photograph by Yvonnne Albinowski
A local favorite in Saranac Lake
If you sit down to dinner at Saranac Lake’s Fiddlehead Bistro with dyed-in-the-wool locals, you’ll learn a thing or two about this landmark perched on the bank of the Saranac River. Over plates of local cheese, red-curry mussels, steamed pork buns and Thai noodles—passed from hand to hand for communal sampling—you might hear how a former tenant of this building, Quigley’s Down Under, ran an afternoon three-for-one special that kept Paul Smith’s College students in the suds. Or, before that, how it was home to a speakeasy that was connected by tunnel to a bootleg operation across the street. Word is that the moonshiners dodged authorities by pumping their telltale steam into the exhaust pipes of neighboring laundries.
The current owners of the place, Shamim Allen and Craig Bailey, have their own story: their first date was here, when it was known as Desi’s Café. That was in 1989, when Allen was bartending at the Back Door (now Bitters & Bones) and Bailey was cooking at Desi’s. Before long the 20-something small-towners—Allen grew up in Saranac Lake; Bailey, near Malone—decided to try their luck in New York City.
Allen, who sings and plays the guitar, mandolin and more, started busking and bartending, though Bailey had trouble finding work. He had experience—he’d been mentored by Paris-trained Roger Steinbrueck at the Lake Placid Hilton—but he didn’t have big-city experience. So he signed up for the New York Restaurant School, a program that landed him at March, cooking Asian-American fusion cuisine under celebrity chef Wayne Nish. Bailey says Nish taught him “that high-end ingredients, no matter how simple the recipe, will make an impression.” He went on to cook at some of the biggest and smallest joints in town—from tiny Caviar Russe, where the kitchen was so cramped that staff used the espresso machine’s steam arm to cook eggs, to the 450-seat Supper Club.
Allen and Bailey married in 1993. Then, in the aftermath of 9/11, their relationship came to a crossroads: Allen wanted to retreat to her roots; Bailey wasn’t ready to let the city go. “We were worried we’d start resenting each other,” Allen says. They divorced in 2003.
As Allen settled into life back in Saranac Lake, Bailey returned to the bright lights, opening two Brooklyn restaurants before setting sail for Vieques, Puerto Rico. It was there, at a restaurant called Quenepo, that he found his mojo. Most of the places where he’d worked had adhered to the classics—French, Italian, bistro-y. At Quenepo he began experimenting with different cultures and ingredients, with different ways of cooking. “That’s where he became the chef he is today,” Allen says. “It opened up his mind.”
But Bailey couldn’t stay away from home—or from Allen—for long. He returned to the Adirondacks in 2012, taking a job at Milano North, in Lake Placid, then the Whiteface Club’s Moose Lodge Boathouse. Meanwhile, he and Allen started kicking around plans for a joint project. They wanted to do something local, something sustainable, something different. That’s when they heard that the vintage building on the corner of Dorsey and Broadway was for sale.
It took the pair almost three years to rehab the building, a methodical process they were both intimately involved with. “We were really trying to think about how to make it last,” Bailey says. And every decision included a nod to the couple’s community—materials, contractors, artists and artisans. Even the bright yellow exterior, which some might consider a counterpoint to Adirondack style, fits the Saranac Lake scenery.
“It is Adirondack,” insists Allen. “When that hill,” she says, pointing to Dewey Mountain, “turns golden, we blend right in.”
Every bit of the 42-seat restaurant’s décor—colorful, creative and, above all, homey—carries Allen’s stamp. “She has fantastic aesthetic ideas,” says Bailey. Each table is unique, made by a different local artisan—Pete McConville, Russ DeFonce, Peter Hewes, Paul Snyder, Cheryl Culotta, Nate Parsons and Rob Davidson—who’d been given basic specs but, otherwise, free rein. The cherry for the floorboards was grown and milled by Addison Bickford, of Rainbow Lake. Blacksmith Dan King, of Tupper Lake’s Hammersong Studio, crafted the outdoor fiddlehead sculptures—one that’s eight feet tall—as well as the door handle and other metal accents. Mary Lou Reid made ceramic tiles, light fixtures, bowls and more. The walls read like a who’s who of local artists, with paintings and sculptures by Carol Vossler, Kathy Fadden, Kathy Ford and too many others to name. You can browse a full list in the restaurant’s entranceway, where a library mural includes a book for every person who contributed.
Fiddlehead’s community vibe extends, of course, to the menu: beef from Donahue’s Livestock Farm, in Malone; Mangalitsa pork from Vermontville’s Kate Mountain Farm; lamb from Blue Pepper Farm, in Jay; goat from Asgaard Farm and Dairy, in Au Sable Forks; cheeses from five local creameries. And vegetables? “We get them from everybody,” Bailey says. “We have a lot of resources to pull from—people will call and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this.’”
Rotating ingredients means a rotating menu, one that changes every few days. (Something that never changes: a third of the choices are always vegetarian.) Allen calls their motto “worldly local,” using what they have readily available to create a small but international menu—with dishes that can range from wild mushroom tacos to lamb kafta, and cocktails crafted from foraged flowers and organic elixirs. “That’s the fun part,” Bailey says. “Experimenting.”
Like the menu, the restaurant continues to evolve. Their deck recently opened, adding 16 more warm-weather seats, and there are plans to start an art gallery downstairs. Solar panels are in the works, as well.
Allen says the way forward is simple: “Be sustainable as much as possible. Organic as much as possible. Local as much as possible.… We want to share the best of our area, the resources we have here, because they’re amazing.”
Find the Fiddlehead Bistro (518-891-2002, www.thefiddleheadbistro.com) at 33 Broadway, in Saranac Lake.