SACKETS HARBOR The Barracks Inn has long been a special dining destination for many north county folks.
After a two-year hiatus, the restaurant has new owners and a new name. Julia Jacobs and Joe Finns reopened the waterfront eatery earlier this summer. They named it J Fins, borrowing the first letter of each of their first names and shortening Joes last name to create a play on words.
They have done a beautiful job landscaping the property. Indoors, new carpeting and lighting have spruced up the restaurants dining room and separate bar area, enhancing the ambiance familiar to so many.
While the Barracks was open only during the summer, J Fins will stay open throughout the fall and early winter. We visited recently on a Sunday to find the dining room jam-packed with customers enjoying the music of Watertown legend Bob Kissell. So we opted to eat in a quiet corner of the spacious bar area at a tall table next to a large stone fireplace
Dawn was our server, the friendliest, bubbliest person youd ever want to meet.
She was enthusiastic about everything on the menu. Thats one of my FAVorite appetizers... I just LOVE their homemade soups she would say with a nonstop smile.
It all made perfect sense after we found out shed been a flight attendant in a previous life. We thought for sure shed break into the fasten your seat belt bit or do the oxygen mask routine before the night was over.
The menu leans toward the upscale casual side. Appetizers included peanut chicken kabobs, littleneck clams and Asian-marinated beef. Under sandwiches, there were ham and cheese with cucumber, onions and Dijon; shaved steak with sautéed onions and cheese, and a catfish BLT.
Burgers abound. The Cannonball is a 1-pounder served with bacon, cheddar and jalapenos. The Battlefield Breakfast Burger is a half-pounder topped with a sunny-side-up egg and sausage gravy.
There are about a dozen dinner choices that include chicken, seafood, steak and pasta dishes.
We began with two appetizers that were perfect for sharing, mahi bites ($11.95) and spicy potato croquettes ($6.95).
The mahi bites were excellent, a slab of mahi mahi blackened with Cajun spices, pan-seared and cut into chunks. There was still some pinkish color to the interior of the fish, leaving it nice and moist. The heat from the blackening was tempered by a cooling mango salsa with notes of cilantro.
We werent going to get the croquettes if they were a commercial deep-fried product. Theyre billed as crispy potato dumplings filled with pepperoni, horseradish and cheddar cheese. Once Dawn assured us that they were made right there, we ordered them.
Of course, we all sat there picking them apart with our forks to check them out. They were balls of very finely diced potato with a few dots of similarly diced pepperoni. We couldnt taste horseradish, or cheddar cheese, for that matter.
And they werent really spicy or crispy.
A cup of homemade butternut squash soup ($3.95) was noteworthy, thick and flavorful with pumpkin spice seasonings, a bit on the sweet side.
The menu doesnt state whether a salad comes with the entrees, but in fact it does, consisting of nice crisp lettuce and romaine with carrot, cucumber and tiny little grape tomatoes. Homemade Caesar dressing had a nice, bold Parmesan flavor. Sesame ginger was OK, but not made there.
Three of our entrees were bona fide dinners; one was a flatbread sandwich named the Musket ($11.95).
It consisted of thinly pounded chicken, roasted red peppers, caramelized onions and artichoke held together with melted mozzarella. The sandwich was pressed (grilled) panini style, making the flatbread even flatter than it usually is.
While everything tasted OK, there just didnt seem to be enough of it, especially for the price.
Additionally, we paid $2.50 to sub sweet potato waffle fries for french fries. They were very good, crispy almost like a pretzel, and very sweet potato-ey. But now we had a $14.50 sandwich plate and could have gotten a complete chicken or pasta entrée for about a dollar more.
For seafood entrees, theres haddock, mahi mahi, salmon and scallops. We chose the sea scallops ($21.95) pan seared and drizzled with maple mustard cream sauce.
There was no visible evidence that the five scallops were seared, and they were a bit overdone. The sauce was understandably sweet, and looked and tasted like it had been made in advance. It came with sautéed fresh zucchini and summer squash, cooked perfectly, and mashed potatoes that werent as white and fluffy as we would have liked.
Steak au poivre ($18.95) was interesting. Its described as medallions of beef seasoned with black peppercorns and served with a brandy cream sauce. Sounded pretty traditional.
Rather than beef tenderloin, they used a cut called terrace major. Smartphones to the rescue. Terrace major is a tender shoulder cut that has the grain of a brisket but the consistency of a tenderloin. Its a viable substitution and at a price point that makes it more attractive for the restaurant and the customer.
We ordered it cooked rare, and it came out exactly that. Hail to the chef! It could have used more cracked peppercorns, and the sauce tasted like made-ahead gravy. It lacked the brandy overtones and subtle shallot and Dijon flavors you expect in a good au poivre sauce. A side of rice pilaf was cooked perfectly.
Penne carbonara ($15.95) was an example of a classic done right. Its penne pasta coated with a rich cream sauce flavored with garlic, bacon, peas and Parmesan. This silky sauce appeared to be made to order, creamy and buttery without being pasty. A generous portion, too, enough to take a good amount home for the next day.
Appetizer and main course presentations were nothing special. Dessert presentations were a little better. Theyre priced at $5.95 each.
Pumpkin spice cake is one of their seasonal desserts. The cake itself reminded us of carrot cake, redolent with raisins and coconut along with a sweet dark rum cream cheese frosting. It was very good.
Lemon raspberry torte is a commercial confection, a cylinder revealing layers of vanilla genoise, lemon mousse and raspberry preserves. A lemon icing on top accented with white chocolate curls was an attractive touch.
Apples Foster was another homemade seasonal dessert, sliced apples in a cinnamon sauce spiked with rum. Vanilla ice cream topped off the semi-warm apples.
Dinner for four cost $122.83 before tip.
With so many restaurants in Sackets Harbor only open for the summer season, its nice to see the new J Fins toughing it out until January. The cozy bar area would be perfect for a visit on one of the chilly fall nights ahead.
Dawns service was a little slow at times, mainly because she was also working the crowded dining room. But you couldnt ask for a more enthusiastic server.
The owners are planning to slim the menu down a bit for the slower season ahead. We hope they give a little thought to slimming down some of the prices as well to make sure the locals feel comfortable supporting them year-round.
One more thing: If youre not familiar with Sackets Harbor, get Mapquest directions in advance, or use your GPS, if you have one. J Fins is in the Madison Barracks complex and not easy to find.
■ Its a bit of a drive, but we made a fall getaway journey to the Essex Inn in Essex, on the shore of Lake Champlain.
Its a beautifully restored 200-year-old inn with seven guest rooms, a restaurant offering casual fine dining and a rustic tavern with a five-seat bar. Its open year-round.
We fell in love with the place and think you would, too. Check it out: www.essexinnessex.com.
■ 1844 House in Potsdam has introduced its fall menu.
Of particular note is the pork schnitzel with homemade spaetzle, homemade applesauce and German braised red cabbage. Also tantalizing is the Zinfandel-braised Angus beef short ribs with butternut squash ravioli, roasted root vegetables and crispy fried leeks.
The dessert menu is new, too. Creamy pumpkin cheesecake with gingersnap crust is a great presentation. Warm apple crisp paired with house-made salted caramel ice cream is another winner.
View the entire menu: www.1844house.com.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
42 Pike St.
Sackets Harbor, N.Y.
The former Barracks Inn has new owners and a new name, serving upscale casual food.
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Bar stays open later.
APPETIZER PICK: Mahi bites
ENTRÉE PICK: Penne Carbonara
DESSERT PICK: Fall pumpkin spice cake
RATING: 3 forks