When new ownership takes over a restaurant, it really isn’t fair to compare it to what was there before.
However, I can’t help but compare Salay’s to its predecessor, Moosewood Smokehouse, because it really hasn’t shed its former image.
It is even harder to figure out what to call the place. It was Salay’s Moosewood Grill when the new owner took over in the fall, then switched to Salay’s Grille, but its Facebook page now just refers to it as Salay’s.
A banner outside boasted, New ownership, new cuisine, new culinary team, but the huge sign out front – which was taken down last week – still said Moosewood Smokehouse when I visited this restaurant facing St. Joe Center Road in the corner of the Marketplace of Canterbury.
The menu still featured a bevy of smokehouse favorites, such as barbecued ribs and chicken, and it still had the Moosewood sauces, including raspberry-chipotle and Carolina vinegar-based. Even the former owner’s famous bread pudding with bourbon sauce remained on the menu.
But the new team has made changes. It has a lighter paint scheme to help tone down the lodge-heavy décor and the menu has been whittled down to a page. And there was no better proof that Salay’s is not a smokehouse than the best dish I had there – the Mediterranean chicken breast sandwich.
A plump juicy marinated piece of chicken with an aggressive, but not hot, spice rub was topped with beautifully crisped bacon, sautéed peppers and onions, sweet and chewy sun-dried tomatoes and pepper-jack cheese. It was served on a nicely toasted roll with a little Mediterranean aioli and was just a wonderful sandwich.
I also loved my catfish fingers appetizer, which had five nice-sized chunks of crispy, cornmeal-coated fish with a side of tartar sauce that I didn’t even need, thanks to the wonderfully mild flavor of the fish.
The char-grilled rib tips, offered as a lunch special, were also satisfying. The tips did not have any smoke flavor or visible pink smoke ring, but I liked that they were char-grilled to be a little crispy on the outside and blackened in certain spots. The sauces were just OK.
The salad bar and soups – a decent chili and surprisingly sweet tomato – were fine, and a side of green beans, which were slow-cooked with tomatoes, were favorable. And, yes, the bread pudding was still tremendous – rich, gooey and one of the best around.
But the rest of my experiences were flawed at Salay’s. And that more than anything else drove home the fact that this place isn’t what it once was.
The half chicken dinner was served cold and had to be sent back. My server asked whether I wanted an entire new order or just wanted it heated up. Given that the constant sound of a microwave opening and closing could be heard throughout my visit, I wanted a new order and it was fine when it arrived. The chicken was hot to the bone and the meat was juicy, but, again, the sauce added little.
The chicken wings, which I was told are no longer smoked despite what the menu said, were dry on the exterior, kind of like frozen pre-sauced wings you can find in any grocery freezer case. The meat inside was also dry, making them not worth eating.
The 10-ounce hand-cut prime rib-eye was nowhere near prime. It was perfectly medium rare, but was tough and sinewy and nowhere near worth its $18.95 price.
The sides at Salay’s also fell flat. The baked beans were like any basic canned variety; the macaroni and cheese was like something off a buffet; and the creamy coleslaw had little flavor.
I wish I could say the service helped overcome the flaws, but I stood and waited 10 minutes to be greeted and seated during one visit and was pretty much forgotten about as soon as the entrees were served during both visits.
In light of the cold chicken, Salay’s did make an effort to rectify the mistake. But instead of making amends right away with, say, a free dessert, I was given a card for a free appetizer on my next visit.
Unfortunately, that appetizer is not enough to make me want to have a next visit.
Address: 5755 St. Joe Road
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Catfish fingers ($7.95), wings ($5.95), Mediterranean chicken sandwich ($8.95), half chicken ($9.95), bread pudding ($6.49)
Rating breakdown: Food: * (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 max), service: 1/2 (1 max)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).