Taste Test: Caroline's and the Village Cup
When you place a call to Caroline’s restaurant in Jericho, located in the same building as the much-loved Village Cup and owned by the same man, Steve Burke, the staff makes no bones about the style of fare. “Caroline’s fine dining,” says the voice on the other end of the line.
With décor that would please a Victorian matriarch — lacy curtains, snowy linens, landscape paintings in gold frames — the restaurant certainly delivers on fine dining ambiance. Extremely attentive service and luxe menu items, including a foamed baby-lettuce Caesar salad and a prosciutto-wrapped wild striped sea bass, complete the picture.
But, given that Jericho is about a half hour from the nearest city and the nearest après-ski mecca, offering entrées that range from $20 to $30 seems pretty daring, even in a town where the median family income was in the $70,000 range as of the 2000 census.
The pricing may seem audacious. But Caroline’s chef, Joseph Ianelli, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who grew up in Richmond, recently threw down a gustatory gauntlet. In an interview with Alice Levitt for the September 28 issue of Seven Days, Ianelli said, “I’m trying to position myself with Hen of the Wood and the Kitchen Table Bistro as our major competition.” Given that those two restaurants have received national press attention and James Beard nods, he’s aiming high.
Two weeks in, I found plenty of pleasant dishes at Caroline’s, but the food didn’t quite seem to justify the expense. And the menu, while an enticing read, neglected to mention sourcing. As someone who will pay extra for items grown or raised according to certain standards, I might have found the pricing more palatable if I’d known the provenance of the ingredients, particularly the meats.
Of the appetizers, an arugula salad with house-cured duck prosciutto was the prettiest. The pile of verdant greens was ringed with thin slices of duck, pecans and small mounds of ricotta. The duck was savory and tender, and there was just enough dressing on the salad to moisten the greens without overpowering them. The only flaw was slices of underripe stone fruit tossed in with the arugula. They looked like nectarines but were so flavorless that I wasn’t sure.
A bowl of chestnut bisque, dotted with bits of apple and drizzled with cream, was seasonally perfect, if a bit on the sweet side. The spices were reminiscent of Thanksgiving pies. The butternut squash pancake, on the other hand, was almost shockingly sour — piles of spiced apple butter and dots of apple gastrique on the side were its saving graces. Of everything I tried, the pancake was the only item that didn’t compel me to clean my plate.
Vegetarians sometimes gripe that fleshless fare is an afterthought on restaurant menus: Think steamed veggie plates or a pan-seared but barely seasoned slab of tofu. Caroline’s kitchen is more considerate of meat-eschewing diners. Last Thursday, both soups, two salads and two appetizers were vegetarian. The menu has a separate section for vegetarian entrées, although the prices — all more than $20 — may give frugal diners pause.
I tried the veggie version of Jericho Carbonara. (The same dish appears in the meaty section of the menu with the addition of maple-glazed ham.) Black-truffle shavings on the pasta helped explain the price, but the funky flavor of the fungus got lost in the busy, creamy dish, which also includes peas, corn, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and Parmigiano Reggiano. Overall, though, the generous bowlful was filling and tasted good.
A $30 slice of grilled beef tenderloin — prepared classically with a Gorgonzola crust and a perfectly red, rare interior — was well executed and incredibly tender. A request to receive the dish with Brussels sprouts instead of out-of-season asparagus was politely accommodated, and the accompanying Malbec demiglace was rich and flavorful.
Orange-scented crème brûlée, with a burnt-sugar crust that broke with a satisfying crackle when smacked with a spoon, was a fine way to end the meal.
Connected to Caroline’s by a narrow passageway, the Village Cup was renowned for its cozy atmosphere and its pastries under the previous owner. Since Burke bought it, the place has undergone its own changes: Now, besides serving as a neighborhood breakfast joint and café, it’s a nighttime bistro complete with a sizeable bar. Exposed wooden beams and a high ceiling preserve the feel of an old Vermont barn, but the tables are simple and modern.
The same kitchen serves the fancy restaurant and its casual sister, where main dishes ring up at less than $10 apiece. Ianelli — who is presumably very busy right now — is head chef of both.
At Sunday brunch, the Village Cup bustles. Patrons order entrées and sweets — such as blueberry-cheese Danishes and gooey sticky buns made with eggy brioche dough — at the counter, and get coffee at a self-serve station. Numbers let the staffers know where to drop off cups of tea and plates.
Last weekend, one of the specials was what one might call an eggs Benedict BLT. The nicely poached eggs sat on tomatoes, arugula and crispy bacon, slathered with chipotle-laced Hollandaise. The home fries were a bit too salty, but otherwise, it made a rousing start to the morning.
The turkey Reuben panino had such a generous helping of meat that the sauerkraut and homemade Russian dressing got a bit lost, but the sandwich was toothsome and filling. Like the greens at Caroline’s, the ones that came on the side were drizzled with just the right amount of dressing. Another plus: the java, which the picky coffee drinker in my party pronounced good.
On a future visit to the Village Cup, I’d love to sit at the bistro bar and sample a microbrew along with some of the reasonably priced fare. And if somebody were to offer to take me out to Caroline’s, I would certainly accept. Presuming they were still on the menu, I would try the Cavendish quail stuffed with chorizo corn bread and the pan-seared scallops with parsnip puree and almond beurre blanc.
Right now, it’s too early to tell if Jericho is ripe for destination dining, or if Caroline’s will eventually be ranked among Vermont’s finest. It often takes months for new eateries to live up to their full potential. For now, it’s a great place to go if you live nearby and can afford to splurge. And for Burke, having the Village Cup next door, keeping the money rolling in as Caroline’s ramps up, could be a winning strategy for bringing fine dining to this once-sleepy little town.