The gumbo at Café Mirage features juicy shrimp, chunks of andouille sausage and a big scoop of basmati rice. Claire K. Racine|Westmore News
The gumbo at Café Mirage features juicy shrimp, chunks of andouille sausage and a big scoop of basmati rice.
Claire K. Racine|Westmore News
It's almost like a dream come true for Port Chester residents Dave and Katy Haggerty who, along with new partner Ben Houx, have realized the opening of a new, much larger Café Mirage at 223 Westchester Ave., the former location of T&J Villaggio Trattoria and several other restaurants before that. Construction took longer than expected, as building projects always do, but the new restaurant finally had a soft opening the weekend after Thanksgiving.

"It's challenging, hard, but wonderful!" exclaimed Katy on my first visit less than a week after the opening. She and Dave are happy to be back at work doing what they love to do.

The Haggertys closed their popular 531 North Main St. restaurant after 15 years in September 2014 when their new landlord jacked up the rent significantly.

Dave, the chef, helped open Rye House in Port Chester from December until Easter and Katy, who always handled the front of the restaurant dealing with customers, worked at McShane's for a few months. After Easter Dave devoted himself full-time to supervising the construction of their new restaurant. "There were always a lot of questions," he said when I met with the three owners on Dec. 13.

"It was kind of fate," Dave said about this new venture. "[Port Chester Trustee and CPA] Sam Terenzi knows the landlord, Alan Weissman, very well and he reached out to Dan Tartaglia because he knows me and I met with Alan. Soon after I signed the lease. It worked out well for everyone involved."

"It was just opportunity," said Houx. "It's a great space. It just needed a little refreshing. The location can't be beat." However, it had been dark for more than a year before the Haggertys came along.

"Opening a much larger restaurant, we needed somebody who could take on the lion's share of the computer work and paperwork," said Katy. "Ben knows how to run a restaurant. I have experience with customers in the front end and Dave has experience in the kitchen."

The Haggertys had known Houx for years, first becoming acquainted when he was working at restaurants in Greenwich and frequented Café Mirage when it had a full late night menu. In addition, for a time they all lived at The Landmark building in Port Chester. Houx, who currently resides in the village, has been a resident on and off since 1996.

"This was a great opportunity for me," said Houx. "It was the most logical step. I had managed any number of restaurants" in Savannah, Ga., Saratoga, Rye (Morgan's), spent 7½ years at Sundown and Thataway Café in Greenwich and most recently was the assistant general manager at the 200-seat Moderne Barn in Armonk the last five years. "There was no logical reason not to do it."

Creating a totally new, modern bar/restaurant

Their contractor was Argus Construction out of Rye, SGH Designs out of Pound Ridge consulted on the design, Michiel Boender from the Edgewater Group in Port Chester designed the façade and the floor plan, and they used other local tradespeople like P&M Mechanical and Maddy's Plumbing and suppliers like Rye Ridge Tile, Millennium Stone and Patdo Lighting.

Before the space was a restaurant, it was a church and a bowling alley. "There were bowling balls in the ceiling," said Katy. "We pulled them all out."

"Every spoon anyone had lost kept falling out of the ceiling," said Houx. "Not pennies but spoons from heaven."

The newly renovated space is reconfigured and modern. "That was definitely our goal," said Houx. "We wanted to make sure it was a totally new space-not Village Inn, T&J or Marissa," previous restaurants at that site.

"It is an 85-year-old building, approximately," said Houx. "During the renovation we realized a lot of work that had been done over the years" was just cosmetic whereas they went all the way with the new façade and making the space more energy efficient.

With the new front, there is only one entrance instead of two and the large windows, which have no treatments at them, allow you to see who is passing by on the street. They also open and close. Dave expects they will put tables on the sidewalk come spring.

"We knew what we wanted, but none of us were designers," said Houx. SGH Designs took care of that. "One of the key things they helped us with was color," he said. They suggested the Buckland Blue, or deep aqua as I would call it, the walls are painted. Blue is Katy's favorite color, and she was determined to incorporate it unless someone could talk her out of it. "This is a living room blue, it creates a warm, welcoming space," she said. And I agree. Not many restaurants use blue, and I think it works beautifully.

Besides the blue, there is a walnut-colored chair rail and matching window sills in the main dining room plus uncovered wood tables and chairs with blue fabric seats to match the walls. Track lighting, ceiling lights and one wall fixture brighten this room, which seats 42. Nothing else hung on the walls on my first visit, but seasonal wreaths had been added by my second. The original wood floor, which had been covered with carpeting, was reclaimed.

A second smaller dining room, fitted out in the same décor, seats 16.

"One of the biggest finds was the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired window in the foyer. The foreman on the job just brought it in," said Katy. "It was something to be thrown out." Although I didn't at first notice this interesting detail beside the hostess desk, upon further inspection of the restaurant, I saw that it does add a touch of class.

"It pairs well with the [silver] exposed ductwork," said Houx.

There is also a 21-foot-long, amazingly comfortable solid oak pew from a synagogue that closed in Yonkers which fit perfectly along the wall opposite the bar.

"We broke it into two pieces," said Katy. "We carried it down two flights."

The pew provides half the seating for several tables for two or four. There are also three high tops and one round table for six with a cool industrial look light fixture hanging over it which came from Houx's sister. The bar itself, crafted from black granite by Millennium Stone, seats 12, and the entire barroom accommodates a total of 36.

The space is accented with wood paneling behind the bar and at other strategic locations. The floor looks like wood but is actually linoleum.

The months of planning and construction all came together to produce an attractive final product with which all three partners are happy.

Requesting to sit in the barroom on my second visit, I actually preferred it to the main dining room because it was quieter and more cozy. The noise level is something the owners are aware of and plan to address. They have been speaking to some experts about the best way to go about it. "We need to listen to how the noise moves and figure out the best solution," said Katy.

Warm, welcoming staff

"After this being a construction site for so long, it's just nice to do what we do," said Katy. "We know how to manage staff and to accommodate customers. It has been very easy to transition" to the larger space and staff. The original Café Mirage was about the size of the bar area, seating 40, while the new bar and restaurant seats nearly 100.

Besides Katy, who circulates throughout the eatery greeting and mingling with customers, and Houx, the general manager, there are plenty of friendly, efficient servers and busboys as well as a hostess and greeter.

Eclectic menu largely unchanged

Everyone likes to check out new restaurants, and since the Haggertys developed a loyal following during their decade and a half on North Main Street, old customers and new have been flocking to check out Café Mirage's new digs. The place was bustling on my two visits, one on a Thursday night and the other on a Friday, and I saw lots of Port Chester and Rye Brook people I knew.

The eclectic French, Caribbean, Asian and regional American menu for which the original Café Mirage was known hasn't changed. Dave's philosophy is that it worked for 15 years, so why upset the apple cart. Only the Pan Roasted Pork Chop with house hot or sweet vinegar peppers, roasted potatoes and spinach ($24) and Brussels sprouts have been added. The menu will change slightly with the seasons but always maintain staples like Steak Frites ($25).

The pork chop was delicious, by the way-thick, tender, juicy and a perfect portion.

Regulars at this unpretentious, reasonably-priced eatery count on various items on the menu which Dave said he couldn't remove. He will be adding specials within the next two weeks, however. "This is still the soft opening," he commented. "The raw bar is not rolled out. We will have a nightly fish and meat and pasta or risotto special" as well as a soup du jour.

No bread was offered on my two visits, but Katy said bread service has now started: an assortment from The Kneaded Bread in Port Chester served with house made hummus and butter. Continuing with the theme of buying locally, rolls for the sandwiches come from Neri's Bakery and coffee is supplied by Waterfront Roasters.

So far the mussels have been so popular that they ran out last Saturday night. Café Mirage offers Bangkok Mussels ($10) for appetizer (Prince Edward Island mussels steamed in coconut milk with Thai spices) and PEI Moules-Frites ($20) for entrée served marinière style (white wine, shallots, garlic and butter) with French fries. The pork chop has also been a big seller, "the curries have been selling like they are going out of style," said Houx, and "people are going nuts over the Texas steak wedge": a steak sandwich with chili, cheese and onions.

Dinner for two

What's cool about Café Mirage's menu is that there is such a wide range of dishes to choose from, and many of them are spicy in their own right or can be ordered in a range of hotness from mild to volcanic. Most recently my husband decided to make his meal a Mexican one, ordering the Duck and Goat Cheese Quesadilla ($12), which was sliced into five pie-shaped pieces and decorated with chopped duck, tomato and scallions and drizzled with a savory chipotle sour cream. Inside was a savory combination of duck and goat cheese.

He followed this up with Jerk Chicken Tacos ($10), two good-sized soft flour tortillas filled with spicy chicken, guacamole and pico de gallo and served with black beans and rice.

These went perfectly with the margaritas we ordered straight up with salt, one traditional and one mango ($13 each). They came in lovely martini glasses nicely chilled and with just the right amount of salt on the rim. The sweet and salty combination of the mango drink made it my favorite.

I was adventurous in ordering the Korean Bolgogi ($12), something I had not previously experienced. This appetizer brought three wooden skewers of beef marinated in soy sauce, ginger, garlic and Korean chili paste, giving it a unique zing. They were laid crosswise over cold noodles (pimbugusku) flavored with soy, ginger and oyster sauce, scallions and sesame seeds and marinated cabbage (kimchi). The three distinct flavors made for a unique combination.

My main course of Coconut Curry Shrimp ($21), ordered medium, consisted of eight large shrimp in a flavorful sauce laden with grated onions, carrots, zucchini and yellow squash. The medium spiciness was just right, I might even go for the mild, just so you can discern the many diverse flavors rather than having them covered up.

We enjoyed the main course accompanied by a Pabst Blue Ribbon ($4) and a glass of Crusher 2012 Chardonnay from California ($10).

For dessert, the chocolate mousse ($8), served in a fancy glass topped with whipped cream, was light and yummy.

Our check totaled $109.53.

Delectable desserts

Desserts, all house made, have carried over from the old Mirage. Besides the chocolate mousse mentioned above, desserts currently include bread pudding with caramel sauce and coconut macaroons dipped in chocolate. Dave is also looking at carrying Walter's ice cream, which he called "a great local product" made in Mamaroneck. Crème brulée is also on the way and down the road Dave plans to "roll out more stuff" like tarts. They all sound amazing. The trick is finding room for them after your meal.

Bar offerings a work in progress

Since the original Café Mirage had a bar with only three seats, three cocktail specials were sufficient, and they remain: mango margarita, pomegranate margarita and rum punch. However, the owners will be adding to that list. "We are working with the bartenders to come up with new recipes," said Houx. They do have a full bar including Winter Wheat Whisky and 287 Whisky (made from distilled beer) from Still the One Distillery in Port Chester.

As for beers, they are carrying rotating craft brews like Captain Lawrence Kolsch ($7) and delicious Joe Mama's coffee stout ($7) made by Keegan Ales out of Kingston on tap and bottled brands like Coors Light ($4), Heineken and Peroni, both $5.

Just like the cocktails, the wine list is a work in progress. Currently it includes a handful of whites and reds by the glass priced from $8-10. Staff is asking customers to suggest wines they like, but Katy and Ben are also working together, and having a lot of fun doing it, to assemble an interesting list. At their original location, the Haggertys had no room for wine storage, so "we brought in what we could," said Katy. By contrast, Moderne Barn, where Ben last worked, carried 750 wines.

"We want to take a long time to build it correctly," said Katy, adding that "we will spend a lot of time educating the staff on the wine."

"We want staff to have an accessible conversation with people about wine," added Ben.

In the end they expect to have four white and four red wines by the glass and 15-20 by the bottle.

Event space still in the works

The restaurant that is now Café Mirage is one of only a handful in town that boasts a banquet room/event space. Just like the restaurant and bar, this area, located at the back of the building, was tired looking after so many years without a major renovation. So it has been gutted and sealed off from the rest of the place for now. Some of the infrastructure is complete and the owners are again working with SGH Designs to figure out the 2,000-square-foot space.

"We're really concentrating on making sure we have the front up and running first," said Houx, so there is no hard date for opening the catering hall, which will seat 120.

Hours and parking

For now, Café Mirage is open only for dinner seven days a week. Hours are 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. In a few weeks, once the sous chef who has been hired is on board, lunch service will begin Monday through Saturday and brunch will be served on Sunday. The eatery will also be offering corporate catering at that time where offices can call or fax in their orders. "It's a big part of our business," Katy said.

Besides parking on the street or in the municipal lot just up Westchester Avenue from the restaurant, Ben has been educating customers about the huge municipal lot that runs behind the buildings on Westchester between Oak and Grove streets which many people don't know about. All of this parking requires payment until 9 p.m. except on Sundays.