HENDERSON HARBOR The Gill House Restaurant and Inn is open once again.
Although it has not operated continuously, the Gill House has been a fixture in Henderson Harbor for more than a century. The location, on the shore of Lake Ontario, is lovely. If you approach the restaurant from Watertown on Route 123, you slowly drive by the picturesque cottages that line the harbor along the way.
The Gill House is set back from the water and has a long, sloping yard that looks just perfect for having a pre- or post-dinner drink in one of the Adirondack chairs.
It has a charming exterior that looks like something from a Norman Rockwell painting. It has not changed much since the days when Model T Fords pulled up out front, as shown by some black-and-white photos on display inside.
The interior has not changed much in recent years either. The new owners, restaurateurs from the Syracuse area, have left the previous country-style décor pretty much intact. Theres a small, cozy bar and a large dining room split into several seating areas with windows facing the lake, allowing for views of gorgeous sunsets.
We started our evening in the cozy bar. The room was pleasantly dark, with a dozen or so high stools at the L-shaped bar and some additional tables along the windows.
The experienced barmaid was friendly and very helpful.
The beer selection seemed rather small, with only two on tap in addition to the usual bottled suspects. But the bar was well stocked with spirits, and the wine list offered about a dozen red and a dozen white wines, most of which are available by the glass for $6 to $8 as well as by the bottle.
The wine drinkers in our party thought the first pour was a little stingy, but the astute bartender overheard some of those remarks and the second time around was a bit better. Bogle Old Vine Zinfandel was a very full-bodied, rich, soft, fruity red, rarely offered by the glass.
Off to the dining room. It seemed exactly as we remembered, the same floral wallpaper, the same attractive white-painted wood trim, the same view out the window and maybe even the same draperies. The place looked as if it had just been closed for a weekend rather than the actual two years it sat idle.
Our waitress, Cassie, was a naturally friendly young lady, professional and attentive throughout the evening and able to answer the questions we had about dishes on the menu.
The menu offers some new and exotic items along with some traditional Gill House favorites from the past. There are paninis, wraps, quesadillas and burgers for a lighter, more casual meal, as well as a full complement of appetizers, salads, soups and entrees along with a list of daily specials. Almost all of the dishes are prepared from scratch in-house.
The first item brought to the table was a disappointment. Room temperature white-bread rolls were a little stale, and the dipping oil presented with them was bland. Fortunately, things improved considerably from there.
Thai mussels ($10) was a star appetizer. A generous two dozen small, plump mussels were presented in a delicious spicy red coconut broth with small pieces of baby bok choy. The mussels were tender, and the tangy broth would have made a great soup all by itself. Toast points and crispy won tons accompanied. Those stale rolls were firm enough to stand up to the dunking we gave them in the tasty broth.
We gave the Asian pot stickers ($9) a try, even though Cassie was pretty sure they were a product from one of their restaurant suppliers. The small dumplings (four of them) made from won ton skins did not disappoint. The pork filling was very tasty and nicely spiced. It was a great presentation with a selection of sauces drizzled around them.
Its a little awkward to share a cup of soup and a salad among four diners, but we sacrificed for the common good.
Tomato basil soup ($3 a cup) was a special of the day, thick with tomatoes and sweet peppers, almost like a ratatouille or a thick, warm gazpacho. Quite tomatoey but not really spicy at all. It was thick enough to eat with a fork, we discovered as it made its way around the table.
The New York Almond Company salad ($10) intrigued us. New York Almond Company, based in central New York, makes flavored gourmet nuts utilizing top-quality Georgia pecans, California almonds, and Brazilian cashews. The wife of one of the restaurant owners is a principal in NYAC, we were told.
The salad consisted of garden greens, sliced apples, chunks of very mild cheddar cheese and NYACs cinnamon-and-vanilla-roasted almonds tossed with house-made cider maple vinaigrette and topped with flavorful grilled chicken slices. It was a little heavy on the greens compared to the rest of the ingredients, but was nonetheless refreshing on a warm summer evening.
All four starters were hits. The main dishes also pleased and surprised us.
Bam Bam shrimp ($23) was given a very dramatic presentation. Jumbo tempura-battered tiger shrimp were arranged in a tilted bowl with Asian noodles spilling out of the bowl and onto the plate underneath. Orange Bam Bam sauce (rice wine vinegar, hot sauce, sugar, garlic, mayo) was drizzled over the shrimp; the noodles were in an Asian sauce of their own.
The shrimp got a delicious hot-sweet flavor boost from the Bam Bam sauce. The noodles were tasty, the sauce on them a little thick. A lighter touch on the sauce would make this excellent dish a fantastic one.
Bubbas Shank ($22), a house specialty, was a winner. You cant go wrong with braised pork shank or maybe you can, but I have personally never had a bad one.
A jumbo bone-in, meaty shank was glued upright on the plate with the help of mashed potatoes, covered with Carolina barbecue sauce, topped with deep-fried tumbleweed onions and served with sautéed zucchini and yellow squash. The meat was fork-tender and the Carolina red sauce packed with flavor.
Perch has always been on the Gill House menu ($21), a tradition of sorts.
Several large strips of ocean perch were battered and deep-fried till golden and crispy. Light and lovely. The fish was moist, so it really didnt need what seemed an unusual accompaniment, a mildly spicy mayonnaise-based sauce, but it did add some zest and interest to the dish.
Heirloom tomato chicken fettuccini ($17) is the only pasta dish on the menu. Fettuccini in butter-heavy pesto sauce was tossed with multihued heirloom cherry tomatoes and chunks of grilled chicken. The sweet/tart flavor of the tomatoes helped cut the richness of the sauce.
The dessert menu is short, with a changing selection of locally made pies and cakes.
Homemade apple pie ($5) with a noticeably flaky crust, served with whipped cream and vanilla ice cream, was as good as Mom used to make. Better, actually, since Mom never made pies. She passed off Mrs. Smiths on us back when we didnt know any better.
No way were we leaving without getting the smores for two ($7.95). A large wooden lazy Susan held the marshmallows, graham crackers, Hershey chocolate and fondue forks with a little hibachi burner in the middle to toast the marshmallows.
What a fun way to end the meal! Since some of us liked our marshmallows incinerated, we took care in the cooking to keep the flames under control. Cassie noted that we were making the dining room smell great. Lucky we werent seated under a smoke detector.
Dinner for four with only two desserts (and not figuring in what we spent on wine and drinks) came to $178.02 before tip.
Its great to have the Gill House open again. Even with the dated décor, theres a certain charm to the place. Its homey and comfortable, for sure. The staff is friendly and well trained. There were none of the new-restaurant glitches that we were anticipating. And the eclectic mix of old favorites and exciting new dishes coming from chef Melinda Cleavers kitchen was a pleasant surprise.
You may want to consider a weekend getaway at the Gill House. In addition to the restaurant and bar there are 12 comfortable guest rooms on the second floor.
Its clear that the Gill Houses experienced new owners know what theyre doing and have brought their winning formula to Henderson Harbor. But if you plan to stop by, youd better hurry. The seasonal restaurant plans to close in late September and will reopen again next May.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gill House Restaurant
13565 Route 123
Henderson Harbor, N.Y.
This favorite water-view dining spot is open once again. The menu has been updated, featuring an eclectic mix of old favorites and exciting new dishes.
HOURS: 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
Dinner from 5 to 9 p.m.
Hours may be cut back after Labor Day, so check ahead. Closes for the season in late September.
APPETIZER FAVORITE: Thai mussels
ENTRÉE FAVORITES: Bubbas Shank, Bam Bam shrimp, Gill House perch
DESSERT FAVORITE: Smores
RATING: 4 forks