The waves lapped at the shore, and hundreds of boats swayed gently in the marina as the sun began to dip low in the sky. A glass filled with Riesling sweating in my hand, I waited for my appetizer: glowing pink tuna tartare on crispy lotus chips, topped with ginger mousse and tobiko fish roe.
Ginger mousse or not, this was no urban restaurant. I was taking in the view at a touristy eatery called Café Mooney Bay, just 15 minutes outside Plattsburgh, N.Y.
Located a quick ferry hop from the Lake Champlain Islands, Plattsburgh serves as a gateway to upstate New York for Vermont travelers. But should they plan to stop for a meal before heading to the Adirondack wilderness and its resort destinations?
That’s what I hoped to find out. Armed with a combo of old-fashioned word of mouth and newfangled technology — my smart phone — I set out to see what this small city (population 18,816 as of the 2000 U.S. Census) has to offer.
Over the course of 10 hours, I found a handful of decent eats, a cozy co-op, a library renowned for its cookbook collection, rumors of some really good ethnic food I’ll have to discover on another visit and one lakeside spot that has surprisingly sophisticated cuisine but odd ambiance.
The verdict: Given the choice, I’d still rather dine in Burlington. But if I found myself in Plattsburgh at mealtime, I’d happily hit the brakes instead of the gas.
To get my tour off to a proper start, I began with coffee. Locating a non-chain java joint in Plattsburgh — home to a state university with about 6000 students — wasn’t as easy as one might expect. A web search turned up two possibilities, but since Coffee Camp’s phone number was disconnected, I headed directly to the Koffee Kat on Margaret Street. Its reviews on Yelp.com were promising: Commenters called the décor “funky” and “reminiscent of cool little coffeehouses in San Francisco,” and the beverages “inventive” and “delicious.”
The colorful café was just what I was looking for. Doubling as an ice cream parlor, it offered a diverse clientele, free Wi-Fi and board games arrayed on a purple-and-yellow-painted piano in the center of the room.
My nicely made decaf espresso was served with another treat — restaurant recommendations. Staffer Michael Waldron has lived in San Francisco and Burlington, where he made a living working at restaurants such as Trattoria Delia and Smokejacks. He touted a handful of places I’d read about in my research, such as Livingoods Restaurant for great beer and Anthony’s Restaurant & Bistro, a classic Italian eatery that’s a local fave for special occasions. But he also mentioned Café Mooney Bay, which I hadn’t heard of. “People say it’s the hidden gem of Lake Champlain,” he told me.
The café was a dinner-only spot, though, and right now I needed a place for lunch. Waldron called the nearby Great Adirondack Soup Company a decent choice.
At 11:20 a.m., the place was nearly empty, and the soups weren’t ready. “It will be a while,” the young man behind the counter explained when I ordered a $5.95 sampler.
“I’m patient,” I said.
“That’s a good trait to have.”
Waiting for my side salad with orange-maple dressing and my cups of chicken-corn chowder and vegetable soup, I examined the place, which struck me as a cross between a hunting lodge and a Christian church. It had wicker furniture, rustic woodwork and a mountain-themed mural on the wall. Religious pamphlets were scattered around, and a quotation from Ecclesiastes adorned the menu. A prodigious pile of excellent cookbooks occupied a side table, so I whiled away half an hour perusing recipes from Nobu Now by master chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa.
The soups didn’t live up to the cookbook collection’s promise. Though they were prepared with homemade stock, neither one was particularly flavorful. Spooning up the vegetable soup — packed with broccoli, kale, cabbage, zucchini, red pepper, onion, eggplant, carrot, a few grains of rice and a couple beans — I felt like I was eating somebody else’s leftovers. The mild chowder was laced with bits of chewy chicken and frozen corn. Given the low prices, though, I didn’t mind much.
The fare at The Smoked Pepper, an Americanized Mexican restaurant, was a bit more fun. A cold Negra Modelo complemented a battered and deep-fried poblano pepper that, when sliced open, unleashed a gush of cheese dotted with chorizo and rock shrimp. The dish was surprisingly mild, but pleasant enough. Homemade red beans were properly cooked, but bland. The tomato-coated rice was fluffy and flavorful, reminding me of a dish my mom used to make.
So far, I hadn’t eaten anything worth driving for, but I was already too full for another meal. It was time to visit the North Country Food Co-op and find out what local farmers and producers are up to.
The small store, reminiscent of the Old North End incarnation of City Market, smelled pleasantly of spices and offered lots of bulk nuts and grains and organic and health-food staples. Wandering the aisles, I located a handful of New-York-made sauces and snacks. Some crunchy Sustain Adirondack salt-and-pepper potato chips and a moist, granola-like “squirrel scat bar” were the stars of the show.
Co-op founder and general manager Carol Czaja guessed her region is “about 10 years behind” Vermont when it comes to the localvore movement, “but it is growing,” she said. The store sources produce from about a dozen farms, including Fledging Crow in Keeseville, and offers a small selection of New York cheese, eggs, meat and bread. “We try to buy from as many local farms as possible,” Czaja said. “It all fits with our increasing focus on supporting [the] local economy as a way of building our communities.”
She didn’t have much to recommend in the way of restaurants, because, she said, most in the area don’t suit her healthy lifestyle. A co-op staffer, Jennifer DeClue, described a Thai spot called Sawatdee as particularly tasty and vegetarian friendly.
Chewing some all-natural gum in hopes of reviving my appetite, I meandered over to the Plattsburgh Public Library, which is known for its extensive cookbook collection. “It’s our only claim to fame,” a staffer said wistfully.
I admired the 40 shelves of tomes — many of which I would have checked out if I could have — but was even more excited by the special collection of New York cookbooks dating back to 1880. The oldest one, called The Champlain Valley Book of Recipes, details methods of preparing delicacies such as “turtleized calf’s head,” “boiled whortleberry pudding” and “kool sla.”
I could have kept reading, but the afternoon was drawing to a close. It was time to move on to something more modern — an international bakery called Rambach’s, specializing in American, German, Italian and Polish pastries.
Located in a strip mall near two ethnic restaurants I’d heard good things about — Karma, an Indian eatery, and My Greek Kitchen II — Rambach’s had the aroma of a real Manhattan bakery. The desserts, though, were a mix of hits and misses. A raspberry turnover was overly sweet, and a Reese’s type concoction was light on peanut flavor and featured waxy chocolate. The spot’s biggest successes were slices of cheese-stuffed Hungarian pastry and a classic Italian Napoleon.
Too full to stop at Karma for curried goat, I headed for my dinner at Café Mooney Bay, hoping it would make my trip worthwhile.
On the 15-minute drive, which passed the road that leads back to the ferry, I went from the sprawling concrete of Plattsburgh into a more pastoral setting. Here was a farm and vineyard, there a doe and fawn by the side of the road.
I took a seat on an umbrella-studded balcony overlooking the bay and checked out the menu. It was enticing but pricey — with entrées ranging up to $36 — and far more creative than anything else I’d seen that day. I ordered the tuna tartare appetizer, some housemade charcuterie and an entrée of Wagyu beef with roasted-pepper romesco sauce, which came with sides of “appropriate starch and vegetables.”
Given the upscale setting, a couple of things struck me as odd. The first was the too-casual atmosphere — perhaps owing to a clientele composed largely of boat-owning tourists. One party of twentysomethings seemed unable to stop texting, and their cellphones beeped and rang at regular intervals. Meanwhile, a middle-aged man a few tables over regaled his companions with stories about an incredibly hot girl at a strip club.
The other incongruous element was the wine list, which offered only bottles. When I asked a server about wines by the glass, he listed the varietals, but not the producers, the vintages or the prices. That works at a mom-and-pop pizza place, but when diners are pairing a drink with an expensive entrée, more information is in order. The beer list was unimpressive, and the mostly mass-produced options did not lend themselves to matching with the food.
Luckily, the tartare was fresh tasting and savory, and the beef, which came with crispy potato halves, carrots and al dente green beans, was ultra tender and beautifully cooked. Cory, one of my servers, stood out as personable and enthusiastic. Overall, the dinner seemed slightly overpriced by Vermont standards, but it was the best thing I had eaten all day.
I got back on the ferry feeling more lucky than usual to live in a state with such a strong focus on farm-to-table fare. The flavors of freshly plucked vegetables and fruits and farm-fresh eggs are peerless, and I hope soon more Plattsburgh-area restaurants will showcase them. In Czaja’s view, that will happen when diners let restaurateurs know they care.
In the interim, if I’m asked for Plattsburgh recommendations, I’d tell people to grab a cup at Koffee Kat, some Hungarian cheese loaf at Rambach’s and dinner at Café Mooney Bay. Next time I’m in town, I’ll visit the highly recommended Thai, Greek and Indian eateries — because curried goat is one thing you don’t find a lot of on this side of the lake.
Koffee Kat, 104 Margaret St., 518-566-8433
North Country Food Co-op, 25 Bridge St., 518-561-5904
Rambach’s Bakery, 345 Cornelia St., 518-563-1721
Café Mooney Bay, 15 Mooney Bay Dr., 518-563-2960