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Step back in time at Thousand Islands Inn

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CLAYTON — In the car on our way to the Thousand Islands Inn, we discovered that each one of us had been there at various times over the years.


It had been at least five years since one of my guests had dined at the T.I. Inn, a historic 100-year-old downtown hotel, restaurant and bar. Another person in our party hadn't been there in nearly 25 years. I'd stopped by with some friends after a show next door at the Clayton Opera House several years ago.


We all agreed upon entering the building that the place hasn't changed one bit.


We began in the bar, a good-sized area separate from the dining room. It's comfortable and dated like the rest of the inn. Anna, our bartender, a transplant from California who has lived in Clayton for more than a decade, entertained us with some of the local lore.


We enjoyed interesting conversation with Al Benas, owner for the last 39 years and apparently eager to retire. "Want to buy the joint?" he asked. We said between the four of us we could come up with about a hundred dollars in cash for a down payment, if he'd be willing to finance the rest for us.


He's still the owner.


We did end up buying several chances to win a fishing charter for the day. Al is also a licensed and active professional fishing guide on the river.


Off to the dining room, which overlooks the main drag as well as Frink Park and the mighty St. Lawrence River. It was mid-June and the crazy summer season had not yet hit (only four tables were occupied), which gave us time to get to know our waitress, Jean, a lovely lady and 27-year-veteran of the Inn, and also her assistant-in-training, Emma, working her first night in the restaurant.


Al's wife, Susan, brought a bottle of Pinot Noir that we ordered to the table. The wine selection is pretty basic, which paired well with the food offerings.


We scanned the multipaged menu for appetizers, finally realizing there was only one — steamed clams.


We decided to pass, and instead focused on complimentary pasta/bean salad and sliced, pickled beets. Old-style stuff served family style; nonetheless tasty. Warm, home-baked bread also made its way to the table.


As part of the entrée selection we had our choice of homemade five-cheese soup or salad with choice of dressing.


The soup was more like a bowl of melted cheese — it needed more stock and could have been served hotter.


Salads were simple: iceberg lettuce with two tomato slices and a touch of onion. Nothing special, except for the homemade Thousand Island dressing, which they say is the original recipe. It was very good.


I was tempted to purchase a bottle, but decided to leave that for the souvenir hunters about to descend on the area. Kind of like taking home a pine-needle pillow from the Adirondacks or one of those Empire State Building statues from New York City — but more practical.


Flat iron steak ($21.99), a relatively new and trendy cut of meat, was cooked to our call of medium. It was tender and tasty, served over caramelized onions — perhaps the entrée highlight of the night, served with nicely done homemade mac and cheese.


Broiled barbecue ribs ($20.99) came out as a large, hearty 1-pound rib rack coated with the Inn's "special seasoning," slow cooked and flashed under the broiler with barbecue sauce just prior to serving. Although the meat was plentiful and pretty much fell off the bone, it had an unappealing aftertaste that we couldn't figure out. Was it the sauce? Was it the ribs?


Local yellow perch ($19.99), breaded and deep-fried, can be spectacular if done right. Unfortunately, the breading overpowered the small pieces of delicate fish fillets. There was lots of it, though. A side of Southern-style potatoes was basically roasted potatoes with a few spices.


New to the menu this summer, Key West chicken ($18.99) was unimpressive. The entrée is fairly described as "a large chicken breast sautéed with fresh tropical fruit in a citrus sauce with a touch of teriyaki."


While it was a colorful display, the chicken was completely smothered in warm, bite-sized pieces of melons, pineapple and grapes. It was quite unappealing, almost like someone opened a commercial container of syrupy assorted fruit and poured it all over the chicken. It was served with what was called Caribbean steamed rice, which was palatable.


For dessert, homemade peanut butter pie ($5.79) with a cream cheese consistency and a crunchy chocolate cookie-like crust was quite good. Apple pie ($5.49), also touted as homemade, was short on apples (actually, the filling looked like applesauce) and had a spongy crust.


Bread pudding drizzled with vanilla cream sauce ($4.99) was a great choice, bringing back memories of a bread pudding grandma used to make. Cheesecake ($5.99) with cherry topping was fine.


Dinner for four came to $112.30 before tip and before figuring in the bottle of wine. Remember, too, we did not have any appetizers.


One of my guests summed our experience at the Thousand Islands Inn as "a mediocre meal in a worn-out atmosphere." Nothing was really bad, but nothing was really outstanding. For the most part, we finished each dish saying "I don't think I'd order that again."


But if you like the feel of a historic old building with bona fide time warp atmosphere, you'll find the Inn quite comfortable. You may even enjoy staying in one of the 13 guest rooms upstairs.


Personally, I'd enjoy stopping back at the bar sometime to shoot the bull with owner Al and hang out with the summer crowd. And if I brought someone along willing to buy the joint from him, I'd probably be the most popular guy in the world.


That is, if he doesn't want to shoot me after reading this review.


The Thousand Islands Inn is open seasonally from mid-May to mid-September.


TIDBITS


Chef Geoff Puccia, the magic behind the meals at Ives Hill Country Club, has left to be executive chef at Watertown's Italian-American Civic Association, 192 Bellew Ave.


According to Mr. Puccia, the Italian-American club will be open to the public, so you'll be able to enjoy his fine cooking there. Tentative plans include a pasta night on Wednesdays, seafood on Fridays and steak on Saturdays. His menu will be "family-friendly with an upscale twist."


Mr. Puccia spent five years at Ives Hill after working at a noted Italian restaurant in Charlotte, N.C.


His replacement has not been named.


You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via e-mail: wsiebel@wdt.net.





Thousand Islands Inn


335 Riverside Drive


Clayton, N.Y.


www.1000-islands.com/inn





A historic 100-year-old-plus downtown hotel, restaurant that says its Thousand Island dressing is the original.





HOURS: Dinners served beginning at 5 p.m. seven days a week.


Early bird dinners available between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.


Sunday morning breakfast is served from 7 a.m. until 11:30 a.m.





The Thousand Islands Inn is open seasonally from mid-May to mid-September.





RATING: 2½ forks

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