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Mohawk House
3 Sparta Junction
Sparta, Sussex County, New Jersey
(973) 729-6464

By The Artful Diner
August 27, 2007

In my initial review of proprietors Steve & Rachel Scro's Mohawk House, dated January 23, 2006, I voiced my misgivings with regard to the food and several other issues. In the interim, I was informed that a new chef had taken over the reigns in the kitchen; I also received several e-mails urging me to pay another visit -- which I did quite recently.

On the plus side, the restaurant's interior -- exposed stone and brick, rich, dark woods, and rustic copper lamps suspended from the towering timbered ceilings -- remains as impressive as ever. The bar/lounge is particularly attractive, and the extensive wine list is certain to keep dedicated oenophiles happy.

And I'm pleased to report that the food -- in the capable hands of Josh Fryer, who did such marvelous work at Trap Rock in Berkeley Heights -- has also demonstrated incredible improvement. There are still one or two minor faux pas, but both the preparation and the presentation of the cuisine are definitely head and shoulders above my previous visits.

Among the appetizers, calamari is usually a good test of the kitchen's mettle... and the crispy calamari salad ($10.00) passes with flying colors. The diminutive rings are inordinately tender, spiked with a zippy chili-lime glaze, and find a perfect textural companion in a shaved celery root & carrot slaw.

The jumbo lump crab cake ($14.00) also proves a worthy starter. The sweet crabmeat is seared to a beautiful golden brown and aided and abetted by an unusually tasty grilled pineapple and cilantro salad. The consummating touch is a sriracha (Southeast Asian hot sauce) aïoli.

The Bibb salad ($10.00), jazzed up with apple shavings, candied walnuts, Brie croutons, and a dynamite Champagne vinaigrette, is excellent. I also like the Caesar ($8.00), a nice blend of romaine and radicchio buttressed by crunchy garlic croutons, although the dressing is overly salty.

Entrées, for the most part, carry on with style. The rigatoni Bolognese ($16.00), for example, is appropriately creamy, its richness nicely counterpoised with a splash of broccoli rabe pesto. The grilled filet mignon ($30.00), though cooked slightly less than the requested medium, is, nevertheless, velvety of texture and bursting with flavor thanks to the ministrations of an assertive port-infused natural jus. And the grilled pork tenderloin ($24.00) is marvelously moist and presented with a perky green apple risotto and provocative pomegranate molasses.

Among the seafood possibilities, the pan-roasted swordfish ($28.00), a special of the evening, is absolutely superlative. The flesh is pristinely white and just the right texture, and the crawfish butter sauce provides just the proper pinch of pizzazz. The pan-seared scallops ($28.00) are also beautifully prepared, rich and meaty.

The only real downer proved to be the combo of rock shrimp & pappardelle pasta ($18.00). The pasta was nicely seasoned with morsels of asparagus, oyster mushrooms, assorted herbs, and a delicious light truffle cream sauce. But the flat noodles were hard around many of the edges, perhaps the result of an extended exile under a heat lamp. The real problem, however, was the rock shrimp. Those that crowned the above-mentioned swordfish were at the peak of good health and appropriately crunchy. On the other hand, those adorning the pappardelle were mealy and off-tasting. Something was definitely amiss.

Desserts ($7.00), however, were right back on the money. The blueberry almond cake garnished with Grand Marnier cream was positively first-rate, as was the delicious chèvre cheesecake with poached apricots and candied pine nuts. The kitchen also turns out a number of excellent house-made ice creams ($6.00) and sorbets ($6.00).

In my first review, I noted that service -- while young, willing, and enthusiastic -- was on the amateurish side. The second go-round, however, has seen a definite improvement as well. Our waiter was professional yet personable, knew the menu options, and was always there to meet the needs of our party.

Reservations and seatings, though, were something of a problem. We arrived to discover that the 20-piece Silver Starlight Orchestra was booked to entertain patrons with swing music from the 30s and 40s on that particular evening. We had never been informed of this fact when making our reservations, and there was also no mention on the restaurant's website... A serious faux pas in my book.

Knowing from previous experiences that the noise level -- even without benefit of a 20-piece orchestra -- can be formidable, we asked to be seated as far away from the music makers maker as possible. So what does our charming young hostess do...? She escorts us to a table in such close proximity that I very easily could have filled in on the tenor sax. Needless to say, we immediately voiced our displeasure and were promptly seated in the adjacent dining area overlooking the spacious grounds. But even here, the noise level was deafening. Shouting at full voice, it was still almost impossible to make oneself heard among one's table companions. In the defense of our eardrums and conversational sanity, we beat a hasty retreat and enjoyed coffee and dessert in the peace and quiet of the outdoor patio.

There is absolutely no question that the Mohawk House has made significant improvements to both its cuisine and its service -- and Chef Josh Fryer's prowess in the kitchen is especially noteworthy. But noise and customer communication still appear to be something of a problem. After an extended conversation with proprietor Steve Scro and his wife, Rachel, however, I have absolutely no doubts that this charming couple will do their very best to continue to improve their excellent establishment.

Cuisine: Creative American
Hours: Open daily for dinner, beginning at 5:00 p.m.; the tavern opens daily at 4:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Onsite/Valet
Alcohol: License; extensive wine list
Price: Moderate/Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.mohawkhouse.com

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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