Were you aware that we, North Americans, live on the back of a turtle? So says an old Iroquois legend that I recently learned about. I’m not sure I will remember it exactly as it was told to me, but the fundamental gist of it was that at one time there was nothing but water and sky. The earth was covered with water and inhabited only by water animals. The sky contained the “sky people.” The sky began to fall to the earth and in order to save the sky inhabitants a very clever, and industrious, little muskrat began hauling up earth from the sea bottom and placing it on the back of an accommodating turtle to sustain life. This legend is also supported by the geographical configuration of North America and if you look at a map, you can see it. Florida and the Baja Peninsula are the hind legs; Mexico the tail. Alaska and Newfoundland are the front legs and the head is northernmost Canada.
Turtle Island therefore refers to Mother Earth, and I heard of this interesting legend from Chef David Martin who was explaining the origin of the name of his cafe.
Chef David and his wife, Mimi Lane, own and operate the Turtle Island Café on the bank of the Boquet River in Willsboro. The café is in a converted pharmacy dating back to the 1800s. As a restaurant, it has a warm and casual atmosphere.
"Plate and Planet"
The entire operation has a serious respect for the connection between “plate and planet” which is evidenced in their use of the freshest local foods whenever possible —and, only those local foods from farmers that make use of organic and sustainable farming practices. Couple these farm-fresh products with the creative artistry of a highly respected and renowned Chef, toss in an extensive wine list, a wide variety of beer and ale selections, and imaginative cocktail choices, and the public is in for an exceptional fine dining experience.
Chef David grew up a few miles north of the Adirondack Blue Line, but spent a good deal of time in the Adirondacks and in our western states as a competitive ski racer. He recalls visiting top restaurants in Montreal during his youth and seeing chefs in big white hats and thinking they were so cool. That may have sparked his vocation.
Turtle Island Café has received high praise from many food critics and extensive compliments have been written up in major publications like the NY Times, Food and Wine, and Gourmet magazines.Naturally this is where I went to get some insight on an Adirondack recipe containing Lake Champlain fish. I wondered why area restaurants, particularly those with a focus on local, did not make use of some of the tastiest, and certainly the most fresh, fish available here; Chef David explained.
Fishing in Lake Champlain
Commercial fishing is not permitted in Lake Champlain he informed me. Not only that, game fish cannot be sold from these waters. The only fish that can be sold are what’s known as pan fish, like perch and smelt. These types of fish are pulled up one at a time, with a hook and line. Therefore, local salmon, walleye, bass - flavorful fish that finer restaurants would like to include on their menu - are not available. Chef David did give me a great idea however — in fact brilliant! It’s a recipe/artistic culinary creation he serves in his restaurant using Atlantic wild caught salmon, but he said that local, Lake Champlain caught salmon, would work fine. You will either have to be an angler, or know one, to give it a try. Catching it yourself will merely add to the dining satisfaction.
Cedar Planked Salmon, is a favorite menu choice among diners at the café. The description had me salivating. It is a broiled salmon filet served on a charred cedar plank and drizzled with maple syrup that has been infused with a smoked jalapeno pepper. Chef David ignites a cedar plank, from a local mill, on fire, then tops that with the salmon filet and pops into the broiler. He cautions here: Remember he has a commercial kitchen that is clad in non-combustibles and it has superior ventilation. So anyone attempting duplication of this recipe may need to move this operation outside. A grill could help you smoke the jalapeno to add to the syrup and then prepare the plank and salmon.
The thought of this combination of flavors intrigued me and I had to taste the original creation made by the chef himself. I began my meal with his French onion soup. This is one of my favorite soups, ever. Chef David augments the soup with slivers of locally grown tart, crisp apples. This was new to me, but I admit it added a texture and a bit of tart flavor that I will try adding to my own family recipe.
I have to say the Cedar Plank Salmon is “to die for.” The tender, juicy, flaky fish, coupled with the aroma and undercurrent of cedar smoke, the sweetness and flavorful maple syrup with a bit of zip from the jalapeno; my palette was in heaven. It was sprinkled with a touch of chopped pecan adding yet another depth of flavor and texture. The entrée was accompanied by jasmine rice and an abundance of fresh, steamed locally grown veggies. My palette was punched and I was happy, happy.
Chef had recommended an accompanying cocktail, his Adirondack Winter.
1.5oz your Favorite Bourbon Whiskey
.5 oz Adirondack Maple Syrup
.5 oz Fresh Lemon Juice
Pour all this over ice and shake and strain into a martini glass, then garnish with a lemon twist.
I did not try the Adirondack Winter and now feel it was my loss and regret. The flavors of that cocktail should have paired nicely with the entrée. Shown here in a rocks glass on the Turtle Island Café patio.
Make Reservations Now
A delightful addition to the whole dining experience was my server, Stephen. My queries found that he is actually a neuroscientist with a book blossoming inside on how what we ingest may actually affect our brain. Completely professional, attentive yet unobtrusive, he added to my dining experience. I really can’t wait to return to the Turtle Island Café. Their summer hours are Wednesday and Thursday from 4pm until sunset, and Friday through Monday from noon until sunset; closed on Tuesday. Hours may vary during other seasons, call 518-963-7417 for reservations. Should you be fortunate enough to dine on a Friday evening, you will also be entertained by live music.
Looking for a place to stay nearby? Check out our Adirondack Coast lodging options and plan to extend your stay while enjoying our fun outdoor activities and our outstanding historic tours!
I left the Turtle Island Café completely satiated and reminiscing. Now knowing that Iroquois legend, I had a completely different perspective on a past experience a few winters back. I actually rode the back of a sea turtle, for a few brief seconds anyway. It was a totally unplanned experience, with an unwilling, and somewhat terrified, participant! I was tubing down the Xel Ha River in Mexico when I was lifted and carried a bit by a huge sea turtle. Though I thought I saw small snicker bubbles rise to the surface as he glided off, maybe he was simply trying to be helpful. He probably was aware that I have been riding the back of a turtle my entire life.