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Muddy Waters – Kitchen & Bar

On a chilly Friday evening-after-Thanksgiving, my friend and I found the stairs leading down under Sammy Malone’s to a place called Muddy Waters.

We stepped inside and were immediately steeped in the sounds, smells, and sights of another place: the American South of our dreams. Vivid, fun, lively but relaxed. And offering some of the best food in the world.

Comfy booths lined the side walls of the large space with its centrally located bar, and tall tables were just right for a snack and a drink.

We were there to meet the owner, Tom Taylor, and find out more about this Kitchen & Bar he rightly calls one of a kind, a labor of thoughtful love, and unique among restaurants in our area.

With a little time to look around, we were delighted to find one wall covered with scalloped wood that looked like the roof of a fishing shanty; a replica alligator lurked on another wall; street signs on the support beams proclaimed “Bourbon Street,” and “Vieux Carre;” and photos of famed musicians of the south (like Muddy Waters himself) were tucked into corners waiting to be discovered.

Even at this early hour, visitors were at the bar enjoying a wide selection of draft and bottled beers, a nice selection of wines, moonshine, and a list of specialty drinks that went far beyond the Hurricanes you’d expect from a bar that honored New Orleans.

But to say that Muddy Waters is a “New Orleans” restaurant is to do it a great disservice: it’s far more than that. The Taylor brothers, chef David and owner and manager Tom, have scouted the south from Maryland, through the Carolinas, to Florida, across the panhandle to that famous delta city, and up the Mississippi to St. Louis to find the best that Southern comfort food has to offer – and then added some staples dear to the heart of any Central New Yorker (like burgers, prime rib, and chicken riggies), so that no matter what your taste, you’re going to go home full and happy.

While we waited, I watched a large party with several children fill up a table beside a wall of Mardi Gras lights, and was amused as their waiter delivered four glasses of milk to their table. Comfy booths lined the side walls of the large space with its centrally located bar, and tall tables to one side of the bar were just right for a snack and a drink – and the music that was to come later in the evening.

Taylor arrived and immediately insisted we have a drink. My friend chose a favorite beer, which, being a picky beer drinker, he was happy to find, and I contemplated some of the specialty drinks, like a full range of Martinis (a Maple Bacon Martini?!) and Moonshine Margaritas. Then he suggested we try some Crispy Calamari ($10.99). Full confession: I am not normally a fan of calamari, but since my dining partner was – and as it was recommended by our host – I went along. It arrived crisp and golden, with lemon wedges and an exquisite Remoulade for dipping. (The menu also happily notes that it’s a gluten free choice, so yes, you can dine here without fear of going off your diet!) I tentatively bit into a circlet and was transported. It was crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, and the Remoulade gave the sweet meat a gentle kick. I’m converted.

While we worked our way through the generous plateful, Taylor explained that the restaurant was the culmination of many years of experience opening, owning, and running a variety of bars and restaurants throughout the area. This establishment was to be a focus on good food, good drinks, and a distinct atmosphere – something Taylor feels is important to offer. “An experience,” he explained. “The culture of the south, the food, and the music.” For a short time, the restaurant was closed and re-opened with an Italian theme, but evidently Taylor’s heart was in Muddy Waters, and soon it was back to its roots. “It seemed right,” he joked, looking out the window at the river rushing by, with the bright half-moon shining on it.

Muddy Waters offers music on the weekends, with the occasional extra evening (lagniappe, as the Cajuns say – that something added that you didn’t expect) thrown in. Taylor believes in supporting the local music scene, and even promoting new bands getting a start.

We were urged to sample some more food, so I chose a Chicken Po’ Boy ($11.99) for my friend, and I just had to have some Poutine ($9.99), though I admit to contemplating a signature dish: One Hot Mess (Chicken N’ Biscuits, topped with Sausage and Cheddar Gravy, $14.99). It’s fair at this juncture to tell you that I am a big (make that huge) fan of Southern cooking – from Maryland Crab Cakes to a Crawfish Boil (be ready for Muddy Waters to start offering this delicious treat in mid to late Spring – it’s a seasonal dish!), and if I had to eat in one city for the rest of my life it would be New Orleans. The menu didn’t disappoint me in its variety and selection – all my favorites were available, and as I noted, if you’re one of those who hasn’t yet developed a taste for this extraordinary style of cooking, Muddy Waters thoughtfully serves up more traditional fare as well.

The Poutine (which is actually an Akkadian dish – that is, French Canadian – and consists of crisply fried potatoes, smothered in sausage gravy and accented with melted NYS cheese curds and a sprinkle of chopped scallions) was perfect, and for this diner at least, a full meal! My friend’s Po’ Boy was the real thing: slices of perfectly cooked chicken filets on a French roll, covered with gravy and a side of those crispy fries. A word about the Po’ Boy: this is not your mom’s “sandwich,” or a deli sub. A good Po’ Boy is sloppy and full of juicy meat or fish, often served with gravy, and according to tradition, the result of a streetcar (yes, as in Streetcar Named Desire) strike when a local restaurant owner took pity on the “po boys” who were striking, and served them up filling sandwiches.

As we were eating – okay, stuffing our mouths as fast as we could! – with our delicious meals, Taylor’s descriptions of good Southern cooking made it clear that he knew his subject (New Orleans cooking isn’t about hot, it’s about using spice and a bit of heat to bring out flavors; Southern cooking is based on making something delicious out of what’s to hand), and that he had a real appreciation for not just the art but the story of it all (having grits down south convinced him that this was food to be discovered and shared).

There’s a Daily Happy Hour from 3-6pm with 2 for 1 Hurricanes and Margaritas, as well as other special selections of beer and mixed drinks; and a real Southern Comfort is weekend brunch, offered Saturday and Sunday 10-2. While the menu selections are outrageously tempting – Eggs Voodoo, French Quarter Toast, and a Breakfast Skillet including everything breakfast served in a cast iron skillet – a crowning glory of the brunch menu is Muddy Waters’ Lobster Bloody Mary (16oz. for $14.99 or a 32oz. for just $19.99). A tall, tall Bloody Mary, garnished with cheeses and a deli meat giardinara – so in other words, a meal in a glass!

In the summer, the deck on the river opens so visitors can enjoy dining and music (Sunday and Tuesday from 5-9) and Happy Hour, and every Thursday throughout the year it’s Game Show Night with Dan Tortorra. A combination of Family Feud and Pictionary, you bring your team of 2-6 players and be prepared for fun.

The Taylor brothers extensive experience in the bar and restaurant business shows in the details: this isn’t just a place to go and eat, though if that’s what you’re looking for, the food is great, the prices are reasonable and the portions are big. But with its distinctive theme and its gleeful delight in expressing that theme in every little detail, visiting Muddy Waters is just like a trip down South – and just a few short minutes from most anywhere in Central New York. Y’all come back now!

In the summer, the deck on the river opens so visitors can enjoy dining and music (Sunday and Tuesday from 5-9) and Happy Hour.

Nancy Roberts