ALTMAR This has got to be the best-kept secret in the north country.
The abandoned Altmar Elementary School was purchased by a Syracuse-based property development company and transformed into a luxurious upscale hotel and convention center.
Tailwater Lodge is a 42-room, 42,000-square-foot facility that opened in February. The multimillion-dollar fishing resort features a classy, upscale restaurant and bar, large meeting rooms and hallways with former classrooms retrofitted into hotel rooms.
Its less than 10 minutes from Pulaski off exit 36 on Interstate 81. Head east on Route 13. When you enter Altmar village limits you cant miss the unmistakable 85-year-old school building on the left.
The exterior is slightly modified with a large, green drive-under veranda that immediately suggests youre at a remote Adirondack-style lodge. Inside, the suggestion is confirmed: Common areas are filled with leather chairs and fur rugs. Theres a classy front desk area and a fly-fishing shop filled with high-end clothing and gear.
The resort manager, Nick Miller, took us on a quick tour of the facility. One of the rooms set up for tours was spacious and modern: featherbed mattress covers, Chinook bedspreads, large flat-screen TV; a bathroom with tile, granite and glass. The modern yet casual style completely fits the concept.
Then theres the old gym-auditorium, now an area that contains a bar, lounge, restaurant and conference rooms. Directly behind the gorgeous horseshoe bar is the old stage, outfitted with a handcrafted, rustic wood pool table and dart boards surrounded by leather seating. We were stunned by the beauty and work that went into this space.
The lighting is warm and the leather bar seats were inviting, so we decided to start there with a before-dinner drink. Kim, our bartender, was friendly and informative.
We were pleasantly surprised with the selection of craft beers on tap and in bottles: Harpoon UFO, Dog Fish Head 60 Minute, Syracuse Pale Ale, Southern Tier 2XIPA, Middle Ages Swallow Wit, Ithaca Brown Ale and more.
There was an upscale liquor selection, too. We tried Crown Royal Black, bolder, darker and more robust than regular Crown Royal, and 90 proof rather than 80. A very healthy (Id say double) pour with a touch of Coke cost $10. A Balvenie 12-year-old single malt Scotch on the rocks, an equally generous pour in a large rocks glass, went for $12. Both were easily worth the price.
The dining area is next to the bar, separated by a row of birch trees. At the end of the area theres a stone fireplace with a very large flat-screen TV above with more leather chairs and couches.
The menu could be summed up as comfort food with a gourmet touch. Brittnea, our server, was totally knowledgeable about the menu and able to make intelligent recommendations.
Ordinarily onion rings would be kind of ordinary, but Tailwaters Southern-fried onion rings ($6) proved to be excellent, a buttermilk-crushed garlic batter fried to crispy perfection, served with Tabasco-herb mayo. They were crisp and light and melted in your mouth.
Lump crab fritters ($9) were Pabst Blue Ribbon/lemon battered and came with a yummy spicy sage remoulade. The bite-sized balls had a generous amount of crabmeat. They were soooo good.
Their smoked fish spread ($7) had great flavor from the house-smoked haddock, served with lemon, capers and dill. Toasted crostini accompanied. The portion size was perfect for the four of us to share. This dish was a standout, and a great deal for the price.
The chef creates a grilled flatbread pizza ($9) each day. We enjoyed his Utica greens flatbread, a lovely crust topped with the Utica original made with wilted escarole, hot peppers, prosciutto, grated Parmesan and breadcrumbs plus the addition of ricotta cheese. Very tasty.
The chef, we learned, spent five years at the Genesee Grand Hotel in Syracuse, another property owned by the development company, before taking over the kitchen here.
Garden salads were included with our entrees. Dressings are all made in-house. For an upcharge of $2.50 we ordered a Caesar salad that came with a really neat Parmesan cheese crisp.
One of Brittneas favorites, fried chicken ($17) sounded so ordinary, but the chefs version was extraordinary.
A boneless breast and a thigh were house-brined, resulting in moist and tender meat, and triple breaded, a crunchy coating similar to the onion rings. The sides maple collard greens, garlic mashed potatoes and a warm cornbread muffin with local honey were simply spectacular.
A generous portion of meatloaf ($15) was sliced and spread on the plate with a tasty red wine gravy. Crisp-tender grilled asparagus and garlic mashed potatoes completed the plate. Great upscale comfort food.
Grilled shrimp pomodoro ($19) consisted of five jumbo shrimp sauteed with sliced garlic, oven-dried plum tomatoes, olive oil and white wine, fresh basil and asiago cheese, set over angel hair pasta. Very good!
Braised beef ($16) was served in a large bread bowl. The slow-cooked sirloin was fork-tender, served in a rich rosemary beef gravy with fingerling potatoes, celery, onion, carrots and peas. The bread bowl made for a top-notch presentation. Again, wonderful upscale comfort food.
We were offered the choice of two desserts made from scratch: crème brulee ($6.50) and a peanut butter tart ($6.50).
The lemon mint crème brulee was excellent, rich and tasty, garnished with a sliced strawberry and fresh piped whipped cream. The PB tart was equally good, a rich chocolate top layer emblazoned with the Tailwaters distinctive fishhook T logo.
Dinner for four with tax but excluding tip and drinks came to $124.02. Quite reasonable and more than fair, we thought.
From start to finish, Tailwater Lodge was a wonderful experience, we all agreed.
The staff was relaxed and attentive, never pushy. The surroundings were awesome and the food was excellent.
It doesnt get any better than this.
Tailwater Lodge is a property of the Woodbine Group, based in Syracuse. The conversion of old hotels and buildings is their specialty.
In Syracuse, the development company owns and operates the Genesee Grand Hotel, Parkview Hotel and Hotel Skyler, formerly a synogogue built in 1921.
The Skyler, on the campus of Syracuse University, is an eco-friendly and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) hotel.
The company believes the Tailwater Lodge will lure people in from across the Northeast to experience and enjoy fishing and outdoor sports on the Salmon River and nearby Lake Ontario.
Theres 1,700 feet of river frontage on the property. Plans call for building cabins on the grounds as well.
Walter Siebel has been part of the Northern New York restaurant scene for more than three decades, cooking in restaurants from casual Adirondack eateries to fine-dining establishments, and lending his culinary talents to numerous charity events. You can contact him at email@example.com.
52 Pulaski St.
Tailwater Lodge is a 42-room, 42,000-square-foot resort that opened in February in the abandoned Altmar Elementary School.
RESTAURANT HOURS: 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday
4 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Closed Sunday and Monday
APPETIZER PICKS: Lump crab fritters, smoked fish spread, onion rings
ENTRÉE PICKS: Fried chicken, meatloaf, braised beef in a bread bowl
DESSERT PICKS: Crème brulee, peanut butter tart