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Restaurant reviewer Wally Siebel files his final column as he embarks on new venture


Walter E. Siebel is often asked, but will soon be asked no more, “How can a guy who eats out so often be so thin?”

He said it’s a common question when people realize he is the restaurant reviewer for the Watertown Daily Times, a position he has held for nearly a decade, with about 500 reviews under his belt.

He responded to the question on this day, at a table at Jumbo’s Diner in Gouverneur, by taking a bite of macaroni salad that had just been placed in front of him by a server.

“That’s my first food of the day, and I’ve been up since 5,” he tells his late-morning interviewer.

The guest told Mr. Siebel to finish his meal, if that was the case.

“No, that’s my answer to that,” Mr. Siebel said. “I do eat well. I eat ‘properly,’ which is probably a better word.”

Mr. Siebel has been a crusader for Times readers, guiding them on the path of also eating well by sharing his energy and enthusiasm in his popular Sunday column, “Food for Thought.”

One of his thoughts about food is that “going out to eat” is more than drive-up windows.

“The food could be passable, but I don’t think people should eat from their laps while they’re driving,” he said.

Eating out, he said, should be “a total package.”

“It’s more than just the food,” he said. “It’s a social thing. It’s an hour, hour and a half of getting out of the house with somebody else cooking.”

Soon, the tables will be turned on Mr. Siebel. In a new venture, he will be the kitchen manager at a new restaurant and will occasionally be that “somebody else cooking.”

His final column for the Times appears today. Mr. Siebel of Pierrepont, along with Marc S. and Christine Compeau of Potsdam, will soon be opening Jake’s on the Water in Hannawa Falls.

a ‘shared passion’

Mr. Siebel has known Mr. Compeau for several years and has always appreciated his business sense.

“He’s kind of a self-made guy,” Mr. Siebel said.

About eight years ago, Mr. Siebel said, Mr. Compeau told him he was thinking of “doing something with that place in Hannawa Falls.”

Last fall, Mr. Compeau told him that he’d bought the place and wanted Mr. Siebel to join him in the venture.

Mr. Compeau, the director of Clarkson University’s Center for Entrepreneurship, said in an email: “As Chris and I chase our dream of opening a restaurant that makes Hannawa Falls proud, we knew the key to succeeding was identifying a kitchen director that shared our passion. We have known Wally for many years and can’t express how thrilled we are that he has joined us.”

Mr. Siebel enters his new job well versed in the operation of a new business as well as a restaurant kitchen.

In 1975, he co-founded Northern Music & Video, 29 Market St., Potsdam, with Alex Vangelow. His local experience in the food business includes cooking at casual and fine-dining restaurants and originating the fundraising dinner Gourmet Guys & A Gal that supports the Community Performance Series.

This past winter, Mr. Siebel was a restaurant judge in the prestigious James Beard Foundation awards. He reviewed a handful of restaurants above the Thruway, from Albany to Syracuse, for the foundation.

It’s been an interesting journey from music education major at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music to restaurant reviewer and now kitchen manager. Asked how his passion for food developed, Mr. Siebel said, “I’ve always been a foodie of sorts, planning vacations and getaways around food and wine. Sometime in the ’80s, a group of my musicians friends got the cooking bug and started to figure out how to make ‘gourmet’ meals at home to impress our wives and friends. Like our making music, cooking became another creative outlet for us.

“It probably took a few years, but we worked ourselves up to things like chicken liver pate, risotto, osso buco, cocquille St. Jacques and lobster thermidore.”

Mr. Siebel’s experience in restaurant kitchens includes something of a “who’s who” of north country restaurants.

“My first real restaurant kitchen experience was in the late ’80s at French’s 1844 House,” forerunner of today’s 1844 House, Potsdam, he said. The owner told Mr. Siebel that her assistant chef wanted New Year’s Eve off and asked him if he would be interested in filling in. “So I got a three-night crash course with Gigi in the kitchen and the two of us banged out about 100 dinners on New Year’s Eve,” he said.

After that, he did similar stints helping out when needed at Angelo’s Fresh Seafood in Potsdam, Newton Falls Hotel, Thirsty Moose in Childwold, Bravo Italiano Festival in Watertown, Cranberry Lake Lodge and most recently, The Windfall Bar & Grill on the outskirts of Cranberry Lake.

“My fondest experience has been working the last six years at 1844 House under Chef Brian Walker,” Mr. Siebel said. He listed the tasks he’s taken on there: “guest chef, relief chef, salad and dessert chef and prep chef, as well as preparing specialty hors d’oeuvres and appetizers for large parties and banquets.”

Moving on

Jake’s on the Water, at 5726 state Route 56 overlooking Hannawa Pond on the Raquette River, has had several owners.

“Over the years the restaurant has been known as the Shorelounge, the Shoreline, Chris Fay’s and, those who’ve been around these parts for some time will recall, Green’s,” Mr. Siebel wrote in his column in November 2012, when he reviewed it in its incarnation as Canoe Place Inn.

For the past several months, Mr. Siebel has led the menu design, lined up vendors and designed the kitchen layout, helping ready Jake’s for its June 1 opening. (The restaurant, for those who wonder, is named after the Compeaus’ former family dog.)

As for food selections, Mr. Siebel and the Compeaus recalled dishes they’d enjoyed at restaurants in the Adirondacks and Catskills that feature refined pub-style food.

“I put a suggested list in front of Marc and he said, ‘That’s exactly what I’m thinking. I would love to eat there.’” Mr. Siebel said.

The restaurant is in a beautiful setting, he said.

“Marc has taken the place apart and put it back together right down to the bare walls,” Mr. Siebel said. “The exterior of the building looks the same. The interior is all windows on the water, panoramically from north to south, looking east.”

But Mr. Siebel, who said he could “eat in a dump” if the food is good, knows few people go out to eat just for the view. They go out for a good meal.

“What I have to do is to coordinate staff, which under my leadership can do this,” Mr. Siebel said. “I’m in charge of the nuts and bolts to make sure that Marc makes a profit in the kitchen, on top of being the cook who will jump in and help out at any stage.”

Mr. Siebel will have three or four cooks to manage and two or three other employees.

“It’s a big challenge to open a restaurant,” Mr. Siebel said. “Especially when you start with a totally new staff. It’s more than the food and the servers. There has to be a chemistry happening.”

Mr. Siebel heard from people that one of the reason previous restaurants there failed is that the location is too far from the village of Potsdam, about 6 miles, to travel to.

“I told Marc that the reason people said it was too far to go is that they haven’t been given a reason to go there,” Mr. Siebel said. “He has given that reason.”

food, business, music

Mr. Siebel is active in the community. That service was honored in 2010 when he received the Roger B. Linden Distinguished Service Award from SUNY Potsdam. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education from the Crane School of Music. While an undergraduate, he was student director of The Varsity, an 18-piece big band which became the Crane Jazz Ensemble.

He is a past president of Julia E. Crane Alumni Association and served on the board of directors for Potsdam Alumni Association and Potsdam College Foundation.

In 2010 and 2011, he was interim director of the Community Performance Series, arranging acts and promoting concerts. He has been a guest lecturer for Crane School of Music business classes.

Mr. Siebel performs with orchestras and big bands and plays in pit bands for school musicals throughout the region. He is the founder and leader of the All Star Big Band. Since 1982, it has performed at festivals and events throughout the north country. It’s made up of professional musicians from Northern New York, including faculty from Crane and area music educators.

A food enthusiast

Mr. Siebel said he developed his passion for food as a child going out to dinner with his family on Long Island.

“My parents appreciated good food, and they took us out quite a bit,” Mr. Siebel said. “We went to nice restaurants and I’m sure they had to save up to do that.”

Today, “I’ll eat anything and everything. I love steak tartare, sushi, dolmas and fois gras as much as I enjoy cabbage rolls, a good Caesar salad, Swedish meatballs and Ben & Jerry’s cookie dough ice cream.”

Mr. Siebel used to go out on restaurant reviews with the late Floyd Misek, the original restaurant reviewer for the Watertown Daily Times, who wrote from 1985 to 1998.

A few years after Mr. Misek stopped writing reviews, Mr. Siebel, on a whim, wrote to the Times saying if there was ever an opening for restaurant reviewer, he would be interested. He described his experience in restaurant kitchens and his passion for cooking and eating, and he submitted a sample column.

When there was an opening, the Times contacted him. He filed his first review on Jan. 2, 2005. Like Mr. Misek, Mr. Siebel quickly developed teams of associates who would accompany him on reviews and contribute their opinions.

“Sometimes, we’ll mutter under our breath about something,” Mr. Siebel said. “But everybody concentrates on what they order. We order something different.”

He said only once was he was “blatantly” outed as the Times’ food critic at a restaurant. But that didn’t change his team’s approach.

“What are they going to do at that point?” Mr. Siebel said of the restaurant staff. “They’re not going to change the style of food.”

He added, “I do know of one place I did within the last year, and they had my picture in the kitchen.”

‘no expectations’

Mr. Siebel said he approached his reviews with “no expectations” avoiding restaurant review sites like Trip- Advisor or Yelp beforehand.

It takes him about five hours to write a review.

“Maybe a little longer, because I try to incorporate everyone’s input, which is pretty accurate,” he said.

He said he won’t miss the time it takes for the writing task.

“I’ll miss getting together with the teams I’ve put together,” he said. “I think they’ll miss it too.”

But he added, “It will give me more freedom to go out and have two glasses of wine and not have to concentrate on everything because I have to remember it. I can just go and enjoy myself for two hours.”

This past Monday morning, Mr. Siebel emailed his final column to Times Sunday editor Mary Kaskan. This morning, as he has for the past 10 years, Mr. Siebel will take a walk to his newspaper box and flip to the Currents section, where his column is displayed. He will view the column like it’s a well-deserved, luscious dessert and think the same thoughts that he has weekly for the past decade after seeing its final editing and the page design:

“I go, ‘That’s pretty slick,’” he said.

The wit and wisdom of Wally Siebel
The good
Chef Rick Cross has a winning thing going on with his fabulous barbecue at the Potsdam IGA. We dare say his preparations easily rival and often surpass those of the Dinosaur Barbecue in Syracuse.
— Rick’s Barbecue at Potsdam IGA, Aug. 19, 2012

At Caffe Rustica in Lake Placid, it was one “wow” after another from every side of the table.
— Caffe Rustica, Oct. 5, 2008

Greeted with anxiety, the crispy beef tongue was quite surprising. For those of you who remember pickled tongue, cooked for hours until it turned into something gray and tough, this was not that.
— Liquids & Solids, July 15, 2012

Apple-ginger fritters were a killer. They would have been just like my grandmother used to make, except she never made fritters.
— The Great Room at The Whiteface Lodge, Dec. 9, 2006
After a devastating fire, I honestly thought Café Mira would never open their doors again. But Lisa and Lori have done it — with strength, courage, conviction and passion. Café Mira is back, better than ever, with an elegant, accessible fine dining experience that you won’t want to miss.
— Café Mira, May 5, 2011

Mike Simpson has found the formula for success. The food is excellent, the employees are great, and the dining rooms are comfortable and relaxing.
— The Clipper Inn, April 27, 2008

The killer was the Sicilian cod, flawlessly cooked fish crusted with rosemary, basil, anchovy and lemon-zested breadcrumbs, capped with kalamata halves. The lemony, buttery risotto that came with the dish was a standout on its own.
— Pete’s Trattoria, Oct. 21, 2012
Owner Andrew Hanzlian has always had a keen eye for décor, an awareness of all the latest food trends, and unequivocal radar when it comes to hiring the most knowledgeable and personable servers.
— Tin Pan Galley, March 8, 2008

The Not so good
The “hand breading” looked suspiciously similar to the coating on our appetizer mushrooms, and just about as hard. You had to smack it with a nine iron to get to the fish.

Chicken tender dinner is only $7.95, fried clam strips $8.95 and deep-fried jumbo shrimp $10.95. At these prices, it costs more to stay home. Except I don’t have a deep fryer in my home.

So I asked (the server), “What was the cheese on the onion soup?” She said “I heard them talking … they were out of provolone, so they decided on American. Taste OK?”

So while the other members of the WDT reviewing team were spooning their tapioca, I was carefully coddling small squares of Jello between my chopsticks. Don’t try this at home.

You shouldn’t take two little kids out for curry goat when they really want Happy Meals.

We left a contribution in the musician’s tip jar. We’re not sure if that will be applied to their union dues or their Genny Lights.

The dressings looked pretty institutional, served in small plastic soufflé cups, as was the crumbly blue cheese, affectionately referred to by our waitress as “stinky cheese.” Whet my appetite, how about you?

“And you can ‘load’ your potato for only 99 cents,” our waitress told us. We asked her if she could repeat that, and as she started we hollered, “Just kidding.”

While the seafood was a letdown, the grossly overcooked baby carrots were worse. Even more shocking was a person at the table next to us complaining that their vegetables weren’t cooked enough.

The wine selection is also from the ’50s. Riunite, Black Tower and Blue Nun. No thank you.

If you’re looking for something a little bigger, there’s the “Paul burger.” It weighs in at two pounds, it’s covered with American cheese and takes 45 minutes to cook. I wonder if Paul is still with us?

For the next 20 minutes, no exaggeration, the up-to-that-point friendly owner-family went ballistic, trying to lay blame for a pizza mix-up on each other. I’m sure they thought they were keeping their voices down, but we could hear every word. It was like a bad rerun of “All In The Family.”

We were just a little miffed when the doughnuts showed up as doughnut holes. Hey, if you’re gonna say you’re serving doughnuts, serve me doughnuts.If you’re gonna give me doughnut holes, tell me that you’re serving doughnut holes, not doughnuts. OK, I feel better now.

The Japanese chef asked people at our hibachi table if they would like some saki. He had a big squeeze bottle on his cart full of it, for cooking, we assumed. Before we knew it, he was squirting it into the mouths of everyone at the table. Now that’s an ice breaker I might try at my next party.

(Our server) gave us menus to look over — stapled together photocopied pages — stating that the “real menu” was “in the works.” Hello, it’s July. I would have thought the “real” menu would have been finalized months ago.

I ordered the deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And there it sat in front of us, in all its battered and deep-fried splendor, cut into four quarters for easy access. I don’t know what I was thinking.

Have you ever had a dirty martini? Don’t. It’s vodka, dry vermouth (which is really wine) and olive brine. I even specified top shelf Kettle One vodka, hoping for the best, and it still tasted like the prep you take just before a colonoscopy.

Our poor server didn’t have any idea what pesto was. And when we asked her what red wines were available by the glass, she had to go to the bar to find out and told us “We have CaberSavigBlanc. ... I think that’s how you pronounce it.”

The Reuben was interesting. There was some brownish-gray colored meat sticking out from the sides of the bread. Then my mind started going. You know when you discover a container of deli meat way back in your fridge that has been missing for month or two? The very center of the meat still has its original color but the edges have turned a brownish-gray?

Coleslaw came with the perch, served in a side dish that was placed on the table by the server with her thumb in it. We wouldn’t have minded the thumb so much if the coleslaw was good, but it was dry and totally flavorless.

We began with coffee, described by (our server) as “hot and fresh, just like you.” Hmm. This was going to be a long lunch, I had the feeling.

Our server was cordial, efficient and informed, and took our orders without an order pad. I marvel at how people can do that and get it right every time. On (his) recommendation we ordered the cider-braised leek and crab strudel. However, the white truffle-scented lobster tart was delivered to the table. So much for taking orders without an order pad.
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