Style in Search of Substance
Caramelo Restaurant has beautiful plateware: elongated rectangles of red and clear glass, white teardrops and triangles, bowls that look like miniature Morris Lapidus sculptures. Weighty silverware sparkles atop meticulously crisp white linens, as does impeccably clean glassware. The two main dining rooms in the 200-seat Gables establishment are gorgeous too, a sophisticated and contemporary décor splashed in rich mustard and coral colors; a more intimate dining space is positioned adjacent to a compact and kinetic bar area.
Even the service staff is spiffy, waiters in black suits with gray ties and vests, busers dapper in bowties. Enough burly men in black are stationed at the door and inside the restaurant that any rational person planning on taking hostages would have to think twice. Some on the talented team of waiters are holdovers from La Bussola, the Italian restaurant that held court here over the previous seventeen years. They're a personable and professional bunch, yet while Spanish is the language spoken by much of the well-heeled clientele, I still think our waiter should have greeted us in English.
The cuisine speaks some Latin, but mostly Italian. Caramelo's chef, Dominican-born Willy Hernandez, formerly manned the stoves at Gables hotspots Giacosa, Casa Rolandi, and Café Vialetto. Hernandez's flavors can be bright and bold, but too often he seems more interested in style than substance. A starter of carpaccio rollatini, for instance, looked stunning arrayed on that red rectangle of glass, five thin slices of raw black angus beef wrapped around cucumbers, fried shoestring potatoes, and a mild sprinkle of parmesan cheese. Had the potatoes been hot and crunchy, the interplay with cold, soft tenderloin would have been compelling. These shoestrings had clearly been fried hours before, though, and after being smothered in beef and lemon-cilantro dressing, they tasted like supermarket potato sticks left out in the rain.
Menu descriptions can be devious, a "napoleon" of lobster having nothing whatsoever in common with a napoleon. Three sushi-style cylinders of puréed potato, colored bright yellow from a poaching in saffron, were centered in a shallow bowl with moist morsels of Maine lobster and a scattering of fried leeks. Broth below was supposed to be composed of lemon and black truffle but was lemon-saffron instead. Misleading moniker and lack of truffles aside, the appetizer was nonetheless luscious and light.
The best starters were the plainest-looking. Soup du jour was a smooth, velvety purée of malanga with smoky undertones of ham, and a boneless quail stuffed with "congri and apple-smoked bacon chips and topped with a blanket of sweet ham" was likewise delectable, though I'm not certain there was any bacon inside, and in place of sweet ham on top were triangles of Serrano ham underneath (better), protruding outward like points of a star. The confidently spiced quail and cumin-flecked rice and red bean stuffing were so highly flavorful that unannounced drizzles of truffle oil proved unnecessary; it might have been put to better use on the napoleon.
Truffle oil isn't the only high-end ingredient doled out with abandon. Chef Hernandez has a tendency to get carried away with such luxury items, a main course of lasagna exemplifying his sometimes overwrought cooking style. You may wonder how any dish with duck confit, porcini mushrooms, and béchamel sauce flecked with black truffle peelings could possibly go wrong. Easy: too much cheese, so that nuggets of duck and layers of thin, textureless noodles were suspended inside a fondue-ish substance like fruit in a Jello mold. The porcinis and black truffles were harder to spot than molecules, nor did they lend any gustatory hint to their presence.
Four thick, tender, thyme-and-rosemary-crusted "Aspen Valley" lamb chops were cooked to perfection, and smartly paired with a tangy aged sherry demi-glace. A main course of duck was tasty as well, and a huge portion -- must have been a dozen long, lean slices of succulent magret breast, the skin fatty, not crisped, but a confit of duck leg providing some brittle bites. The sauce was purportedly a reduction of port wine and vanilla bean, but while it did contain those flavors in muted form, it was a shiny pink, cornstarch-thickened glaze, like something you'd get with egg rolls at a pretentious Chinese restaurant; the only potent port punch was packed into a few booze-soaked blueberries.
Caramelo's succinct menu offers up tamarind chicken, grilled veal chop, pan-seared filet mignon, and a short list of pastas and risotti. There are no fish dishes listed, but at least a half-dozen species were verbally recited as specials: blackened tuna, black bass in fresh tomato sauce, mahi-mahi and shrimp in lobster sauce, and, one that we tried, sweet, juicily flaked yellowtail snapper handsomely wrapped in strips of fried plantains that were, alas, limp and listless.
Such flaws notwithstanding, the fish, lamb, and duck were all fresh and of high quality. Accompaniments, however, were shameful. Duck and snapper were plated with a dollop of butterless, spiritless mashed potatoes; patty pan squash (my personal pick for worst vegetable ever created); baby zucchini (cuter but just as worthless as mature zucchini); and baby carrots, which are delectable when cooked through and seasoned, but these were not -- all vegetables came barely steamed and salt-pepper-flavor-free. It really got my goat when the lamb, tabbed on the menu as being served with "caramelized turnips, fava beans, mushrooms, carrots, and pencil asparagus," came only with the beans, carrots, one singular burned cube of turnip -- along with yellow patty pan squash and zucchini. Considering that appetizer, entrée, and dessert for two at Caramelo, with tax and tip but no water, wine, coffee, or anything else, comes to $110-$125, it would seem incumbent that the kitchen come up with more variety of starches and vegetables -- or at least better renditions of such.
Desserts are made on the premises and cover overly familiar ground: tiramisu, ginger crme brùlée, a square of airy chocolate cake that tasted as if prepared from a boxed mix, and four flavors of cheesecake -- mango, mamey, dulce de leche, and a distressingly bright-green pistachio. Portions are modest, plates big, ample white space occupied with squiggles of fruit purée. Please, somebody buy these people a subscription to a food magazine.
Nobody paid any attention to our leaving Caramelo. Admittedly the place was humming at the time (this restaurant consistently packs them in), but it would've been nice to receive some acknowledgement of our having been guests. Actually, one person did bid me adieu: After taking about ten steps out of the restaurant I realized my jacket was still on the seat back. As I turned to reenter, a doorman in black blocked me with his arm and asked if I had a reservation. When I explained he let me in, sheepishly smiling at his mistake, and wished me a good night when I exited the second time.
In fact the folks at Caramelo are exceedingly friendly, the setting and ambiance top-notch. The chef shows flashes of talent, but it's time for him to dig deeper and produce foods as distinctive as the plates on which they're served. When Mr. Hernandez realizes his potential, so too will Caramelo.
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