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Monday, June 26, 2017

Family Spirit

IT MAKES SENSE that Mouzon House would have a resident ghost. The apparition is described as mischievous but kind, a spirit who is heard to rearrange the furniture upstairs. And that fits in with the spirit of rebellion that informs the history of the building, a handsome structure bought by the eponymous family in 1919, when Ardel Mouzon-McCoy, a Cherokee Indian, took possession of the place. She married a dark-skinned man of Creole descent, and her daughter, Mia, was said to be the first “woman of color” to graduate from nearby Skidmore. The house became the target of Saratoga’s relentless pursuit of raze and rebuild during the 1970s and 80s, but Mia refused to sell even as the rest of the Spring Valley neighborhood disappeared.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
When she sold, she sold to Dianne and David Pedinotti, who had opened One Caroline Street Bistro a decade earlier. “We don’t actually own the Caroline Street building,” David told me, “so we thought it would be a good idea to have one that we do.”

He describes the menu of the earlier eatery as “that of an Italian family living in New Orleans. Mouzon House is a house in France, or a French family in New Orleans.”

There’s a French Quarter quaintness about the house, which was built in 1883. The brick structure has a pair of covered porches, one of which sports the bar and a playing area for musicians; there also is a row of tables in the open air. The rooms within the house have been converted to discrete dining areas; an easy-to-look-into kitchen sits behind the bar area.

We took advantage of the pleasantly warm evening to dine on the porch, where Meghan, our amiable server, guided us through the menu options and, with the skill of a journeyman server, admired the result, as if it all had been our own ideas.

Although Creole influences dominate the menu selections, they’re also very much tied into what’s available from area farms. “We use the freshest ingredients that we can get,” says Pedinotti. “I’m very tied in with the farmers around Saratoga after being in the business here for almost 25 years, so now they come to me with stuff. I’ve got ramps and fiddleheads coming in, and soon it’ll be soft-shell crabs from the coast.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
His chef de cuisine is Gabriel Anthony Bifano, who was previously executive chef at Wheatfields. “He knows gumbos and Creole flavors just as well as I do,” David explains, “and we also do bouillabaisses, coq au vin – plus we add some pasta dishes since most of our names here in the kitchen end in vowels.”

Misty Knolls farm in Vermont was the source of the chicken in my wife’s entreé, the house fried chicken ($27). Was it the best fried chicken I’ve tasted? I grew up eating a particularly fine preparation by my West Virginia-born mom, enhanced by her description of wringing the birds’ necks when she was young. And we’ve all been ruined by mucilaginous fast-food fodder. The Mouzon House version easily eased past the latter, but the juicy meat waiting behind its unsoggy crunch was also alive with a flavor that’s been bred out of the factory-farm fowl. It rushed me back to the flavor of childhood without its attendant dinner-table drama. So: Yes.

I was seriously tempted by the cauliflower steak entrée ($24) because of its boastful position amidst a meat-rich list and the promise of accompanying caponata and feta; there’s that bouillabaisse ($32), with shrimp, mussels, whitefish, and calamari at its core; there’s a $29 combo of shrimp and cheddar-cheese grits.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
But I’m a sucker for creative lamb-based dishes, and the specials list boasted of a mixed grill that included roasted lamb and a beef-based cotechino sausage with a harissa-flavored sauce ($38). Harissa is a Moroccan marinade, spicy and deep; serving it alongside collard greens and mashed sweet potatoes is a confluence of cultures that defines a peaceful world.

The only misleading aspect was that “roasted” business. It wasn’t. It was braised, which is even better. The lamb came from Sap Bush Hollow farm, so there already was good flavor to work with – and less-than-tender cuts gloriously melt over the tongue. Not a vast contrast between sausage and lamb; more like a couple of cousins wrestling.

Susan’s chicken dish was topped with a Creole remoulade, a kind of southern-states aioli, which also topped the restaurant’s signature appetizer of crawfish beignets ($12). The beignet is a doughnut-sized deep-fried choux pastry confection that is, in fact, Louisiana’s state doughnut. At Mouzon House, however, it’s a savory dish with that mudflats crawfish flavor worked in. There are four in a portion, so you will be forced to share.

Even when your dining companion has picked the unlikely starter of Jerusalem artichoke soup ($9), pairing the tuber with a lovely coconut curry.

Other start-to-the-meal options include selections of cheeses or charcuterie, variously priced according to item; jerk chicken wings with a coconut ginger lime sauce ($12); greens & beans ($12), oysters on the half-shell ($3.50 each), soups, salads, and a selection of pasta and risotto dishes that includes Mouzon Mac ‘n’ Cheese ($14/$24).

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Mouzon House, like One Caroline, is also a haven for music. David plays guitar and regularly gigs at the other restaurant. We had the pleasure of hearing the Hot Club of Saratoga paying tribute to Django Reinhardt, and because we were alone on the porch I could shamelessly sing along. Other nights you’ll find the duo Drank the Gold (Oona Grady, fiddle, and James Gascoyne, guitar); Tony Markellis (who has played with Phish), bringing a different guest every week; Mark Tolstrup and the Dixie Boys; and the Joe Gitto Duo playing jazz standards.

Pedinotti started out working with his father in construction, “but I was always cooking with my grandmother at home, and my mom was an excellent cook.” Switching to the restaurant business was a way to work with his family before all the kids struck out on their own, and his wife, Dianne, runs the floor at Mouzon House while Kaitlyn, his daughter, works garde manger.

“I used to watch and read anything on Paul Prudhomme,” says David. “I like that full-flavored, get-in-your-face kind of food. I also liked watching Graham Kerr, ‘The Galloping Gourmet,’ when I was a kid. He cracked me up. He was fun to watch, and he made cooking fun. And that’s what I still try to do.”

Mouzon House, 1 York St., Saratoga Springs, 518-226-0014, mouzonhouse.net. Serving dinner Wed-Mon 5-10. All major credit cards.

The Alt, 24 May 2017

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