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A year of great eating: The top 11 restaurants of 2011

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This is my favorite time of the year.

I get to reread all the restaurant reviews I've written throughout 2011. Most made me smile. Some made me chuckle.

Others made me cringe.

But I was happy to realize that we have so many choices and so much variety available to us. And so many entrepreneurs continue to make the leap into restaurant ownership, despite economic times not being the best.

Here are the top 11 of 2011. Two received the 5-fork status of “fabulous,” one got a 4½-fork rating and eight made the 4-fork category, or “excellent.”

Café Mira
14 Main St.
Adams
232-4470
www.cafemira.com
5 forks

This prominent upscale restaurant was ravaged by fire in 2010, but the perseverance and passion of owners Lori Wells and Lisa Reed have brought back a truly extraordinary dining experience.

Every inch of the place has been painted, polished and restored. The tin ceiling destroyed in the fire was matched and replaced.

The grand piano is back, filling the restaurant with perfect dinner music. Lori is back in the kitchen, executing a better-than-ever menu. Lisa is back working the front of the house, meeting, greeting and seating guests.

We looked over the menu. Decisions were tough — we wanted to try everything.

Oysters ‘“Jonah Daniel” were a take on the Rockefeller preparation, but so much better, served on the half shell, baked with creamed spinach, bacon, garlic and nutmeg, then topped with panko, Parmesan and butter and finished under the broiler.

Ahi tuna was delightful, rubbed with Chinese five-spice powder, perfectly seared, then sliced. It came with fried seaweed and a just-hot-enough wasabi and sesame mixture.

The real appetizer hit was the escargot, extra-plump Helix snails in garlic butter kicked up with lemon, capers and cream — bursting with flavor.

Bouillabaisse was a classic version of the French seafood stew: shrimp, scallops, mussels and lobster swimming in a tasty fish stock with tomatoes, wine, garlic and saffron.

But what's that at the bottom of the neat cast-iron bowl? Mashed potatoes, adding a thickness to the bouillabaisse that was totally unexpected. A real standout.

Cowboy steak was a manly 14-ounce portion of choice rib-eye, bone-in and frenched (the meat pulled away from the bone), making for a great presentation.

Veal Romano was the best veal preparation I've had in a while: Parmesan-crusted, thin-pounded slices of top-quality veal quickly sautéed and served with a creamy to-die-for sauce containing bacon, mushrooms and peas — and LOTS of heavy cream. This dish was really, really good.

The duck entrée was a boneless breast, seasoned, char-grilled and sliced. The raspberry and mango habanero sauce drizzled over it complemented the duck perfectly.

A generous slice of coconut cream pie sported a marvelous flaky crust and a light and airy melt-in-your-mouth cream filling. Lemon cheesecake had the right texture and just enough lemon flavor. Berry cobbler — with fresh berries, ice cream and whipped cream — was served in an old fashioned parfait glass.

Crème brulee was a little non-traditional. The smooth vanilla custard had the customary burnt sugar crust. But then it was topped with a small shot of Grand Marnier and flamed tableside. The orange flavor from the liqueur enhanced the custard, and the caramelized sugar gave it a crunchy texture.

Be sure to explore the complete menu (which changes frequently) on their attractive, well-designed website, www.cafemira.com

Caribbean Cowboy Saloon and Grille
2126 Saranac Ave.
Lake Placid
1 (518) 523-3836
www.placidcowboy.com
5 forks

I'd heard about it for years, but I'd never set foot inside the Caribbean Cowboy Saloon and Grille until January. And I'm sure glad I did.

The entrance is in the back of the building, which looks like it might have once been low-rent storage space but now is warm and welcoming, and outfitted very much like an island restaurant.

The menu is Caribbean. No, it's Asian. No, wait, it's Cajun. Do I see quesadillas and burritos? Is that really Thai green curry tofu?

We realized from the first tastes that there's a master chef with excellent and nuanced culinary instincts behind the grill. Each dish rewards you with complex flavors, perfectly prepared, served hot and with excellent plate presentation.

An island favorite, shrimp and black bean fritters, came with two dipping sauces. The fritters contained chunks of shrimp in a coarsely ground black bean base. They were nicely seasoned and served with a lovely side of fresh, crunchy Asian slaw.

Satay chicken skewers consisted of tender chicken strips coated with a spicy Indonesian-style peanut sauce with crushed peanuts sprinkled on top.

Bahamian shrimp and clam chowder was great, a rich broth made with a beautiful dark roux, small bites of seafood, assorted vegetables and intriguing Caribbean spices.

Two big, fat spring rolls were cut on the bias to reveal the filling of jerk chicken and bits of pork along with spinach and mango.

Jerk chicken was simply outstanding. A free-range chicken half was marinated, slow-roasted and braised until the moist meat fell off the bones. The skin was coated with a tasty, dark, rich jerk sauce glaze with overtones of allspice and mild chiles. A refreshing mango mojo salsa accompanied.

The Cowboy's seafood quesadilla was perfectly grilled, nearly an inch thick and chock full of shrimp and crawfish along with green onions, tomatoes, jalapenos and cheddar.

The “Kickin' Cowboy” key lime pie was superb. A crunchy graham cracker crust supported a layer of key lime custard, topped with two inches of fresh whipped cream.

The pineapple tart was quite a creation. A warm puff pastry crust was filled with a perfect vanilla custard and a generous pile of thin-sliced fresh pineapple and finished with vanilla ice cream and raspberry coulis.

Note: The owners of Caribbean Cowboy have opened a “brother” restaurant up the street at 2226 Saranac Ave. appropriately named the Cowboy. According to their website, the Cowboy is “more of a tavern than an eatery with creative food set in a casual atmosphere.”

Bella's
602 Riverside Drive
Clayton
686-2341
www.bellasonlinenow.com
4½ forks

A sophisticated little café and bakery in Clayton is now serving very impressive dinners.

From the moment we entered the bistro, surrounded by beautiful pastries and the aroma of freshly baked bread, we were hooked. Vibrant walls with original paintings and colorful, varied-patterned napkins on wooden tables lent a coziness to the small dining area.

The menu is appropriate for the size of the restaurant — five starters and five mains, flawlessly prepared and presented.

Cucumber canapés were crisp and refreshing, oval cucumber slices topped with a zesty lemon-dill crème fraiche, smoked salmon and a confetti-like brunoise of tricolored peppers.

Maryland-style crab cakes were made with bluefin crabmeat, sweet peppers, celery and scallions, served over microgreens with a Dijon-horseradish sauce.

Bacon-wrapped scallops were kicked up with a fresh pineapple-mango salsa.

I saved the best appetizer for last — watermelon salad. Two slabs of seedless watermelon soaked in fresh lime juice were piled on top of each other, then crowned with a nest of spaghetti-like strands of cucumber dotted with poppy seeds and garnished with mint leaves, completed with dollops of tasty tzatziki.

Filet Oscar, a 6-ounce-plus portion of beautifully grilled tenderloin, was topped with real crabmeat, asparagus spears and a tarragon béarnaise sauce, served on top of a large crab cake.

Strawberry Chardonnay haddock, haddock poached in Chardonnay, was served over wild rice and draped in a strawberry sauce that was surprisingly light and mild.

Ratatouille was mouthwatering. Eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, onion and garlic were roasted, then arranged in layers and baked. This was a foodie's vegetarian “lasagna” with just-right marinara on the side.

Chicken Salonika was a sauté of tender strips of seasoned chicken tossed with artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, baby spinach and feta along with al dente penne. The sauce was a very light wine reduction.

For dessert, we walked back to the pastry counter and chose our own.

Homemade brownie a la mode, a coconut macaroon and mango guava cheesecake were good choices.

But here's the killer: Vegan Nightmare — a homemade waffle bowl filled with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream, then jammed with four crispy pieces of chocolate-covered bacon.

It was fantastic! The sweet and salty thing worked just great.

Bella's is closed for the season but will reopen in mid-March, with dinners resuming in mid- to late May.

Ruyi Asian Fusion
111 Court St.
(Top of the Square Plaza)
Watertown
779-8888
www.ruyiasianfusion.com
4 forks

You know you're going to experience something special from the moment you enter Ruyi Asian Fusion.

Water trickles down a huge mosaic waterfall in the center of the room. Tropical fish swim around in a wishing pond at the bottom. Beaded-string dividers separate the dining area from the sushi bar. Inventive lighting draws attention to the fully stocked beverage bar.

The menu, while heavy on Japanese foods like sushi, sashimi, rolls and tempura, also included quite a few Chinese choices as well as a sprinkling of Thai and other Asian fare. Presentation is part of the deal here, and it's done very well.

The sushi platter — eight “chef's choice” pieces of raw fish over sticky rice — were lined up, marching down a lovely, dark-green bamboo leaf.

Miso soup had flavorful, almost smoky broth with bits of tofu, seaweed, scallions and shiitake mushrooms.

The spicy Thai lemongrass soup had evidence of chili oil floating on top. Deep in the bowl were a shrimp and scallop or two, a little bundle of rice noodles and mushrooms in a piquant broth with overtones of lemongrass and cilantro.

There are more than a dozen fancy entrées utilizing chicken, duck, snapper and filet mignon. But with more than 100 other options that included soups, salads, appetizers, sushi, sashimi and specialty rolls, we stuck to that portion of the menu.

Here are highlights:

Vietnamese summer roll:a salad in a roll with fresh greens, along with a slice of mango and a little shrimp, rolled up in softened rice paper.

Kani salad: strips of crab and diced cucumber and avocado combined with mayonnaise, served over mixed greens and sprinkled with flying-fish roe.

Crunchy spicy mango tuna tartare: Chopped raw tuna with diced mango gets an interesting crunch from deep-fried panko breadcrumbs, all held together with a citrus mango dressing.

Samurai roll:A traditional roll filled with cucumber, avocado and sushi rice. The outside is draped with tiny slices of eel.

Chilean sea bass yakitori:bite-sized chunks of buttery sea bass alternating with squares of green and red sweet pepper, skewered, daubed with teriyaki and grilled.

For dessert, our favorite was Oreo Tempura. Who would have thought this food of the gods could be improved with a little batter and a quick dunk in the fryer? It was finished with a drizzle of chocolate sauce and a side of vanilla ice cream topped with whipped cream.

Gentile's Restaurant
305 Burnet Ave.
Syracuse
474-8258
www.gentilesrestaurant.com
4 forks

Gentile's Restaurant is subtitled “eclectic Italian,” and rightly so.

Artichoke stew with pistachio and pancetta; fennel and Belgian endive salad with apples, dates and pecans; farfalle with smoked pork and pear ragu; seared lobster with baby clams, prosciutto, tomatoes, cilantro and parsley.

It's a feast for foodies in an out-of-the-way downtown location. Inside, you get the feel of an old-time neighborhood restaurant.

Chef/owner Kevin Gentile utilizes fresh, seasonal ingredients with busy pairings that one wouldn't think would work.

We began with something seemingly traditional — escargot. The tender snails were set atop cheesy polenta and served with pesto and provolone fondue, a sauce made of pureed, smoky peppadew peppers and melted provolone.

The artichoke appetizer's three good-sized artichoke bottoms acted like edible cups, filled with jumbo lump crabmeat, topped with a light coating of breadcrumbs, finished with a generous drizzle of saffron butter.

Gentile's Utica greens consisted of sautéed, still-crunchy escarole mixed with spicy sausage, pancetta, cherry peppers and broccoli, topped with cheese and toasted breadcrumbs.

A pasta dish featured rigatoni tossed with plump scallops, chorizo sausage, onions, grilled tomatoes and a touch of olive oil, topped with grated Spanish manchego cheese.

Stuffed chicken was a breast filled with spinach and goat cheese, set in a pool of red pepper cream sauce enhanced with a touch of horseradish. Simple and effective.

Here's a busy dish: smoked salmon, parsnips, grilled pineapple and asparagus in a sauce of sour cream, goat cheese and pink peppercorns, tossed with gemelli pasta.

The sauce was amazing — velvety, smooth, rich and delicious. The peppercorns took the sauce to another level.

The only disappointing dish was the filet mignon set atop goat cheese polenta with an applewood-smoked bacon and maple demi glace. The problem was the intense searing of the steak — charred to the point that a bitter, burned flavor permeated the sauce.

Although desserts were not made at the restaurant, they were high-quality products: forest fruit sorbet, cannoli, hazelnut torte and a layer cake with white-chocolate frosting.

Maggie's Pub
at the Lake Placid Lodge
144 Lodge Way
Lake Placid
1 (518) 523-2700
www.lakeplacidlodge.com
4 forks

The original historic Lake Placid Lodge burned to the ground several years ago. It has been rebuilt in genuine rustic Great Camp fashion and is spectacular.

There are two dining facilities. The intimate Artisans Restaurant is quite formal with an upscale menu. We chose the more relaxed Maggie's Pub, a cozy wood-paneled room with plush armchairs, a billiard table, shelves of old books and a crackling fire in the massive stone fireplace.

The menu consists of appetizers, cheese and charcuterie plates, homemade soups, sophisticated salads, sandwiches with a twist, local grass-fed beef burgers, a few light entrées and a nice selection of desserts.

We began with a flavorful tomato fennel soup, thick and rich, garnished with garlic crisps.

Herb-lemon grilled shrimp with forbidden rice — a black organic rice — was super. Four very large shrimp had great, subtle grill flavor. The rice was enhanced with minced onion, celery and carrot.

Seared tofu with mushroom consisted of two rectangles of seared tofu surrounded by a very tasty mushroom broth and assorted sautéed local mushrooms.

Beet salad was very good. Diced young beets and local goat cheese along with petite greens were dressed with a bacon and hazelnut vinaigrette.

A roasted turkey sandwich went from ordinary to extraordinary with a slice of ripe beefsteak tomato, crisp thick-cut smoked bacon, avocado mayo and a dash of aged balsamic vinegar. Homemade seasoned potato chips were excellent.

A smoked pastrami sandwich was equally good, served open faced, a baguette sliced lengthwise, covered with melted Swiss and caramelized onions, topped with piles of smoky, salty pastrami.

Fish and chips used fresh haddock beer-battered using Lake Placid Brewery's Ubu ale, fried to a blond crispness and served with potato wedges.

For dessert, pumpkin crème brulee was fabulous. The caramel apple was a Granny Smith dipped in soft, buttery caramel.

Amadeus Café & Schnitzel Haus
170 Princess St.
Kingston, Ontario
1 (613) 546-7468
www.amadeusdafe.ca
4 forks

Amadeus Café & Schnitzel Haus is a long, narrow space with a patio, the biergarten, out back.

The menu is amazing: crepes, sandwiches, sausages, schnitzels (15 kinds), and all sorts of European classics like Hungarian goulash, cordon bleu three ways, pork chops and roast pork loin, chicken Kiev and the one I had my eye on from the start, Rouladen.

For appetizers we had a smoked salmon plate and a “Russian egg.”

The smoked salmon was very good quality, served with the usual red onion and some lovely German dark rye. The Russian egg was a hardboiled egg draped with smoked salmon and topped with a dot of black fish roe/caviar.

Salad or soup comes with entrées. The salad is a “mixed salad,” greens with house dressing, homemade vinegary potato salad and a savory carrot salad.

The goulash soup was chunks of braised beef and homemade spaetzle in a beefy, zesty thickened paprika broth.

Peasant feast (Bauernschmaus) gave us a chance to sample a good assortment of food: smoked pork chop, roast pork, sausage, dumplings, sauerkraut and spaetzle.

The tender pork chop had a nice char from the broiler. The bratwurst was grilled just right. Meatball-sized potato dumplings were chewy and doughy, covered with a rich, dark gravy. Fantastic. So were the spaetzle. The sauerkraut? Great.

Brauer schnitzel was a breaded pork schnitzel stuffed with Black Forest ham and Camembert cheese. The breading was remarkable — seasoned perfectly with a fried crispness.

Chicken paprikasch has Hungarian origins. Pieces of boneless breast of chicken, sweet peppers and onions are browned in bacon drippings then mixed into a sour cream and paprika gravy, served over spaetzle.

Rouladen was slices of seasoned beef rolled around a pickle, onion and bacon mixture with a touch of grainy mustard, browned and braised. This was a fabulous roll of flavors, covered with that great gravy and warm red cabbage.

Linzer torte was done correctly, with its rich and buttery layers of pastry sandwiched between raspberry preserves and the distinctive lattice crust.

The folks who joined me on the review spent years in Germany and say, “This food is the best we have had outside of Germany!”

J.C.'s River Run Bar & Grill
17 Bowling Court
Waddington
www.riverrun.awardspace.com
4 forks

A restaurant in a bowling alley? I had trouble finding guests to join me to review J.C.'s River Run Bar & Grill in the old bowling alley in Waddington.

A long bar with affable patrons led to the main dining room, the floor being the original maple wood lanes.

The menu looks plain and casual, with appetizers, soups and salads, pizzas, burgers and wings, nachos and quesadillas. But there's also bruschetta, fried cheese curd, poutine, taco salad, Buffalo shrimp salad, prime rib fajita wrap and veggie burgers.

Dinner choices include prime rib, grilled chicken, Porterhouse steak, scallops, haddock, tilapia and walleye along with more than a half-dozen unusual pasta bakes.

Bruschetta was a delicious take on the traditional tomato, onion, garlic and cheese topping by adding diced ham. It came on a soft, chewy Italian roll.

We ordered “pickle tickles,” battered and deep-fried dill spears that had a great crunch, tasty on their own but even better dipped in ranch dressing.

Sea chowder was excellent, chock full of clams, potatoes and herbs in a light cream broth. Vegetable beef soup consisted of chunks of tender beef, celery, carrots and potatoes in a hearty stock that was impeccably seasoned. Absolutely delicious.

The 16-ounce Porterhouse was nicely marbled, simply seasoned, perfectly cooked. It came with light, fluffy homemade mashed potatoes.

Walleye was meaty and flaky, encased in a beer batter.

Buffalo chicken pasta bake combined wing-sauced chunks of chicken with a creamy cream sauce tossed with linguini, topped with cheeses and baked until bubbling.

Scallop and bacon pasta bake was similar to the Buffalo chicken bake, but with nice-sized scallops and bacon instead of chicken and wing sauce.

Garlic bread, using the same chewy rolls as the bruschetta, was fantastic.

Now for the dessert specialty: beaver tails, basically fried dough like funnel cakes you get at the fair, smothered in strawberries, confectioners sugar and whipped cream.

There's nothing better than a great homemade pie, and a slice of apple and a slice of pumpkin measured up.

Ridgeview Inn
6912 Bardo Road
Lowville
377-4057
www.theridgeviewinn.com
4 forks

A beautiful new building off Route 12 just outside of Lowville is home to the Ridgeview Inn.

Lots of wood and stone inside and out give this large restaurant an inviting, rustic look. Real tablecloths and real napkins got our attention.

Many of the menu items use local products — Lewis County maple syrup, Kraft cream cheese made right there in Lowville, and ring baloney from Eddie's Meat Market just outside Croghan.

We began with several appetizers. Sugary “shanny” sweet fries was like starting with dessert. Unusually crisp sweet potato fries were drizzled with maple syrup glaze. They came with a marshmallow dipping sauce.

Spinach, artichoke and crab dip was a cup of cream cheese goodness with plenty of spinach and artichoke and some crabmeat.

Homemade clam chowder was smooth and very flavorful, the creamy texture a result of the pureeing of potatoes and clams with a touch of heavy cream.

Homemade chili was more meat than beans and not overly spicy, simmered with tomatoes, onions, green peppers and good dose of cumin.

Grilled Atlantic salmon was excellent, a large portion that was moist and flaky, enhanced with a scallion cream sauce.

We loved the Wind Tower Pork Chop. A beautiful, juicy, frenched bone-in center-cut loin chop was criss-crossed with grill marks. A tasty Asian-maple glaze was a perfect complement.

Homemade lasagna with a perfectly seasoned meat sauce came in an individual casserole dish. It was a large portion, served with garlic bread.

The fish fry platter was a generous portion of haddock, lightly battered and served with fries, cole slaw, tartar sauce and cocktail sauce. The fish was moist and delicious — a classic done right.

Fried apple pie consisted of seasoned apple wedges in a sweet syrup on top of a “fried pie” — like the sugared fried dough you'd get at a county fair.

“Snirt” pie was a frozen, decadent blend of mousse-like maple and peanut butter, light and airy, in a graham cracker crust.

Sugar and cinnamon fried dough provided the base for bananas Foster, bananas caramelized with rum and a big scoop of vanilla ice cream.

The Dirty Gringo
109 Main St.
Ogdensburg
713-8151
4 forks

The Dirty Gringo is a clean, attractive little eatery with a welcoming feel.

We studied the chalkboard menu for several minutes before placing our order. Some very interesting stuff, creative and well thought-out.

Salsa and chips was a good place to start. The salsa was homemade with fresh tomatoes and onions, a little cilantro and just the right amount of heat.

It's not unusual to see an interesting dish on a new restaurant's menu, but interesting doesn't necessarily mean good. But three of our four main selections turned out to be both.

“The Dirty Gringo” was a large burrito stuffed with chorizo sausage, jalapeno bacon (really!), hash browns, onions, peppers, fried eggs, refried or black beans and salsa.

The jalapeno bacon was the real star — it looked and tasted like bacon from a butcher shop but with a kick. Add the hash browns and fried eggs and you have an unusual and tasty entrée.

The Marley had an eclectic combination of ingredients and flavors: black beans, rice, Jamaican jerk chicken, jalapenos, pineapple, cheese and sour cream.

The jerk chicken and the jalapenos gave the burrito great flavor.

A classic Mexican breakfast item, huevos rancheros, was another great creation, and with great presentation. Warm flour tortillas were topped with two eggs sunny-side up, refried beans, sour cream, homemade salsa and Mexican spice. A good alternative to the massive burritos.

The tacos were a little less interesting. We chose chicken, beef and chorizo in soft-shell tacos. They were pretty standard except for the chorizo. All were light and fresh, though.

For dessert, we shared and “apple chimi” with vanilla ice cream — a warm flour tortilla neatly folded over a filling of apples, lightly fried on the flattop, drizzled with caramel and topped with vanilla ice cream.

The Hops Spot
214 W. Main St.
Sackets Harbor
646-BEER (2337)
www.thehopsspot.com
4 forks

The Hops Spot is a new gastropub offering an assortment of regional, national and international beer, and food to go with it.

Owners Ryan and Cheryl Chaif describe the menu as “beer-focused comfort food,” featuring regional meats, cheeses and breads.

The food really goes with the beer: German beer brats, corn-battered hot dogs, poutine four ways, Montreal-smoked meat, fish and chips, beef on weck, beer cheese and (if you really have to) salads with mixed greens, microgreens and goat cheese.

Of course, we began with a round of beers.

Kasteel Rouge from Belgium was like drinking cherry soda. It is brewed with cultivated yeast, giving a simpler, cleaner flavor.

A bottle of La Fin du Monde, an effervescent wheat beer from Unibroue in Montreal, is a tripel, a kind of strong pale ale.

From Pennsylvania, Troegs Sunshine Pilsner on tap was clean and refreshing. Rogue Juniper Pale Ale from Oregon was pleasant with a slightly “piney” taste.

And now, a round of food.

Their version of poutine, the Canadian favorite, was a must: hand-cut “frites” with duck confit, Camembert cheese and green pepper au poivre.

They make their own jalapeno poppers, very hot chilies filled with mozzarella, battered and deep-fried.

OK, we broke down and got a salad.

“The Amantani” was fun and original: squeaky chipotle cheddar warmed on the griddle, served with rounds of refreshing cucumber and slices of beautiful, ripe tomatoes.

Now for the real beer-drinkin' comfort food.

“The Slaw Dog” was a Syracuse-made Liehs & Steigerwald hot dog heaped with house-made cole slaw. “The Harvest Dog” began with the same weiner but it was gussied up with warm apple slices, New York cheddar, local maple bacon and maple syrup.

Liverwurst, coarse chopped onions and mustard on rye was right up my alley. Not just any old liverwurst, though — slabs of Braunschweiger, slightly smoky, made with pork liver.

Montreal smoked meat made in-house is shaved brisket layered on rye with their own spicy mustard.

No review of a beer lover's restaurant would be complete without the beer the owner ended his shift with, Bosteel's Tripel Karmeliet. This Belgian tripel is smooth, clean and quite complex.

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