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A restaurant off to the races

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Lisa Zwirn
Globe Correspondent / July 23, 2008

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The London name has been synonymous with stunning French pastries and artisan breads here for more than 30 years. Now the family behind Mrs. London's bakery and cafe is hoping to parlay that good will to the savory side of the business.

Michael and Wendy London (she's the "Mrs.") have launched son, Max, 28, with Max London's, which adjoins the bakery. The clean-lined, hip spot opened eight months ago and showcases Spanish and Italian foods, such as tapas, Neapolitan-style pizza, homemade ravioli, and grilled meats.

The true test of the threesome's readiness comes this week, when the gates are flung open at Saratoga Race Course and tourists arrive in droves. Every year, the six-week horse racing season turns this laid back, new-age hippy and college town (Skidmore College is up the road) into a bustling equine-centric resort. Affluent residents rent their homes to the wealthy horsy set and flee. The energy is palpable, the parking a nightmare, and restaurant lines barely tolerable, but it's the fun and idyllic surroundings, paired with good food and shopping, that keep visitors coming every year.

Three hours from Boston, Saratoga Springs was originally a playground for New York's well-to-do and those seeking the cure from the local mineral waters. (Natural springs still bubble from the earth in various spots around town.) While the region offers performing arts, museums, historic battle sites, and hiking in the nearby Adirondacks, it's the racing, dating from 1863, that keeps Saratoga firmly on the map. This year's season runs from today through Sept. 1 and culminates with the $1 million Travers Stakes on Aug. 23.

Max London is bracing for the onslaught with a well-rehearsed staff and a menu that has "something for everybody," he says. A pleasing selection of daily specials, including fresh fish, salads, and a mixed grill, reflect the chef's interest in cooking with seasonal and local ingredients.

He explains that his menu was inspired on a tour around Barcelona and Naples a few years ago. His signature tapas include tender chickpea-polenta fries, blue-cheese stuffed dates wrapped in Serrano ham, garlicky shrimp with smoked paprika, and mussels with chorizo and white wine. The idea is that diners assemble a multicourse meal of small dishes.

Pizzas are baked in a wood-fired oven and boast a crisp, chewy, and tender crust. Mozzarella is made in-house and the dough is fashioned after something London sampled in Naples.

While he runs the kitchen with sous chefs Clifton Booth and Dan Spitz, Max's father oversees the dining room. "He's the unofficial sommelier, host, and chief schmoozer," says his son. The bread basket features Michael's renowned fire bread, which is baked in a 60-ton wood-fired oven near the couple's home in neighboring Greenwich. The senior London also assembles the wine list, with a heavy emphasis on Spanish, Italian, and Californian bottles. Desserts are Wendy's domain.

One lesson the younger London learned is not to take shortcuts. Perhaps that's why the restaurant took almost four years to open. From the complexities of raising money and accumulating permits for the 1870s historical building, to demolishing and rebuilding the space, Max says, "every little thing took a lot longer." Also, imagine discovering - when it was too late - that the restaurant is two feet less wide than the architectural drawings indicated. A smaller walk-in refrigerator and pizza oven had to be ordered, and the oven brought in through the storefront windows.

If the worst of the glitches of opening a new restaurant happened before the crowds descend, Max London is sitting pretty.

Max London's, 466 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., 518-587-3535, maxlondons.com.

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