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Friday, October 04, 2019

General American Fare

From the Food Vault Dept.: Here’s an excellent example of an eatery that thrived for over half a century, then closed (in 2013) while it was still popular. Lake George, too, had thrived, enouigh so that Montcalm owner Den Beckos was able to get a good price for the place from a development company. The site is now a strip mall. Here’s my review (from 2002), a longer version than that which ran in Metroland.


HERE’S AN EXCELLENT EXAMPLE of a restaurant that promises a specific kind of dining experience and then delivers just what you expect. Delivers it efficiently, with a friendly flair, so that you hardly notice that you’re in the midst of a large, busy room. Lobster and steak (prime rib a specialty) are the dominant menu items in an old-fashioned type of find-dining setting. “We have a commercial kind of menu,” says Dean Beckos, “because we know our clientele and know that this is what they enjoy.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Located on Route 9 south of Lake George village, Montcalm is a year-round, seven-days-a-week operation. Summer business can be tourist crazy, of course, but this place knows how to handle the crowds. We stopped in last week, post-summer season, pre-foliage, and the place still was hopping.

First a little history. The restaurant’s name is taken from the 18th-century French general who besieged Fort William Henry in Lake George, ultimately routing the English and destroying the fort. The original restaurant building, opened in 1956 by Gus and Jo Beckos, was not far from the fort’s site in downtown Lake George. In 1971, the Beckos family expanded the business by putting up a new building just north of Queensbury, in an area now dominated by shopping plazas. This now is the only Montcalm – the old building gave way to Water Slide World – and their son, Dean, is now very much involved in the business.

The Beckos family evolved a menu that gives a mix of classic American fare. Seafood items include sautéed sole ($22), broiled scrod ($19) or salmon ($20) and scampi ($20); veal, pork, lamb – it’s a wide range, conservatively prepared, priced from $18-$32, with pasta entrées and a selection of “café specialties” in the $13-$16 range. The family supervises the kitchen, using a team of line cooks trained to keep the food consistent.

Our threesome was steered to a table in the middle of one of two large, high-ceilinged dining rooms, and as I watched my daughter settle in to her place at the table, I realized that I might as well be five years old myself, enjoying the rare treat of dinner out with my parents at someplace other than Howard Johnson’s.

This is what they would have ordered: Lobster for my mom, who considered it the apex of culinary magnificence. Steak for my dad, sirloin or tenderloin, an aromatic, mushroom-covered monster glaringly pink inside, tastes of which were grudgingly given.
I was never interested in the lobster. It seemed like too much work. But ah, that steak! So much more appealing than the chopped sirloin platter invariably chosen for me. Hard to believe that two-score years later I’d be the dad and my kid would be coveting the ... lobster.

We planned a dinner for the three of us by ordering as we normally do for two. It began, on the other side of the table, with the soup of the day – New England clam chowder ($3.50), which is the only form of clam chowder my daughter will accept, siding with that Maine legislator who in 1939 proposed a law that would have outlawed mixing tomatoes into clam chowder. Here’s good reason for keeping the chowder white: it boasted a generous complement of clams and potatoes and other components, yet wasn’t too salty or thick.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
An appetizer of oysters Rockefeller ($7), usually offered as a menu item, is often highlighted as a special as well. Introduced in 1899 in New Orleans by chef Jules Alciatore, the recipe was deemed so rich that it needed to be named for someone similarly wealthy. Oysters on the halfshell are presented on a bed of rock salt – that much is consistent from recipe to recipe – then baked with a creamy topping that may or may not include spinach, watercress and/or fennel.

The Montcalm recipe goes the most traditional route, with a flavor of spinach and lots of butter oozing over three large mollusks. Oyster-loving purists can argue that it obscures too much of the bivalve’s flavor; I like to think that it’s a worthy enhancement to sample from time to time, and this is as good as place as any.

A variety of salads is available as tableside preparations – Caesar, Greek, chevre and spinach are offered ($4 for one) – but house salads are included with entrées, and they’re a nice mix of fresh greens. We both chose an unknown dressing, creamy avocado, that was quite good (if rather rich). A shaker of seasame seeds is provided along with a pepper mill.

Susan and Lily plunged into the New England shore dinner ($33), which emerges as a steaming copper pot in which lobster, clams and shrimp nestle with chunks of corn on the cob. And that’s it. No fancy sauces or seasoning, save for the dish of clarified butter that simmers over a candle flame.

Sliced tenderloin Bordelaise ($29), on the other hand, gets a classic French sauce based on a red wine reduction (classically, with bone marrow and demi-glace; hard to tell in this case). Fear not: it’s not bite-sized sliced, but rather presented as two inch-thick filet sections, generously dolloped with sauce, served with sides of sautéed zucchini and roasted potatoes.

We finished with two made-in-house desserts: a large profiterole with ice cream within and fudge sauce without, and a nice dish of crème brûlée. Coffee and tea arrived quickly, but so did everything. This is one of the best-run floors I’ve seen. There’s a sense of familiarity and family – some of the staff has been here for over a decade – and an obvious eagerness to please the customers. Which isn’t as common as it used to be.

Dinner for two, with tax and tip, desserts and a couple of glasses of wine, was $120.

Montcalm Restaurant, 1415 Route 9 (Northway Exit 20), Lake George, 793-xxxx. Serving lunch daily 11:45-2:30, dinner Mon-Thu 5-9, Fri-Sat 9:30, Sun 2-9. AE, D, DC, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 19 September 2002

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