I’ve long lamented the fact that the property previously occupied by The Barracks in Sackets Harbor – a gorgeous piece of land with stunning waterfront and ample outdoor seating – was sitting unused. So I was pretty excited when my parents let me know that some new people had inhabited the place and were sprucing it up for business this summer. Newly opened, the dining room at J. Fins is brighter, but the view is the same. More modern artwork adorns the walls, the lighting is improved, and the American/Italian/Seafood menu has a couple odd Asian items for those more adventurous palates. Unfortunately, we were also joined by a familiar lakeside pest: flies were prevalent on the night we visited, and landing all over our table throughout our meal.
Our waitress was another red herring: she pronounced one of the wine specials “Pee-not New-weer,” forgot to tell us they were out of clam chowder until Dad had already decided on it, didn’t provide bread plates or salad forks, and just kind of left a bad impression the whole evening. We looked around and saw other staff hustling and bustling, but we missed out on that service. I don’t know if this is weird or what, but if you’re going to bring me a basket of bread, I need a bread plate. I’ve noted this before at other restaurants, and it’s a phenomenon I just don’t get. I am not a cavewoman; I need a plate for my bread!
I’ll tell you what doesn’t disappoint: the salad dressings. I ordered the jalapeno buttermilk dressing on my salad, and while the mixed greens were a tad on the limp side, that dressing, clearly made in-house, was explosively spicy at the same time as ultimately creamy – a fantastic mix of hot and mild. As Guy Fieri puts it, I would consider eating that dressing on an old boot.
The rib eye I ordered for dinner was well-seasoned, which is crucial, and cooked correctly, which also is pretty important. But it wasn’t trimmed well. One of the best things about a rib eye steak is the marbling and fat that gives the meat so much flavor, but with that generous fat also comes a fair amount of connective tissue along the outer rim of any given steak, which turns into gristle when grilled. A quick trim before cooking would have made this good steak great. As it was I had to trim all of this off, which took time away from eating – sacre bleu! – and made a mess on my plate.
The mashed potatoes on the side were enriched with margarine, I believe, rather than real butter, but they were acceptable, chunky, well-seasoned, skin-on. The zucchini and summer squash were pretty excellent, again perfectly seasoned with salt and fresh garlic, crisp-tender, seasonal and delicious. Nothing earth-shatteringly creative going on on this plate, but how many steak-ordering Northcountry peeps are looking for a ton of innovation? They want meat and potatoes and they want them now; this plate delivers on that craving.
Mom ordered the chicken piccata entrée, and was presented with a generous portion of thicker-than-average chicken breast swathed in a creamy lemon and caper sauce. The chicken was very tender, though I personally like my chicken cutlets pounded much thinner. I mean, come on, the thinner you pound it, the more surface area it has for fat and salt and sauce and yumminess to cling to it, right? The sauce was creamier than it was lemony, which was pleasing, as the capers provided the salty punch to save it from too much richness. Mom also announced that in a rice pilaf-off, J. Fins would win over Channelside in Clayton. Pilaf lovers of the world, take note. I personally thought it tasted just like Uncle Ben’s chicken pilaf rice, which hey, I serve in my kitchen, but wouldn’t necessarily put on a plate in a restaurant bearing my name. That said, Mom was a fan.
Dad had the calamari appetizer along with a salad as his entrée. He reported that the lettuce in his salad was much more crisp than in our appetizer versions, so he won out on that deal, I guess. The calamari were very lightly breaded and tender. Crunchy, but not crispy or chewy, which is about all you can ask for with little fried rings o’squid. The thai chile dipping sauce served alongside was not impressive. It was overly hot, most likely bottled, and I didn’t see any of the fresh cilantro promised on the menu. A moderately spicy arrabiatta sauce would be more successful with this dish.
There were other bright spots and low lights at the new J. Fins. While there were fresh flowers on the table, the bread basket was really lackluster, with tiny, rather hard, slices of flavorless Italian bread. Again, you can’t argue with the magnificent view, but many diners were struggling with the near-setting sun glaring in their eyes. One clever fellow wore his sunglasses throughout his meal. My suspicion is that the owners are relatively new to the restaurant biz and just need a few months under their belts to have everything in ship shape. The improvements to the look and feel of the place are commendable, as is the fact that all the food was expertly seasoned, but our uninspiring service, the poorly-trimmed steak, and few other nits belie the fact that there’s work to be done here. No matter what, this location is a goldmine, and as long as they can churn out tasty, affordable food, J Fins will flourish among Sackets’ restaurant landscape. We awarded the newbie a six on the BHS scale, above average but with room to grow, but we didn’t have the chance to sample any of the sandwiches! So I suggest you stop in and then report back to Big Hungry Nation on what you think.
The next couple weeks will bring you reviews of some spectacular meals I had last week in Washington, DC with my colleagues. Just to wet your whistle, ruminate on these: bacon bourbon cocktail, chicken and waffles, foie gras and pork cannelones, pork belly dumplings, and shanghai noodles with braised short ribs. Oops, I just drooled on my keyboard, which is usually my cue to sign off. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!
PS: The Miss Thousand Islands Pageant is in a couple weeks! You’re coming, right? Join us at the Clayton Opera House at 7 p.m. on Saturday, August 11 to see Miss TI 2013 crowned. You can grab dinner at Channelside, Koffee Kove or the new hot dog place, River Dogs, beforehand, and I’ll be checking our River Dogs while I’m there. Oh, and you can say goodbye to this beauty:
PPS: I just heard that Goodfello’s, also in Sackets, is under new management. Anyone wanna take me to dinner there?