When food snobs talk about “tasting the terroir” in a locally sourced meal, they usually mean a farm. In chef Jonathan Gilman’s kitchen, the “terroir” might just as easily be a local woodland floor. Fir needles are among the ingredients the new chef has brought to Caroline’s Fine Dining in Jericho.
When Caroline’s opened in 2010, Chef Joseph Ianelli sought to create a hidden gem that would compete with fine-dining destinations such as Hen of the Wood at the Grist Mill and the Kitchen Table Bistro. But when Suzanne Podhaizer reviewed the restaurant for Seven Days that year, she felt lukewarm about the high prices and less-than-ideal ingredients.
Now, with Ianelli relocating to the West Coast, Gilman has stepped in, and he comes with no formal training but plenty of bona fides. The University of Vermont graduate worked for the state’s Secretary of Agriculture, Charles Ross, before transferring his efforts to Massachusetts kitchens. His five-year plan was to rise to the position of executive chef or open a restaurant, both of which he did at Boston comfort food temple Church. Last year, Gilman earned the restaurant a Boston Magazine Best of Boston award.
When he heard of Ianelli’s departure, Gilman jumped at the chance to return to the Green Mountains. On September 5, he took over at Caroline’s and its more casual sister restaurant, the Village Cup. While both restaurants already belonged to the Vermont Fresh Network, Gilman has taken their menus several steps further in a locavore direction — he even makes the American cheese on the Village Cup’s burger from scratch.
I headed to Caroline’s last week to see if Gilman had brought the restaurant any closer to becoming a fine-dining destination. On a Tuesday night, only a few parties filled the staidly appointed space. A very young, formally dressed hostess led us to our table in a side room just large enough for two. She waited until we were both seated before handing us our menus clipped to heavy wooden boards.
Our outgoing server arrived to fill our water glasses and show us the drink menu, dominated by Vermont beers and international wines. We stuck to water and required countless refills, all of which the server or our hostess provided wordlessly and immediately. Throughout the meal, we felt pampered without being suffocated.
That was lucky, as we were already overwhelmed by our dinner options. Roasted pheasant with spaetzle and pickling-spice vinaigrette? Braised rabbit with black-peppercorn pappardelle, baby carrots, Brussels-sprout leaves and cave-aged cheddar? Our server helped us find our way through the appealing menu of Vermont-grown ingredients.
The hostess brought triangles of crusty, homemade white bread shrouded in an artfully swirled napkin. Herbed butter was topped with chunky pearls of Himalayan pink salt, large and saline enough to set off a salt bomb anywhere they landed. I tried to avoid them, hoping they weren’t indicative of Gilman’s seasoning of his dishes.
The first specimen was a starter of pan-seared halloumi. Best known to Americans as the cheese in flaming Greek saganaki, halloumi is similar to mozzarella in texture, but a combination of goat and sheep’s milk lends it a more acidic, barnyard-y flavor. Griddled outside, with a bouncy texture within, the cheese was delicious but needed more acid to cut through the salt. The accompanying salsa verde made from Granny Smith apples was a beautiful green color, but it lacked the necessary tang to do the job. Sweet curls of fried parsnip were a welcome addition.
Next came a $12 combination of three cured meats. Before Gilman started at Caroline’s, he told me he hoped a serious charcuterie program would convince younger foodies to make the drive to Jericho. This sample was easy to share and paired with caper berries; boozy, nutty Fiddlehead Brewing Company beer mustard; and heavily vinegared blueberry compôte.
The pâté de campagne was just as it should be: sturdy but yielding, porky and sweetened with tiny onions. A semi-crisp jacket of bacon added salt and a chewy crunch. The duck rillettes were a little sloppy, even for me. The fat was slightly melted, making it difficult to scoop the duck onto the quartet of crostini that came on the plate. My recommendation would be to cut the fat — literally. Just enough to hold together the meat would be perfect.
Slices of pork belly were simple but delectable. A thick strip of what was essentially lardo or salo gave way to tender but hearty streaks of meat. Eaten on bread, it felt and tasted very much like smalec, the Polish pork-belly-dotted fat spread.
But what of those fir needles? They came in the braising jus of an entrée called the Forest Braised Pork Shank, along with hay-smoked fingerling potatoes. (Black River Produce supplied both the local Douglas fir needles and the hay.)
Reading those unlikely ingredients on the menu, diners could be forgiven for expecting Gilman to produce tiny, segregated squares of food on oversized, oddly shaped chargers. Full of surprises, the chef offers quite the opposite. His entrées are lustily rustic, hearty and served in large portions not usually associated with fine dining. At $22, the enormous pork shank felt like a steal. Not only was it huge, it was delicious.
Braised just to the point of requiring no knife, the meat burst with pork flavor. The jus wasn’t as arboreal as I’d hoped, but had a light taste of rosemary. Eaten individually, the fir needles tasted like the familiar herb but with a subtler, more vegetal flavor.
The waxy, surprisingly large fingerlings were also understated, with just a kiss of hay-inflected smoke. Meaty chunks of acorn squash added a hint of sweetness, which mitigated the mineral earthiness of tender hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. Perhaps the choice of fungus was an intentional challenge to a more established restaurant. If so, Gilman has fired a well-placed first shot.
Vermont-Raised Lamb Meatballs defied their simple name. Meltingly tender, utterly ungamy lamb was speckled with almost microscopic squares of carrot, lending the meatballs an unexpected hint of sweetness. That paired splendidly with the blackberry mead in which the meat was braised — sweet and fruity with a touch of booze. Whole berries enhanced the flavor and added a fun snap.
The meatballs were piled on a serving of creamy polenta surrounded by a wall of slightly crisp kale. A hefty heap of grated ricotta salata topped the dish, creating a blanket of flavor like a fresh snowfall.
Though our entrées made us just about due for the vomitorium, we were so enjoying ourselves that we charged on to dessert.
How could we not, when “Cider Doughnut” Bread Pudding was one of the options? I had to see what was behind the mystery quotation marks. The answer was that, instead of being served as a mound of custard, the pudding was rolled into five Munchkin-sized doughnut holes. Despite their delicious cinnamon-apple flavor, the tiny “doughnuts” had little room for the squishy center that creates true bread-pudding magic.
These mini-doughnuts formed a wreath around clothbound-cheddar ice cream, which likewise disappointed me. While Gilman surmounted the likely textural challenges of the endeavor, I struggled to taste nutty, tangy aged cheese in the frozen dessert.
Big flavor was no problem for Chocolate and Chiles. Apparently sized for two (or for one greedy chocolate lover), the dessert featured two triangles of smoked-chocolate semifreddo divided by a round almond tuile that rose from the plate like the morning sun. The smooth, ganache-like chocolate was as smoky as promised, flecked with high-cacao-content chunks that further intensified its flavors. What was described as a topping of “ancho chile mousse” was texturally more like a thick crème anglaise. But it packed a pleasant burn that made it hard not to finish both slabs of the dessert. Luckily, I exercised some control and gave myself leftovers to look forward to.
That won’t be the last of my Caroline’s experience. Gilman refers to his menu not as seasonal, but as “evolving,” meaning it’s constantly changing. So while diners may not be able to count on trying those fir needles on any particular visit, they’re likely to find new dishes that exemplify great value and a creative take on the locavore movement. It looks like Caroline’s is finally shaping up to be the destination its owner envisioned.
Caroline’s Fine Dining, 30 Route 15, Jericho, 899-2223, carolinesvt.com.