ALEXANDRIA BAY Bonnie Castle, the rambling, iconic resort here, is under new ownership.
The Garlock and the Lozo families purchased the property a little more than a year ago. Extensive renovations, expected to take three years, are under way to bring it back to the glory of its heyday in the 80s.
It was a beautiful summer evening. The outdoor pool at Bonnie Castle was bustling with activity. It looked a lot cleaner than we remembered. The exterior of the motel had a noticeable coat of fresh paint. Nearly every slip in the covered marina which number well more than 100 was home to a sizeable boat.
We began our evening at the resorts outdoor bar on the river, the Point Bar & Grill, formerly known as the Rum Runner. Its actually built against the rock shore on a dock. With a cold Blue Moon beer and a couple of icy cocktails in hand, we had a ringside seat to view life on the St. Lawrence River.
It was a short walk up the steps to the Manor House Restaurant. Floor-to-ceiling picture windows offer a majestic panoramic view of the river and nearby Boldt Castle. Tall, 100-year-old pine trees protrude through the wraparound deck. An occasional freighter lumbering by would add movement to an otherwise still scene.
Inside, theres much reminiscent of bygone days at Bonnie Castle. The U-shaped bar with red leather barstools still overlooks the dining room. The glitzy Liberace-like mirrored piano is tucked in a corner, no doubt an effort to hide it. The tacky lighted water fountain and glistening chandelier in the center of the dining room are still there.
The interior of the restaurant looked much the same as in years past, but much cleaner. The effort of the new owners is apparent.
We appreciated the air-conditioning. And the black and white linen-dressed tables. And our young water girl/busser, who was very efficient refilling our water glasses and clearing our table throughout the evening.
We were excited to learn that theres a new, noted executive chef in the kitchen. Rick DeCuffa took over in early July. In the restaurant business for decades, Mr. DeCuffa most recently was the summer chef at Joeys at the Thousand Island Club and spent the rest of the year cooking at his familys restaurant, Joeys Italian Restaurant, in Syracuse.
Many of Joeys signature dishes are on the menu here. Things like calamari steak, shrimp casino, chicken riggies and stuffed rigatoni. Also, predictables like shrimp cocktail, steamed clams, Caesar salad and chicken Parmesan. And classics like chicken Francaise, grilled swordfish, filet mignon and surf and turf.
Our waiter got things under way, delivering flimsy slices of bread to the table, along with whipped garlic butter containing too much garlic.
The wine selection is limited but good. We chose a bottle of Indian Wells Chardonnay. Indian Wells is part of the Chateau. St. Michelle family of wines in Washington state. Its a full-bodied Chardonnay, oaky and buttery with aromas of pineapple, butterscotch and vanilla. So says the label. Perfect for a sultry summer night.
This seemed to set a relaxed mode for the evening and an even greater relaxed mode for our server.
For starters, we ordered confit duck nachos ($10), shrimp casino ($13), tuna sashimi ($12) and goat cheese-stuffed mushrooms ($9). Our waiter had no problem submitting this order before we decided on entrees.
The duck nachos are a carry-over from the previous menu. These were very good, crisp triangular-shaped tortilla sections mounded with corn salsa, shredded chunks of tasty duck and melted pepper-jack cheese. The cool corn offset the hot cheese. Spiced sour cream and chipotle oil finished the dish.
Tuna sashimi was another great summer appetizer. A nice piece of sashimi-grade tuna was rolled in sesame seeds, seared rare, sliced and served with the traditional wasabi, soy sauce and pickled ginger. Shredded daikon (sweet Japanese radish root) and refreshing commercially made seaweed salad (wakame) were pleasant additions.
Shrimp casino is a take on the well-known clam appetizer. Its a Joeys staple and one of the great recipes included in the cookbook Joeys Italian.
The Bonnie Castle menu description is right out of the cookbook, Large shrimp stuffed with bell peppers, onion and spinach, topped with Asiago cheese and baked with lemon, butter and white wine.
We received three shrimp, not nearly as large as the U-12s called for in the cookbook and they didnt look anything like the photo in the cookbook. Rather than the shrimp being butterflied with the tail clutching the stuffing, they were presented on their sides with a little ball of mostly bread stuffing on top.
If you like goat cheese, youll love the goat cheese-stuffed mushrooms. It basically has the same veggie mix as the shrimp (peppers, onion, spinach) with the addition of distinctive tasting goat cheese, creamier than feta but not as salty.
The five small mushrooms on the plate each were about the size of a quarter and less than a bite apiece. Tasty, but tiny.
Our appetizers were finished, the dishes cleared by our young busser, and our waiter still hadnt taken our entrée order. We tried to flag him down, but there were long periods of time where he seemed to disappear.
Finally, our entrees were ordered and we were back on track. Salads come with the entrees, fresh mixed greens served with slices of cucumber and tomato. A simple, fresh salad with tasty dressings made in-house. We enjoyed the balsamic dressing with blue cheese crumbles, especially because they didnt hit us up for an extra charge for the blue cheese.
Bobbys cavatelli ($18) is at the top of the list of 15 main courses. It consists of small pasta shells that resemble miniature hot dog buns, tossed with pancetta, peas, mushrooms, roasted red peppers and Asiago cheese in a delicate cream sauce.
It was similar to a carbonara preparation but without egg yolks. Quite flavorful and truly a delightful not-too-thick/not-too-thin cream sauce.
Chicken Marsala ($18) was impressive. The boneless breast of chicken was topped with sliced, sautéed crimini mushrooms. The chicken was moist and could be cut with a fork. A pleasant Marsala wine sauce cradled the chicken.
Fresh sautéed veggies were a nice touch zucchini, summer squash and onions.
The medley came with all of our entrees except the pasta dish.
Honey apple salmon ($26) was great looking and great tasting. A delicious piece of fresh wild-caught salmon was quickly grilled, then baked in the oven, topped with sautéed apples, fresh rosemary, butter and a touch of honey.
The winner of the dinner plates very well could have been the New York strip steak ($26). This was an example of a restaurant-quality choice-grade piece of meat, an impressive 14 ounces, simply and superbly seasoned with salt and pepper. It had a delicious grilled taste.
Garlic mashed potatoes had just a hint of garlic, if any. Perhaps they used it all in the whipped butter earlier. Small pieces of fried potato skin were an unexpected treat on top of the taters.
Desserts, made there, we were told, were anti-climactic.
Strawberry shortcake was heavy on angel food cake and ice cream and very light on non-fresh strawberries. A thick slice of generic apple pie didnt have a lot of flavor and the apples were undercooked.
A petite wedge of plain cheesecake was topped with the same fake strawberries. A little wedge of chocolate cheesecake was a little better, only because it was chocolate and served over a chocolate sauce.
They might have been made in-house, but they werent at all noteworthy, especially for $7 apiece.
Dinner for four, before tip and before figuring in a bottle of wine, came to $175.58 with tax.
Overall, the pace of the evening was less than leisurely more like logy and lethargic.
The food was miles better than our last visit three years ago under the old regime.
Chef Decuffas menu is a work in progress. He is capable of much more, but for being in charge of the kitchen for less than a month, hes off to a good start.
And he obviously has a competent crew working with him. We learned early in the meal that the chef wasnt even there (a major faux pas on the part of our waiter).
Everybody deserves a night off, he said.
Yeah, but its the middle of the summer and its crunch time and youve only been there three weeks.
Our server seemed to move at a different pace than the rest of the wait staff. He could have been a little more attentive to our silverware needs for each course. We needed to flag down our busser gal after he delivered food without noticing that we had no way to eat it.
But the glitches are minor in comparison to what has already been accomplished by the new owners. Theyre on the right track here, for sure. And being natives of the Bay, they must certainly realize, with serious competition close by, they cant settle for status quo.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Manor House Restaurant
at Bonnie Castle Resort
31 Holland St.
Alexandria Bay, N.Y.
(800) 955 4511
Bonnie Castle Resort has new owners who have begun restoring the property to its former glory. And the restaurant has a new chef, Rick DeCuffa of Joeys fame.
HOURS: 5 to 9 p.m. seven days a week. Days of operation will be modified after Labor Day.
APPETIZER PICK: Confit duck nachos, tuna sashimi
ENTRÉE PICKS: Honey apple salmon, New York strip steak