Charles T. Clark
Published September 15. 2011 4:00AM Updated February 28. 2012 10:45AM
Gabrielle's has been a culinary mainstay in Centerbrook for nearly a decade, and I took a friend there last week after an unexplainable hiatus. I'd always enjoyed the kitchen's efforts - the cooking was plain but so good I never noticed the ghosts of Steve Wilkinson's Fine Bouche or Steve's Centerbrook Café, eminent predecessors that occupied the spot in the past.
Gabrielle's isn't much to look at. The interior's trim but institutional décor isn't helped much by framed prints and uneven lighting; certainly, at least, with a little effort the task of eating could be more effectively illuminated. None of this - cavil I admit - seemed to discourage Gabrielle's clientele, however. By the time we left, just after 7:30 on a Thursday, the restaurant was packed.
A $40 prix fixe dinner, comfort in a recession, included a brief choice of three courses, two options each. Main courses were limited to swordfish and steak. Individual specials could be ordered a la carte for an undisclosed price.
We found the seasonal menu more enticing. What it too lacked in breadth it made up for in a well-balanced selection of fish, meat, pasta, and one vegetarian main course.
Our appetizers included perfectly fried calamari rings, a shoreline staple, here served with a smoky tomato sauce and a textbook remoulade. Next time I will order it as a main course, it was so substantial, and pair it with a light green salad.
Less successful was an order of spring rolls served with a mild mustard sauce. The rolls themselves were overly chewy (a thinner wrapping would have helped) and, save for welcome bursts of cilantro, the shredded carrot and mushroom stuffing was pretty flavorless.
Most appetizers were under $15. The kitchen offered ceviche, native heirloom tomato salad, and fried oysters, along with the spring rolls and calamari. There is also an accompanying selection of small plates and "artisanal" pizzas.
The list of principal plates was brief: roast chicken, pasta with clam sauce, rack of lamb, fish, ribs, and filet of beef. In some cases, these standards were presented with unusual ingredients, like my perfectly seared Atlantic salmon filet, served in a broth fortified with corn, tiny slices of potato, pickled Asian vegetables and mushrooms.
The filet was crusted with cracked coriander, a nice but at times overassertive companion that threatened to overpower the broth. The pickled vegetables rendered that broth both sweet and a bit salty. This novel if complicated arrangement would have worked beautifully with a better balance of seasonings.
My companion enjoyed the hearty roast chicken, crisp, caramelized skin and succulent flesh, perched upon nondescript mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus. More of the richly flavored reduced juices would have helped.
Our dinner began with an awkward, overfilled spoonful of blueberry ice cream - a delicious amuse bouche, but out of place with a glass of wine and off-putting prior to our savory first courses. It would have made an excellent dessert, which indeed it turned out to be, paired with lemon bread pudding on the prix fixe menu.
Warm slices of baguette from Deep River's Fabled Foods bakery were superb. The restaurant's wine list offers a good selection of native and imported wines; we began with two glasses of a well-chosen Chardonnay from Languedoc.
Choices expanded on the dessert menu, which included stick toffee pudding (wouldn't it be nice if this increasingly present treat unseated crème brulée, which was on the menu, as dessert #1?), homemade ice cream, cinnamon donuts and coffee, and a "chocolate cobbler."
From the chocolate department, we chose the Double Chocolate Cake with Bailey's chocolate chip ice cream. It wasn't nearly as rich as it sounds, which was a good thing; the "cake" had the moist consistency and spongy texture of a steamed pudding, and the ice cream and spoonful of chocolate sauce made a welcome, light conclusion to a rich dinner.
Service was brisk, attentive, and thoughtful. Our host promised to lower the music when I glared at the speaker above our table.
The dinner menu was preceded by a typically tart quote from author/chef/celebrity Anthony Bourdain: "I have long believed that good food, good eating is all about risk. Whether we're talking about unpasteurized Stilton, raw oysters or working for organized crime associates, food, for me, has always been an adventure."
A nice gesture, but not entirely logical, since the menu wasn't particularly adventuresome, and if there were any mobsters among the happy and mild-mannered suburbanites calmly enjoying their dinners, I didn't spot them.
It would be more fitting and fun to have a quote from chefs Jay Groten and John Crandall, bon mots amplifying why, with all the nearby competition, we should focus our attention Gabrielle's good and sometimes very good cuisine.