket containing baguettes that someone had forgotten in the oven arrived at our table. While the bread was not at its best, we appreciated the pats of kitchen-cut unsalted butter that came along with it.
The pasta deal offers lots of options: "Whatever pasta we have, fresh tossed in your choice of house-made marinara, Alfredo or scampi sauce" for $12. You then get to add chicken, steak, salmon or shrimp for an additional $6.
We went for it. The pasta du jour was fusilli, a corkscrew pasta. We asked for the scampi sauce and the shrimp add-on. We created a winner! The amount of sauce was just right, so everything wasn't swimming in oil and garlic. The same humongous shrimp that came on the appetizer skewer were used in the dish, flavorful and skillfully cooked. Tiny confetti-like diced red pepper and freshly grated Parm artfully completed the dish.
For dessert, after asking our server, we were tantalized with two, both made there and priced at $5 apiece.
Flourless chocolate cake in the shape of a miniature bundt cake came with butterscotch sauce, vanilla ice cream and fresh whipped cream. Yummy.
Deep-fried bread pudding was something different — like a fritter — but not something we'd order again. However, the Jameson Irish whisky sauce underneath was heavenly. We'd take a jar of that home, too.
Dinner for four — three appetizers, four entrées and two desserts — came to $105.97 before tip.
Cattleman's Steak & Ale had been open about a month when we visited. For two guys boasting "25 years of combined restaurant experience," the act should have been a little more polished than it was.
The food was generally very good, the service was pretty sketchy and the atmosphere was all over the map. In fact, the food was the saving grace, even though there were long gaps between courses. Chef DeMars knows his stuff, it appears, and we look forward to his menu expanding and maturing.
With a little more time, the service side will come around, the heat situation will be corrected, the bulbs in the wagon wheel chandeliers will be replaced and the #10 tomato can/butt can will go away.
Our rating of 31/2 forks for the food and 21/2 for the rest of the experience averages out to a solid 3 forks — an overall good visit to the new Cattleman's.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cattleman's Steak & Ale
309 Main St.
Above average food at the new Cattleman's challenges the service and the ambiance to keep up.
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday for dining
The bar is open until midnight or later, offering finger food "if the fryer's still on."
APPETIZER PICK: Jumbo shrimp skewer; hand-breaded calamari
ENTRÉE PICKS: Grilled rib-eye steak; pasta with scampi sauce and shrimp
DESSERT PICK: Flourless chocolate cake
Be sure to try the soups and salads, very nicely done.
RATING: 3 forks