Restaurant Review: One Caroline Street

Posted by Tegan O'Neill

Music drifts from beneath the piano player's fingers at the center of the long and narrow bistro of One Caroline Street. One step in and it is as if I am transported to another time period. I feel as though I have set foot into a classic motion picture. The dining room, which is nestled below street level, has plenty of panache with its black and white checkered floors and gold and red ornamentations. Glowing light emanates from star shaped lanterns dangling in the windowsills and bounces off the brick walls.

I spy bottles of wine with every glance around the room. The space is brimming with patrons and is abuzz with lively conversation. I don't know from where they all came. They seemingly rolled in to pack the place while I was absorbed with the menu. As a college student, I am clearly out of place - the crowd is greying and mustached and at least a generation older than I. 

Before serving the bread, our server drizzled olive oil onto our b&b plates as if she were performing a choreographed dance. It was a beautiful presentation that was capped off by a splash of freshly ground pepper. Sadly, the bread was nothing special. Not bad, but nevertheless, as I have outlined in previous posts, bread should always, I repeat, always be good. The bread may not have been very good, but at least it was warm. Also, the olive oil was superb. I regret that I did not ask where it was from, because I cannot conjure up another taste memory of an olive oil so perfect. 

While I am on the subject of wanting to know the source of my food, I found it disappointing that One Caroline Street does not readily provide information about from where the food it prepares originates. The establishment follows a farm-to-table modus operandi and yet does not give due credit to the farms. As a curious eater and diner, I would have relished in reading the names of farms printed on the menu or scribed on a sign somewhere in the dining room. We live in a society that is far removed from the source of our food. I respect One Caroline Street for making efforts to minimize that gap, but as a patron of the restaurant, I still feel a long way away from the source of my food.

There aren't many foods that I adore more than butternut squash soup. When done right, it provides a flavor combination that is enough to send me into a state of euphoria. Sadly, the curried butternut squash and apple bisque at One Caroline Street didn't bring me to that special place. Garnished with a dribble of spiced coconut milk and a sprinkling of pepitas, the soup had a delayed kick to it but, otherwise, it had practically zero flavor. I know that it is common to use apple in a butternut soup, but the ratio of apple to squash in this soup seemed off. Too much apple took away from the ordinarily robust flavor of squash, thus leaving the soup on the weak and watery side. The overall effect was too dainty. It lacked a body and substance. Butternut squash soup is meant to warm chilled bones during cold months. This soup provided a little heat in terms of spice but not in terms of coziness. A spiciness reminiscent of hot pepper lingered in my throat, tickling it. What I really should say is that it lingered in my throat, itching it - not the most pleasurable experience. I did like the addition of pepitas on top. The seeds added a fantastic little crunch to the bowl. I wish that I could have gotten a better taste of the spiced coconut milk. Unfortunately, it ended up tasting like regular old cream.

Maybe I was in a bad mood after the lackluster butternut squash bisque, but it was my impression that the southwestern Louisiana style gumbo with jalapenos, andouille, chicken and crawfish was straight up yuck. First of all, it looked unappetizing. True, one should never judge a book by its cover, but in the world of dining out, presentation matters. When a dish of mushy brown stuff poured over rice arrives at the table, it is hard to get beyond appearances. Okay, so it didn't look too hot and, honestly, it didn't taste too good either. For a gumbo, there was hardly any flavor at all. I can't even come up with many adjectives to describe the experience of eating it.  Chunky. Mushy. Flat. Never mind, I don't even think it is worth it to try.

Alas, with the arrival of the panzanella salad, dinner did a complete turn around. You ask "what is the panzanella salad at One Caroline Street Bistro?" Well, it is a lovely mélange of roasted peppers, tomatoes, red onions, herbed croutons, fresh basil and shaved grana padano, dressed in a mustard balsamic vinaigrette. In more abstract terms, it is a saving grace, it is a breath of fresh air and it is an excellent criss-crossing of textures. Crunchy onions slide against the sides of peppers. The croutons also deliver successfully in the flavor department. The freshness of basil is not hidden, thankfully. I can't help but love the cheese sculptured on the top. Also, to tack on to this string of compliments, the mustard balsamic vinaigrette wavered in the golden zone of not too oily and not too acidic. The makers of this salad obviously put thought into creating this combination, as it is superbly gratifying to eat. 

For the first time in my life, I ordered the prime rib of beef. Surely, a milestone for a want-to-be gastronome. Never have I ever looked down at my plate and seen such a big hunk of meat in front of me. Crisscrossed like the palm of a hand, the meat sat in a pool of mushroom jus and flopped over the smashed Yukon golds. Ahh - even though it was quite (and by that I mean, very) intimidating to look at, the beef simply melted in the mouth. It was tender like butter. Overall, I was thrilled with my inaugural prime rib experience. It was a meal fit for a king. The meat paired excellently with the rich potatoes that tasted like pure butter and cream. The broccoli tasted almost like it belonged in a stir-fry, since it still had some crunch remaining to it, which I loved because it rounded out the texture palate of the dish as a whole. 

I'm much less excited to report on the Mahi Mahi Veracrus. Sitting on a bed of red beans and rice, the grilled fish was topped with tomatoes, peppers, onions, olives, lemon, cinnamon and cilantro. That sounds lovely, right? Regrettably, the dish was utterly unmemorable. I had already forgotten what it tasted like before I had put down my fork. The fish was alright, but I can't say that I particularly liked it. I can't say it particularly tasted like anything.

The sticky chicken, though, was awesome! Seriously, it was unlike anything I have ever experienced. According to the menu, it is a southern favorite and, although I am not from the south, it's one of my favorites, too. I was expecting a Cajun zing to the dish (it being a Southern favorite and all) but it greeted my taste buds with a flavor more akin to an Asian concoction. The only taste I can equate it to is teriyaki. The sauce was a sweet and spicy dark ale reduction that was sweet, just like molasses. This sauce made the dish much sweeter than the run-of-the-mill entrée. The chicken was tender, the onions gloriously sweet and the dirty rice over which it was served had a wonderful smokiness to it that hinted at more traditional Cajun cooking. It surprised me very much and, although it was oddly sweet, I have to say that I loved it. 

Bread pudding strikes me as a modest dessert. It demands little attention and, as a result, generally garners little fanfare. After tasting the bread pudding at One Caroline St., I was reminded that bread pudding is a dessert definitely worth remembering. Sometimes a bite of crunchy bread would peak out from behind the otherwise wobbly consistency of the pudding, which made for a delightful surprise. To the tongue, it was sweet, as was the vanilla ice cream scooped on top. Never was there an ice cream so pure, so creamy and so delicious. Just imagine for a minute cool, sweet ice cream melting into warm, decadent and comforting bread pudding. The world from the view on Caroline Street is good - really good.

One would think that there's a shortage of flour in Saratoga Springs based on the multitude of flour-less chocolate cakes featured on the city's menus. It's pretty difficult to go wrong with flour-less chocolate and it would be unfair to say that One Caroline's was a poor attempt. It certainly was fine, but since competition in this city is so stiff, it didn't quite make the cut. My complaint: too chocolatey. After a few bites, I couldn't stand for even a lick more of chocolate. All of my chocolate receptors were overly satiated, which may sound like a good thing, but it really is not.

Now, for my favorite dessert: the bavarian cream with a toasted almond tuile. This one made me want to bow down to the pastry chef. I think angelic would be the best word to describe the softness, the sweetness and the loveliness of the bavarian cream. To describe the toasted almond tuile, all I can come up with is butter. Butter was clearly the magical secret ingredient. Well, maybe not secret, but certainly magical. The cookie and cream combination was blissful. The evening could not have ended on a better note. 

Read more of Tegan O'Neill's outings at her blog

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