On Saturday morning I had the privilege of going to Carriage House Café for a rainy day brunch with my girlfriend. On Saturday afternoon I had the pleasure of eating it. Commonly referred to simply as Carriage House, this restaurant housed in a historic landmark is reliably popular, especially on weekends. Upon our arrival, we were greeted with an accurately predicted wait time — approximately 45 minutes for a table for two — and handed a remote buzzer to notify us when our table would be ready.
The second floor of the building, which operates as The Loft Bar and Lounge Wednesday through Saturday nights, serves as a waiting area for brunch patrons in the mornings. With wooden walls and floors, the space has a rustic American ambiance that is completed by the presence of a grand piano, an organ and various antiques. Light floods in through numerous skylights and windows to create a warm and comfortable environment for those who wish to enjoy a scone or coffee while waiting for the buzzer to sound off.
When we were called for our table, my girlfriend and I descended into a jovial array of diners who were all clearly there for the food rather than the quiet. After much deliberation that was punctuated with our waitress frequently stopping by to see if we were ready, I ordered the cured salmon plate. The dish consists of four toasted pieces of the house-made French bread — a point of pride for Carriage House — as well as a small salad of greens with a slice of beet, a wedge of double creme brie, a candied fig and a spiral of thin-cut pastrami-style cured salmon that invoked the image of a rose. To top it off, the whole dish was lightly drizzled in a sweet fig dressing. My compliments went first to the artist before I had taken the necessary bite to give my compliments to the chef. The artful arrangement was lovely and almost a shame to cut into, but having been there for nearly an hour, I was in no mood to wait.
The enduring reputation of the cafe and the long (yet pleasant) wait time were both immediately justified. The bread’s flavor was crisp and strong. Unlike most toast eaten during brunch, the French bread is served not exclusively as a vehicle for the meal but also as a tasty piece in its own right. Creamy in both texture and taste, the salmon nearly created the illusion of butter with every bite. The floral spiral of fish, while undeniably beautiful, ought to be larger for how quickly one could eat it if they weren’t being careful. The greens, salmon and cheese stood out as delicious and refreshing on their own, but exercised their full potential only when combined on the toast as an open-faced sandwich.
While the taste of the fig dressing defined the sweet aspects of the dish, the salmon determined its savory features. Rather than overwhelming the flavor of the salmon, the brie emboldened it, and I had to resist the urge to finish my meal within minutes of it being placed in front of me. The two distinct flavor profiles blended perfectly. Having grown up in Brooklyn with regular access to lox, I was initially surprised by the cured salmon, but its sweeter tones and slicker texture grew on me. The crispy toast on the bottom and smooth salmon on the top together served as an excellent catalyst for the sweet and savory fusion happening within. Tasty foods abound in Collegetown but genuinely interesting flavors are rare; to experience both high quality and unexpected compositions is a treat well worthwhile.
I ended my brunch with the candied fig, which inconspicuously sat on the side of my plate and nearly went without notice until everything else had vanished. It is a curious addition to the dish but still one I would not neglect. Perhaps the only thing on my plate that tasted just as I predicted it would, the fig gave a quick burst of sweetness that ensured I did not regret passing on the cafe’s French toast. It has a taste worth allowing to linger while waiting for the check.
At $14, the cured salmon plate is a reasonably priced delight. The food and atmosphere make the cafe a lovely way to escape for a few hours, whether it’s with a date or your parents who are visiting Ithaca; the experience demands to be shared. A significant portion of Carriage House’s appeal lies in its aesthetics, both in the cafe and on the plate. While my wandering eyes landed on many other beautiful and appetizing plates, one might find its options to be somewhat limited, as beverages comprise two-thirds of the menu. Expect a wait on weekends, when they do not take reservations — if they did, walk-ins would be out of luck. The meal was certainly tastier than it was filling, as the portions are somewhat small for the price, but it is without a doubt worth it.
The wait staff at Carriage House Café is friendly and in good spirits, as they have all the reason to be. The cafe demonstrates true appreciation for its workers, including an 18% gratuity in every check regardless of party size “for improved wages for all staff,” as is printed on the bottom corner of the menu.
All indoor seating is in the same well-lit and fascinatingly decorated room on the ground floor of the building. The walls are lined with vinyl covers (none dating later than the mid-20th century), antique radios, posters, cameras and even a keyboard detached from a piano. The colors are muted, the walls are stone and most objects in the space are either wooden or iron. Despite the loud chatter at full occupancy, Carriage House remains a wonderful place to go for respite from the stressful college atmosphere. Modernity in Carriage House is confined to the iPhones sitting dutifully on the table next to every dining patron and the sleek, eye-catching espresso machine sitting on the bar.
Whether you are looking for a predictably delicious omelet or a thoughtfully prepared surprise, I recommend Carriage House Café and look forward to returning and being thrilled again by this cornerstone of Collegetown.
Serves: American breakfast and brunch
Vibe: rustic and hip