ALEXANDRIA BAY — What do you picture when someone mentions the Bay? Boldt Castle? Uncle Same Boat Tours? The Thousand Islands?
How about Cavallario's? Cavallario's Steak & Seafood House has been a fixture in the Bay forever. It's practically the first thing you see on the way into town.
Its kitschy castle façade is unmistakable and fits perfectly in this touristy river village.
We hit the restaurant just a few days before the busy Memorial Day weekend. Mother's Day was a dress rehearsal; now it's time for the curtain to go up on the big summer season here.
The staff was poised, trained and ready for us. The local Rotary had taken up residence in the bar this particular night but the keen bartender was ready to take our order before the door had closed behind us. Sensing the possibility of the kitchen getting swamped with orders, we headed straight to the dining room to beat the impending rush.
Once seated, we got to give the place the once-over. One of my guests hadn't been there in 10 years. I hadn't dined there in 20. But even if you haven't been there for 30 years, rest assured, nothing has changed. Same dark brown accordion walls dividing up the large windowless dining room. Same '80s suspended ceiling with similar vintage light fixtures. Same mannequin clad in his metal armor watching over the service staff in their black slacks and maroon logo shirt uniforms.
The menu? Pretty unsurprising as well: shrimp cocktail and steamed clams, prime rib and sirloin steak, chicken parmesan and veal parmesan, stuffed shrimp, shrimp scampi and lobster, manicotti and lasagna, surf and turf — and lots more dinner classics. Their food is cooked to order, something they've been doing for years, and they're rightly proud of it.
We set out on our culinary journey with some things old and some things new.
First, Jody, our experienced, veteran waitress got us started with a ciabatta-like loaf of bread on a cutting board. The crust was softer than you'd expect with ciabatta, perhaps from the swipe of garlic butter applied to the top of it. A side of whipped butter went well with it.
Next, she had no problem taking our appetizer order while we continued to look over the entrée selections. Good ol' standards stuffed mushroom caps ($7.99), bacon-wrapped scallops ($8.99) and fried calamari ($8.59) along with a new menu item, puttanesca flatbread ($8.99), got the evening under way.
The mushrooms were great, stuffed with a nicely seasoned bread crumb and crab blend, topped with a good amount of stringy, stretchy mozzarella cheese.
The scallops were equally good, six of them, the bacon broiled to a nice crisp, leaving the scallops generally tender. Spicy but not-too-hot mayo-based Creole sauce was served on the side, a thoughtful touch that brought this dish into the 21st century.
Calamari was standard. We appreciated the fact that it was hand-breaded in the kitchen but the breading could have stood an extra pinch of salt. It was served with oh-so-'50s cocktail sauce. Gosh, you'd think a restaurant with Italian roots would send it out with some nice homemade marinara, wouldn't you?
Flatbreads are pretty big right now. They resemble a small, square pizza. From three offered on Cavallario's menu, we picked a winner, their puttanesca flatbread.
A square of thin dough was topped with a delicious sauce of tomatoes, garlic, olives and capers. The tomato flavor was intense with just a smattering of olives and capers to give it its puttanesca personality.
Choice of soup, salad or coleslaw comes with the main courses.
Soup of the day, homemade corn chowder, was served piping hot, chock full of corn and chunks of potato. It was thick, but not necessarily creamy. They likely used a powdered cream soup base (modified food starch, powdered whey, MSG) available to most large restaurant kitchens.
Salads were delightful, a really nice medley of crisp salad greens, black olives, red cabbage, mandarin oranges and pepperoncini rings. Balsamic dressing was very good, but made-in-house cucumber-wasabi was truly outstanding. They should sell this by the pint to go.
Another pleasant surprise was their coleslaw — really good — a generous portion of finely chopped cabbage and carrot in a smooth and well-balanced mayo dressing. As with the salads, the coleslaw was served in chilled pewter-like bowls — a nice touch.
Something fairly new to the menu was a big hit. Bourbon salmon ($23.99), an ample portion, soon became the favorite around the table. The topping made it — coarsely chopped pecans sat atop the salmon, adhered with a dark, sticky, yummy sauce. Completing the plate was broccoli, flavored with what tasted like lemon-pepper seasoning, but it lacked that vibrant green broccoli color.
Cavallario's "mixed trio" ($24.99) consisted of an 8-ounce portion of sirloin steak along with three shrimp and four scallops in garlic butter. Unfortunately, the steak was quite tough and two steps less cooked than ordered. The shrimp were done just right but the scallops were overdone and bordering on rubbery.
A side of roasted potatoes (Yukon gold, purple and sweet potato chunks) was a nice idea, but some spuds were just not destined to be roasted. The result was a side dish of dried up potatoes with overly salted Yukon golds.
Veal Oscar ($24.99) was a classic done quite well. The tender veal was egg battered and sautéed, then topped with real crabmeat, two spears of asparagus and a packaged-tasting Bearnaise sauce. A side of rice pilaf with bits of red pepper and carrots was a little on the starchy side.
We chose the veal over a seafood dish called "Newport Combination" after learning it used a crab blend rather than the real thing. Extra points for our waitress's honesty — and knowledge of the food preparations.
Also fairly new to the menu was Tuscan chicken ($17.99), a good-sounding pasta dish with chicken and roasted red peppers in a cheesy cream sauce. It started out OK. The chicken was pre-sliced, the linguini was good, the sauce was thick and cheesy, bordering on gloppy. Then all of a sudden, the sauce separated and we were looking at a bowlful of unappetizing grease. Back to the drawing board on that one.
Plates were cleared and our waitress "crumbed" the table with a hand-dandy electronic sweeper, complete with a little headlight. Functional and conversation-provoking.
We passed on the many flavored coffee offerings and had a difficult time making dessert choices because their descriptions all sounded great. Finally, Key lime pie ($5) and chocolate "confusion" ($5) were ordered.
The Key lime pie was homemade and very good — their own recipe. It was served slightly frozen (not sure that was intentional) with a crumb crust that was crumbly good. "Confusion" was a slice of chocolate cake with layers of crushed Oreo cookies, fudge brownie, chocolate mousse and chocolate frosting with mini-chocolate chips. For chocolate lovers, this was heavenly.
Dinner for four came to $147.10 with tax but before tip.
Although we didn't partake, there's a good selection of wines by the glass and by the bottle.
Tourists returning to the Bay year after year, decade after decade, head to Cavallario's because it's familiar and comfortable — like that old pair of boat shoes you can slip into or that old wallet that fits just right in your back pocket.
And think about this: The castle-fronted restaurant has been around for nearly 50 years — almost half the time the famous castle on the island in the river has been attracting visitors. There's something to be said for that.
n Summer residents along Black Lake will return to find the Edwardsville Grocery, a popular spot for basic necessities, closed and boarded up. You may want to stock up on provisions before you reach your destination.
n Campers headed for Higley Flow State Park used to stopping at Kunoco Food Mart in Colton for their "Dash & Dine" dinners, will be disappointed to find they're no longer available. But you're still able to get their great macaroni, potato and pasta salads.
n Chef Angelo Landi, after spending a brief stint at Deer River Trails in St. Regis Falls, has accepted a position as executive sous chef at Akwesasne Mohawk Casino in Hogansburg, overseeing food preparation at the restaurants there.
n Heading to the Finger Lakes this summer? We recommend a stop at Moro's Table in Auburn. Chef Moro has worked at top restaurants in California's and New York's wine country. He now has his own restaurant with a fabulous, eclectic menu. Check it out at www.morostable.com.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cavallario's Steak & Seafood House
24 Church St.
Alexandria Bay, N.Y.
The Bay's premiere family-owned restaurant is open for the season, serving dinner seven days a week. They're closed Mondays in the spring and fall and closed for the season over the winter.
APPETIZER PICK: Puttanesca flatbread
ENTRÉE PICK: Bourbon pecan salmon
DESSERT PICK: Homemade Key lime pie