There are times when one finds something splendid in the most unexpected place. Such was the case when our wine scribe Jim Walker and his wife Hélène stopped for the night on a recent journey. Drool along as he tells us all about this serendipitous experience.
We have enjoyed family summer vacations on Cape Cod for years. At first it would be just Hélène and me, then came our two daughters, husbands were added and now granddaughters. At first, we would pile into the family sedan or SUV (at the end of this travel phase, pile in was the operative phrase) and make the 11 hour drive in one long, tortuous go. In time the girls and their families made their own ways to the Cape, but we all continued the long trek to and fro.
Then a few years ago Hélène and I decided to break the trip down to the Cape in two by stopping at a hotel on the outskirts of Albany, New York. These lodgings were pretty grotty and seemed to get worse and more expensive with each succeeding visit. The last stay fully defined the term wretched. It was a brutally hot night. There was window air conditioning that, to our relief, actually worked. However, the brute sounded like a Saturn V rocket taking off when it started up and then rattled as if it was in its death throes thereafter till it shuddered violently off a few moments later. This cacophony was repeated all night long. We hardly slept. We would not be back.
After a two-year plague-induced hiatus, we all decided to return to the Cape. In the interim we had moved from Oakville to Toronto which extended our drive by 30 or so kilometres. Hélène Googled the halfway point to the Cape and it turned out to be Little Falls, New York. Little Falls! And she found what looked like a decent place to stay: The Inn at Stone Mill.
So it was that on an overcast Saturday morning in August we set out for our rendezvous with the rest of our family on Cape Cod. The wait at the Lewiston border crossing was an agonizing hour and a half. Here’s a hint for the fastest possible route to the interrogation booth – always move over to the right-most lane. If the border authorities are going to mercifully open another processing post, it will be on the right.
We stopped at Wegman’s Century Liquor and Wine in Pittsford, New York to check out the vinous bargains (not as numerous as they once were – see my Gentleman’s Portion post, A Veritable Vinous Valhalla) and had a million calorie lunch at The Cheesecake Factory nearby.
Then it was back onto the Interstate 90 for another three boring hours till we spied the exit for Little Falls. It was like we had been teleported into another world, one created by Washington Irving. We expected to see Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman suddenly emerge from the verdant forest at any moment.
Little Falls, with a population of fewer than 5,000, is one of the smallest cities in the state of New York. It was originally settled by German Palatines around 1723 on both banks of the Mohawk River, now part of the Erie Canal.
Thanks to our GPS we found The Inn at Stone Mill. It was a massive old stone building on the bank of the river. Built in 1839, It was once a textile mill that made cloth for uniforms used in the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and World War II. We entered via doors to an UPS store, turned left down a hallway and took a rickety elevator to the third floor. There was a check-in desk with our keys on it, but no one in sight. In fact, we didn’t see a hotel employee during our entire stay. We located our nearby room, which was large, rustic, comfortable and very well equipped.
While settling in we came upon a flyer for the nearby Canal Side Inn and Restaurant that specialized in, of all things, fine French cuisine. In Little Falls, New York! We checked out their website and found the menu and wine list to be, well … amazing. The reviews were glowing as well. It turned out that the inn and restaurant as well as The Inn at Stone Creek where we were staying were all owned by the same folks.
But such exquisite dining was not in the cards for that evening. Instead, we trudged through a long pedestrian tunnel under a main artery and up a not inconsiderable hill to the main street and there found a likely looking spot called the Copper Moose Ale House. The place was full and hopping. We were lucky to find a table and enjoyed a really good meal washed down with ale from a local micro-brewery. We then trotted back down to The Inn at Stoney Creek and on the way passed the Canal Side Inn and Restaurant where we bumped into this mountain of a man decked out in a white baggy shirt, a black apron, the loudest pants I had ever seen and a very strange hat. He was in the process of describing the day’s special (Maine lobster stuffed with crab meat) to a couple of well-dressed chaps at an outdoor table. He hop/shuffled from foot to foot all the while. We caught his eye, enjoyed a brief conversation in which we learned that he was the chef, John Luciano. We thenrepaired to our room and enjoyed a marvellous snooze.
The next day I discovered that I had left my cherished bright-blue Chatham Anglers cap at the restaurant. We had to hit the road long before the Copper Moose Ale House reopened, so I figured it was a goner. After lamenting this grievous loss, we discussed our enjoyment of Little Falls and how much we dreaded the twelve-hour drive back from the Cape. Here comes a blinding glimpse of the obvious … why not stay in Little Falls on the way back? So, Hélène got on the phone to see if there was a room available at either inn on our return date. Lo and behold, not only was there a room available, but also a package deal that included dinner for two at Chef John’s restaurant.
We returned to Little Falls after a delightful fortnight on the Cape and checked into our room at the Canal Side Inn. It was up a perilously steep and irregular staircase and,like our room two weeks previously, was large, fully equipped and homey. After settling in we trudged back up to the Copper Moose to see if by any wild chance they had my Anglers cap. The place was empty save for a young lady setting up the bar. I started to ask about my cap, but there it was, right atop the bar. The lost had been found.
We enjoyed a wee dram or two of a refreshing Crémant de Bourgogne in our room before heading down to the restaurant. Chef John was there in all his large and radiant splendor describing in delicious detail the day’s specials at each table all the while doing his amazing two-step shuffle. We settled into our nicely isolated table and were greeted by a charming server.
Wonderful aromas wafted around us as we contemplated our evening’s fare. This was an arduous task in that everything looked beyond scrumptious. We finally decided to share the Pâté du patron (duck liver pâté with sliced onion and cornichons) as a starter (it was that or Poutine à la Chef John – hand cut pommes frites with imported cheese curds, pulled braised pork bellies and rosemary scented gravy). Hélène selected a mini rack of lamb with a medley of vegetables as her main and I settled on lobster ravioli and the house salad.
Choosing the wine proved to be another challenge. Chef John’s wine list was extensive and creative. Should we pick a red or a white? Like everything else at the Canal Side Inn restaurant, the wine prices were reasonable, so we did the only sensible thing – we chose one of each. The red was a 2018 Don Miguel Gascón Malbec and the white a 2020 Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Ranches Chardonnay. In the spirit of probity, we did not finish either bottle at the restaurant. We were encouraged to take the heels back to our room. I’m not going to tell you what happened to them there.
Here’s a bit about each wine. The Wine Advocate said this about the Argentinian Malbec: The 2018 Don Miguel Gascón Malbec is a pure Malbec that represents the essence of the grape in Mendoza by mixing grapes from different locations in the province, where they used grapes from over 100 growers to arrive at this expressive and varietal red with aromas of violets and juicy berries. It’s produced in a very approachable and easy-to-drink style that is clean and fresh, very good in 2018. It has five percent each Syrah and Petit Verdot (rated 90/100).
I had my first bottle of the Chardonnay many years ago in a restaurant overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Carmel, California. I was delighted to find that it tasted as good now as it did back then. Here’s how the winery describes it: Russian River Ranches is beautifully focused on the palate with flavors of crisp, zesty lemon, green apple, lime and barrel spice. The wine rounds out with our signature citrus acidity and a nicely balanced long, flavorful finish.
Our extraordinary meal sadly concluded. Not even the very tempting triple chocolate mousse with whipped vanilla bean cream could extend our hedonistic revelry. As we departed, we overheard a fellow diner remark: “That was the best meal I’ve ever had.” We certainly weren’t going to argue.
Our experience in Little Falls was so positive that we wished that it was closer to home so that we could make it a regular destination. Wait a minute … Cooperstown with the Baseball Hall of Fame is just a short drive away from Little Falls.
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This is Jim’s 76th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories.