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At Dockside Bar and Grill, the menu sounds good, but taste is lacking

By Mike Kurilovitch

Niagara correspondent

NORTH TONAWANDA – It’s tough to get a group of people to agree on anything. Heck, only four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum to their patients who chew gum. That one seemed like a no-brainer.

The point is, when you have a collection of more than, say, two people, differences of opinion are bound to occur. Restaurant evaluation is one of the venues in which such dissent runs rampant.

We had heard conflicting opinions of the Dockside Bar and Grill since its celebrated renovation/reopening this past spring. Now that it is open year-round, we decided to check it out for ourselves one recent weekend.

Like the dentist group, we took a crew of five to conduct our evaluation. Like the dentist group, we failed to come to a consensus. Some liked it, some didn’t – and some really didn’t. One thing we did agree on: It wasn’t worth the money.

Actually, the first thing we agreed on was that the remodeling is a smashing success. The former New York State Barge site, built in the late 19th century along the shores of the Erie Canal off Sweeney Street, underwent a two-story renovation that added some 100 seats and allowed the former seasonal restaurant to become a year-round attraction. The construction resulted in a nice open feel, meshing old-time touches with modern steampunk sensibilities. The glass wall facing the water is great, the fan-on-fan ceiling fans are cool and the slate tile floors and textured wood wallpapering give the place a classy feel.

The checkout station is made from a matching pair of Jack Daniels whiskey barrels – nice touch. It’s still casual, but it’s a classier casual.

The decor wasn’t the only thing touched up; the menu was broadened, they now have 36 beers on tap and there are attractive drink and food specials during Bills and Sabres games.

Now it may be time to focus on the food just a little bit more.

As Gene – one of our five “dentists’’ – pointed out, “the food all looked great, but a lot of it needed some tweaks. The seasoning was just not right.’’

Case in point: the mac and cheese with gouda. It was just there, if you know what I mean. It was bland. “Not strongly flavored at all,’’ Gene said. The gouda did not seem to add anything to the dish.

Meagan ordered The Burger ($12), billed as a 12-ounce “hand-packed’’ burger grilled to your liking and served on an egg bun with your choice of toppings. She chose cheddar cheese and a fried egg over top, and asked that it be cooked medium rare. What she got was a hefty patty so overcooked as to be completely devoid of any juice whatsoever. How they managed to get a patty that thick, that well cooked, was impressive to me – but not to Meagan. She wanted to send it back.

“I didn’t even know burgers could be bad,’’ she commented, “but it was so bad. No seasoning at all. I ordered medium rare with the emphasis on rare, but it came out way overdone. And the cheese was just gooped on ... So much cheese. For once, I didn’t even want to finish my food.’’

And so it went. The Brisket Sliders ($11), served on house-made pretzel rolls with au jus and horseradish sauce, met with only tepid approval. Again, taste seemed to be the major issue – or lack thereof. The fish fry ($12 and now available daily) likewise got a lukewarm reception. In that case, it wasn’t the fish as much as the accompanying potato salad that was disappointingly lacking in flavor. Shoot, even the hand-cut fries seemed to be lacking something, even after being heartily doused with malt vinegar and salt.

Lest we give the wrong impression, not everything prompted a negative reaction. The cole slaw was nicely done, fresh and tasty. The onion rings were thin and lightly battered, which made for an excellent opener. The squash soup topped with maple whipped cream was thick and flavorful, and the whipped topping was a stroke of genius. But ... the roasted squash seeds that were tossed liberally into the mix were virtually inedible and only served to lessen the overall impression.

We did enjoy the tater tot appetizers ($6), which were billed as “housemade with gouda cheese and scallions’’ and served with cayenne honey and sour cream sauce. The sauce, again, was a wonderful touch – an enjoyable melding of flavors that really topped the dish off nicely. The tots were generously sized and tender, but the scallions didn’t come through strongly and, again, there might have been a better choice than gouda. But they were still enjoyable.

On the topic of generous helpings, the plates were all enormously appointed. The beer-battered haddock dinner was humongous – probably close to a couple of pounds of food, all considered. The fish was nicely cooked, but again could have used a little heavier hand on the seasoning. Maybe they prefer to let the customers do their own.

Steffany’s blackened catfish Po’ Boy sandwich ($13) may have been the hit of the day. Served on a baguette with something called Creolaise (I take it that is a Creole-style mayo), it was light and flaky and did have adequate seasoning – in fact, the Creolaise was as addictive as FritoLays, if you know what I mean.

Working around the rest of the table, the stuffed clam appetizer (overpriced at $11) received low grades, with Gene saying that the stuffing-to-clam ratio was far too lopsided in favor of the stuffing. The six middle neck clams were stuffed with bacon, sweet peppers, onions, parsley and lemon, which, again, sounded great but didn’t live up to expectations.

The Crabby Patties ($11) made for a good sandwich, consisting of two Maryland crab cakes on slider rolls with housemade chili relish and lemon pepper aioli; the taste was fresh and citrusy. Gene, our seafood connoisseur of sorts, said it wasn’t truly seaside in nature, but was a close enough approximation.

Side dishes at Dockside run from $4 to $7 on their own, or you can add them on to an entree for an extra $2 or $3. Either way, it seemed kind of expensive for what you got.

Which brings me to my final point. Our bill for the day (with tip) ran close to $150. For five people – none of whom had an alcoholic drink – that is a fairly expensive luncheon outing. And when you plunk down that kind of change for lunch, you expect to leave singing the praises, not the blues.

Maybe we just came on an off day. Or maybe it is time to take a closer look at the food end of the operation. It all sounds so good and looks so good – the taste needs to match.

We all agreed on that.