THOUSAND ISLAND PARK The Wellesley Hotel is once again open for the season.
The restaurant is under new management, with Chef Karin Lapusnak in charge. While many may not recognize the name, Karin was head chef at the Renaissance restaurant in Watertown years ago, being one of the first to introduce innovative upscale foods and artistic presentation to the area.
For more than 12 years she managed the kitchen at Sackets Harbor Brewing Company. She also had a hand in opening and managing Goodfellos Brick Oven Pizza and Wine Bar in Sackets Harbor as well as the Sackets Cantina.
With credentials like that, she was the perfect choice to continue the tradition of fine dining at the Wellesley Hotel.
The three-story corner building, built in 1903, is in beautiful condition. Expansive porches overlook the village park and the St. Lawrence River in the distance. The upper-level porches are perfect for overnight guests to enjoy a good book or a bottle of wine, while the porch on the ground level is devoted to outdoor dining.
Theres dining indoors and out. It was a beautiful summer night, so we passed directly through the main dining room to one of the many tables adorned with pristine white tablecloths and place settings on the porch.
We had a great view of the well-maintained 100-year-old cottages dotting the shoreline. Residents of the exclusive community scurried past the hotel on golf carts. Kids zoomed by in their bikes. Tourists walked through the park with ice cream cones in hand.
Our water glasses were filled and menus presented. Peter was our server, a personable young lad with ties to the community. He had worked in the hotels kitchen in previous years, he told us, and had a good knowledge of the food he was serving.
His pacing was good. Cocktail orders were taken and delivered in a timely fashion. He entered our food order, and appetizers were served at a relaxed pace.
We like small, manageable menus, and thats exactly what Karin designed for the hotel: a half-dozen appetizers, three entrée salads and a half-dozen main courses to choose from as well as a handful of specials. Perfect.
The appetizers that we ordered were exquisite.
Lets start with my favorite, the sesame buckwheat blinis ($13). Three little yeast-raised pancakes were topped with finely diced tuna tartare, a dab of wasabi cream and a pinch of tobiko (fish roe). Little piles of pickled cucumber relish decorated the white rectangular plate. Textures and flavors all worked together.
Seared scallops ($14) were a treat, too. Three impressively large scallops were cooked perfectly, placed over wilted local greens and served with a spoonful of tasty lemon-infused white bean ragout and an interesting goat cheese fritter. Grilled asparagus and squiggles of balsamic glaze completed the mosaic .
Vermont cheddar-crusted salmon cakes ($12) were OK. The cakes were a little mushy, we felt, and we werent getting any cheddar flavor. The accompaniments saved the dish: roasted sweet corn crème, wilted spinach, roasted red pepper remoulade and tiny wisps of spicy-hot fried leeks.
Other than a daily Chefs Brew, theres only one soup on the menu, sweet potato vichyssoise ($6).
It was excellent, a thick, cream-colored potato puree garnished with a gremolata of diced smoked salmon, minced parsley and lemon zest. It was not overly chilled but served at room temperature, just right for maximizing the flavors of the ingredients.
Preceding our dinners was a simple salad served family-style in a wooden bowl, fresh greens tossed with blue cheese and a few grape tomatoes, lightly dressed with a house balsamic vinaigrette. Very nice.
A good bit of time passed as we waited for our entrees. We didnt really care; it gave us time to enjoy the surroundings, the company and a lovely bottle of La Crema Chardonnay ($38) from Californias Sonoma County.
Peter came by and apologized for the delay. He said there was a backup in the kitchen due to a party of 12 ahead of us. Hmmm if they were having trouble getting food out to a dozen people indoors, how long was it going to take to serve the 60 or so guests now occupying every table on the porch?
We had the solution: another bottle of La Crema, please.
Finally, our entrees arrived, and they were well worth the wait.
Lemon caramelized sea bass ($28) was the table favorite. It was a relatively thin piece of fish cut from the tail, but cooked correctly: moist and firm.
Im not sure what that lemon caramelized is all about, but the roasted red pepper hollandaise drizzled over it was mighty delicious, along with grilled asparagus and yummy vegetable rosti, shredded veggies formed into a small patty and pan fried.
Personally, my favorite dish was the asiago-crusted halibut ($29). It was a generous portion of fish, cooked properly, set over garlic mashed potatoes with just the right amount of garlic to not overpower. A spoonful of roasted red pepper and olive relish on top was a great flavor boost and worked well with the asiago.
Crisp rosemary lemon chicken ($22) was a great summer dish. An airline chicken breast (skin on, boneless except for the first wing joint or drumette) was served with grilled summer vegetables, charred tomato, barley and lemon chantilly sauce.
Chantilly is generally associated with desserts, a flavored whipped cream. But in a savory application, such as this, it was more of a lemon hollandaise with the addition of whipped cream. In the end, it was totally unobtrusive, there for the flavor punch.
The New Zealand rack of lamb is available as a full portion ($32) or a half portion ($24), which we got.
New Zealand racks are generally smaller than Australian or domestic racks and remarkably tender. Here it was herb-crusted and paired with a savory rosemary-garlic bread pudding, drizzled with pinot bordelaise and accompanied with summer vegetables.
We ordered the Black Angus tenderloin filet ($30) rare. It arrived that way, but the color at the center when we cut into it was not what we expected more of a purple than that nice, bright red rare color.
But the meat tasted fine, and thank goodness the Sambuca cream sauce that came with it was barely noticeable. Why screw up a nice steak with a licorice-flavored sauce?
Chive mashed potatoes, sautéed greens and grilled heirloom tomatoes were appropriate sides.
Well, it was getting late. Wed been seated at 6 oclock and now it was 8:45 and the sun was setting.
So rather than desserts all around (we were afraid that would take forever), we ordered one to share.
How can you not like warm apple pie with a hunk of sharp cheddar cheese on top ($6)? It was made by the owner of the hotel, we were told. We loved the crumbled topping. The only thing that could have made it better would have a been a big blob of real whipped cream.
Dinner for five (three appetizers and a soup, five entrees and one dessert) came to $198.26 with tax but before tip. Our bill for wine and cocktails? Well, you dont want to know about that
The food was excellent. The setting cant be beat. Peters service was pleasant and efficient. Whens the last time you had a waiter call the men at the table Sir?
Sure, our entrees took too long to arrive, but we assume whatever the problem was in the kitchen was a one-time occurrence and doesnt happen every night.
Remember, the Wellesley Hotel is only open in the summertime. Theyll be closing for the season sometime after Labor Day,so plan accordingly.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
42809 St. Lawrence Parkway
Thousand Island Park, N.Y.
Noted local chef Karin Lapusnak (Renaissance, Sackets Harbor Brewing Company, Goodfellos, Sackets Cantina) is now managing the restaurant at Wellesley Hotel.
HOURS: The Hotel serves dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. every day except Wednesday.
APPETIZER PICKS: Tuna tartare blinis, seared scallops, sweet potato vichyssoise
ENTRÉE PICKS: Lemon caramelized sea bass, rosemary-lemon chicken, asiago-crusted halibut