GANANOQUE, Ontario Gananoque is a little town with big dining possibilities.
Its just a short drive down the 401 after crossing the Thousand Islands Bridge. Weve gone to a number of restaurants in the downtown sector and on the riverfront over the years, and weve learned to expect a level of culinary sophistication that you dont often find in a north country town of the same size.
We were eager to turn our attention to Riva, a new, upscale Italian restaurant that opened this past fall in an old stone house that was home to the Golden Apple Restaurant, an institution in Gananoque for decades.
Old Stone House doesnt adequately set the scene, because Rivas owners (the same ones who own the upscale Ivy Lea Resort nearby) gutted and renovated the space so that the inside completely belies the outside.
You enter at one end of the building, an entryway that affords a view of the open kitchen to the right. Keep going down the wide hallway and youll pass the bar, in a separate room on the left, and finally, straight ahead is the expansive dining room.
The overall impression is of a high-end, beautiful, contemporary space. Its done in shades of gray-green-blue, with gray ceramic flooring, whitewashed wood paneling on the walls mixed with restored original brick and massive rough-hewn beamed ceilings. Big windows. Big fireplaces. Cool sconces on the wall that looked like crumpled tinfoil.
We arrived without having reservations and were given a choice of a bar-area table or one in the dining room. We chose the bar, with its sturdy wooden tables, wide plank flooring, a realistic-looking gas fireplace and a polished black stone and metal bar. A framed picture of the original stone structure from the 1920s hung on one wall.
Guests cycled in and out of the room, but we were among the only diners. Down the hall, the large, more formal dining room with its more open, bright vibe was pretty full. A number of casually dressed young servers, all wearing black Riva logo T-shirts, bustled around the busy restaurant.
Sarah came over to explain the specials and give us a tour of the menu. It was a typical fine-dining Italian menu, with the primi and secundi categories as well as pasta and pizze designations.
There wasnt a lot of drinking going on in our room. Not one person was seated at the stylish bar. But we tried to make up for that.
A regional porter was good, if a little on the flat side. A red ale had decent body. The selection of wines by the glass is a little limited. The pinot grigio that we tried was a pleasant surprise a bit effervescent and not overly tart as some pinot grigios can be. Wine is available in a 5-ounce or 9-ounce pour. Martinis and fancy cocktails round out the Riva beverage menu.
Food was next on our agenda. We decided to start with a pizza to share. From a selection of 10 fancy pies, we got the funghi pizze ($13) wild mushrooms, mozzarella, gorgonzola, parmigiano and tomato pesto sauce.
The six-piece pizza consisted of a hand-tossed, thin, crispy crust with modest amounts of mushrooms and cheese over a layer of tomato sauce. If there was pesto in the sauce, it was undetectable. The slightly charred-on-the-bottom crust was a standout, crisp even in the middle. Overall, it was a very tasty pizza.
The primi selections included tempting starters like antipasti, aranici (fried risotto balls), wild mushroom crostini, caprese salad and one that we decided to share, insalata alla cesare Caesar salad.
At Riva, it comes with something called Seed to Sausage bacon. Thats a brand of bacon made by a small artisanal charcuterie company in rural Ontario.
The salad consisted of a generous amount of crisp romaine tossed with a mild Caesar dressing, finished with shaved Parm along with big pieces of thick, smoky bacon. Rather than croutons, an oblong slice of grilled baguette was placed on top.
It was excellent! Why doesnt everyone put bacon on a Caesar salad?
Cozze ai Sambuca ($13), steamed mussels in a Sambuca cream sauce with chili flakes and diced tomato, was outstanding. The sauce was just spicy enough and just slight Sambuca-ish enough so the anise flavor of the liqueur didnt get in the way. A very tasty starter.
Our main dishes were all excellent, all with over-the-top presentations.
Spigola scottato ($25), European sea bass, was prettily plated with crimson-colored beet risotto and pink peppercorn aioli, the relatively flat filet carefully balanced over cauliflower florets, Brussels sprout halves and the risotto. A light green ring of infused olive oil surrounded the food on the plate.
Sea bass tends to be sweet, and the strong flavors of the vegetables worked well with it. The risotto was good; not quite as creamy as we would have liked it, but it did provide an eye-catching, solid base for the pan-seared, skin-on sea bass.
For those of you, like me, curious about European sea bass, its virtually the same as striped bass, only smaller. These fish are abundant and sustainable, well managed and fished or farmed in environmentally friendly ways, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program that helps consumers and restaurants make healthy and intelligent choices.
Pollo al carciofo, at $25, tied for the most expensive entrée on the menu. It consisted of an airline or frenched boneless breast of chicken, skin on, with the drumette still attached, rolled around a filling of artichoke, spinach, roasted garlic and Parmesan cheese, wrapped with a thin slice of prosciutto and roasted.
The salty, slightly smoky prosciutto flavored the skin of the chicken; the skin in turn basted the chicken as it roasted, keeping the chicken moist around its spring-green filling.
The plate was painted with lines of balsamic reduction before the chicken was displayed with garlic mashed potatoes and a small portion a garnish, really of roasted vegetables: Brussels sprouts, a disk of roasted yellow beet and a wedge of carrot. A very tasty and subtly flavored dish.
Vitello di Marsala ($24), veal Marsala, was pretty straightforward. Thin slices of veal were lightly sautéed in olive oil with mushrooms, served with a very nice Marsala wine demi-glace. The veal could have been more tender, but the tasty sauce made up for it. The presentation was completed with wedges of roasted russet potato.
At the last minute, we decided to share a pasta dish. Pasta entrees are available in regular or reduced portions. Homemade gnocchi sounded pretty appealing, so we ordered the small portion ($13) that comes with short rib ragu.
Ragu is a rich, hearty stew made by braising a relatively inexpensive cut of meat with mirepoix (sauteed minced celery, carrots and onion), wine and stock for hours at low heat. The doughy gnocchi was a perfect counterpoint to the intensely flavored meat sauce. This was a dish of big textures and flavors.
Did we need dessert at this point? Of course not, but in our never-ending dedication to fair, accurate and comprehensive reporting, we ordered both of the desserts offered: chocolate gelato ($5) and olive oil sponge cake ($7).
How can you go wrong with gelato? We were served two scoops of deep, dark, delicious chocolate gelato.
The sponge cake was a whisper compared to the shout of the gelato, an inch-high slice of moist, slightly sugar-crusted cake, with a little dollop of real whipped cream, a little blob of strawberry coulis and a cute little flag of basil on top, a leaf deep-fried and lightly sugared that added a touch of whimsy to this little confection.
Dinner for three came to $134 in Canadian funds, plus $17.42 in Canadian taxes for a total of $151.42 before tip. With the current exchange, the bill came to $137.79 U.S. Our adult beverages were additional, as well.
Our server was new at the job, and with only two days under her belt she was understandably tentative at times but smiling and attentive. She had to turn to fellow servers to respond to some of our questions, but always came back with the right answers.
Our trip across the border was one wed definitely make again, and we probably will this summer when they plan to open two outdoor seating areas. These will undoubtedly be as beautiful and created with the same attention to detail that Riva pays to the food and the indoor surroundings.
After nearly 10 years of Food for Thought, its time to say goodbye.
My first Food for Thought column appeared in the paper in January 2005. Now, 486 restaurant reviews later, its time to turn in the chef hat icon for a real chef hat.
I have been asked to manage the kitchen at a new restaurant in Hannawa Falls, Jakes on the Water. I will be working with three chefs and two prep cooks along with a number of hydro-porcelain technicians. (Nobody wants to be called a dishwasher, right?)
Months have been spent developing the menu for the owners, Marc and Chris Compeau. Mark is a local entrepreneur, successful businessman and good friend. Were calling the cuisine polished pub food.
My decades of business experience at Northern Music & Video, combined with years of cooking in north country restaurants casual to fine dining have given me the tools and the confidence to help make Jakes a success.
I know many of you will miss diving on the Sunday paper, pawing through the circulars and inserts to get to the Currents section to see what restaurant my team reviewed and how many forks it got.
I will too.
Thank you for being a faithful reader, thank you for your emails and thank you for all the kind words of support over the years.
See you at Jakes on the Water!
You can contact Walter Siebel at email@example.com.
45 King St. West
A new, upscale Italian restaurant in an old stone house that was home to the Golden Apple Restaurant for decades. Totally remodeled, totally impressive.
HOURS: Dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday
OUR PICKS: Insalata Cesare, cozze ai Sambuca, spigola scottato, pollo carciofo, gnocchi with short rib ragu, chocolate gelato