Food has a story: Fiddlehead Bistro

Fiddlehead Bistro is a work of art. If you’re in downtown Saranac Lake you can’t miss it — it’s the bright yellow building on the corner of Broadway and Dorsey streets, right next to the Saranac River. Detailing on the outside is simple. There’s a nod to the restaurant’s namesake flora, and a small iron snail that says a lot about the food. It’s delicate, beautiful, and not for people in a rush.

Opening the front door is like walking into a book. The entryway greets visitors with The Library of Contribution. The walls were hand-painted to look like bookshelves in which the bindings tell the story of the place. “Potatoes in the Oven” is a reference to the potatoes the bistro’s owners, Craig and Shamim Allen, found in an oven that was in the basement — the building had been empty for about a year at the time. Others reference the buying process, things like “Let’s Talk to Bob,” “Good, Solid, Steel Bones,” and “Is Black Mold a Deal Killer?” It wasn’t.

Bright, pleasant, and totally inviting.Walk inside, and the warm atmosphere feels classy and creative. The dining room is filled with work by local artists. Even the tables are made by various local artisans, which is why they’re all a little different. Toward the back there’s a small bar, beyond that there’s a deck for riverside seating in the summer, and downstairs there’s an extra room that will be used as an art gallery in the near future.

And the food…well, that’s a whole other story.

A tale of two towns

Shamim and Craig met in the Adirondacks, and in an amazing full-circle turn of events, they had their first date in the building that is now Fiddlehead. The business really started years ago, after the couple had moved back to Saranac Lake from New York City, and Shamim said “Let’s open a restaurant.”

Craig, a mastermind chef with a penchant for defeating boredom at all costs, wasn’t sure he was ready for that.

“I kept telling her, ‘I don’t want to hate you,’” he said with a laugh. His response was a reflection on the nature of the restaurant industry. It’s frenzied, stressful work, especially if business is healthy. Craig knows all about that — he’s run restaurants in Brooklyn.

“Brooklyn, as much as I loved it, was so competitive,” Craig said. He has “Manhattan experience” too: busy, busy busy.

Craig went to the New York Restaurant School, a four-month program with a two-month internship, and got a job working in a three-star restaurant after graduating.

Living in New York City gave him tons of work experience, and it also meant trying a world of cuisine, like Turkish, Korean, and traditional Chinese. If you can think of it, it’s probably there. A lot of Fiddlehead’s ever-changing menu is inspired by food Craig misses. If there’s a curry on the menu, or Thai food, or African food, it’s because he wants those flavors available in the Adirondacks.

At its core, cooking is an art form in which the canvas moves from preparation to plate to palette. With so much inspiration to draw from, a particular recipe can pull from any number of cuisines.

“We went worldly so I could continue to learn, so I could do things that amuse me,” Craig said. “This menu is really about keeping me interested. I mean, my corned beef and cabbage dish is a brisket braised in kimchi.”

Craig is a carnivore through and through, but Shamim has provided balance by getting him to expand his skill set into vegetarian and vegan territory. He’s since discovered the joys of cooking with things like tofu and wild mushrooms.

“That was part of the deal in opening this place — a third of the menu had to be vegetarian and-or vegan,” Shamim said. “We only have six apps and six entrees, so there are two of each that don’t have meat.”

That kind of thinking keeps diners interested, too.

Local food, local flair

Craig and Shamim’s food has a story, and the story behind Fiddlehead’s dishes isn’t just about the recipes the chef creates. The ingredients used are as locally sourced as possible. There’s a guy who grows Thai basil in his basement just for Fiddlehead, last year they bought 1,100 pounds of pig from a local farmer, and the produce comes from local farms.

That’s all great for the local economy and for promoting sustainable farming, but it’s also good for the flavor of the food. Craig called last year’s locally grown sweet potatoes “mind-bogglingly good.” Shamim also forages for wild edibles, so you might find wild mushrooms, wildflowers, or fiddleheads on your plate.

That connection is important to both Craig and Shamim. Shamim is particularly fond of helping people make that connection. There’s a lot available locally. Most of the meat comes from no more than 150 miles away.

The Fiddlehead experience

The night my wife, Anna, and I ate at Fiddlehead we had all kinds of options to choose from, like skrei cod, seared duck breast, and mushroom and tofu stir fry. We ordered the Thai fish cakes and a green salad as appetizers. For our entrees, Anna opted for the aloo gobhi curry and I got the sriracha and blue cheese meatloaf.

The Thai fish cakes appetizer

The plate presentation was artistically elegant, and the food yielded an even flavor profile. The ingredients worked in harmony, each bite revealing a little something that went unnoticed before. The aloo gobhi was complex, with a balanced blend of heat and spice. To Anna’s delight, it was also a healthy heap of chunky cauliflower and potatoes, all mounded on a bed of fluffy rice with a side of naan for sopping up the sauce.

Sriracha and blue cheese meatloaf in the front, aloo gobhi curry in the back.

My meatloaf was particularly savory, as anything slathered in bacon gravy tends to be, and the large hash brown that accompanied it was delectable and quite possibly the best shredded-potato concoction I’ve ever tasted — and I’ve had homemade tater tots.

So here's the story: To say I’d recommend Fiddlehead Bistro is an understatement. This is a place that's quintessentially Saranac Lake, an inspiring restaurant that celebrates creativity, attention to detail, and community, and it was all cooked up with a dash of big city influence — just to keep things interesting.

Fiddlehead Bistro is a must-try restaurant that perfectly complements downtown’s other offerings. It's a fulfilling after-hike spot, a perfect pre-show stop, or an impressive date-night splurge that's impossible not to love.

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