The renovated Carriage House at the Papermill Playhouse in Millburn, much like the venerable theater across the red stone patio, plays to different audiences at different times.
As a place to eat before a performance, it provides unambitious but satisfying food at a reasonable price, on-site (though not free) parking and efficient service that gets you into your theater seat without feeling rushed.
As a destination restaurant on its own merits, it falls a bit short.
But give Holly Guber credit. She took over as executive chef when Carriage House reopened in late 2012 after a major renovation. Until recently, she had to switch between a three-course, prix-fixe, pre-theater menu and an à la carte menu offered only when the theater was dark.
The back-and-forth called for “mental gymnastics,” she told me in a phone interview after my visits. “During shows, it’s more like a catering event. Diners arrive at basically the same time and leave 15 minutes before curtain.”
As for à la carte, “It has taken time to build a local following,” she acknowledged, “because we lose momentum with each new production.”
Perhaps the hill proved too steep to climb, because the à la carte experiment was abandoned as of January 1, shortly after I spoke with Guber. I had already completed my visits, so what follows simply reflects my experience of the food and service with her at the helm.
On a Saturday evening last fall when the theater was dark, the larger of two dining rooms that together seat 60 was about two-thirds full. The handsome interior sports pumpkin-colored grass cloth above white wainscoting. Its mate has deep blue walls, a large stone fireplace and a bar with a stunning stone back wall. Both rooms have large, many-paned windows in white frames and look like they leaped arm-in-arm out of a Ralph Lauren Home ad.
For 15 years prior to taking the Carriage House job, Guber, who grew up in Scotch Plains, had worked variously as a private chef, caterer and instructor at Kings Cooking Studio. Before that she owned and was the chef of Terra Cotta in Maplewood. She learned her craft at Westfield’s Chez Catherine. “I worked the front of the house when she first opened,” she told me, referring to legendary founder Catherine Alexandrou Bordeaux. “But I asked questions in the kitchen, and she gave me my palate.”
At Carriage House, I had an à la carte lunch and a prix-fixe dinner. Menus changed seasonally and with each new production. Several dishes appeared on more than one menu. Butternut squash soup, for example, winningly replaced the usual purée with chunks of squash and caramelized onions in a rich chicken stock. A salad of baby greens with tasty feta, roasted hazelnuts and medjool dates, however, was undermined by a dreary vinaigrette. Bruschetta was offered in a fun, do-it-yourself way: The crisp toasts came with excellent fresh ricotta and silky, sautéed wild mushrooms, their earthiness amplified with a few drops of truffle oil. Swab them on as you wish. Another success was tender, succulent mussels roasted in tomato-garlic broth pungent with Pernod.
An entrée of salmon cakes were crisp outside, creamy inside, but lacked flavor. On both visits I tried the one pasta, orecchiette with butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and tomatoes sautéed in herb oil. Both times, the dish was dry and bland, the squash mushy, the tasty sprouts the only component ably playing its role.
Butternut squash was again paired with Brussels sprouts (and chorizo) in a small plate and showed up on several dishes in a side of mixed vegetables.
Boneless short rib did double duty as well. In a panini starter, the meat was dry, despite its schmear of chèvre, while in a hearty entrée it was moist and flavorful. (Both had been braised in stout.) Perhaps the difference was that the entrée was served in the braising liquid, but I’m not sure that should have mattered.
Two entrées—sliced, roasted chicken breast and grilled swordfish steak—were properly cooked but needed salt. A vivid Romesco sauce rescued the swordfish; a spicy-sweet, house-made apple-and-black-pepper conserve enlivened the chicken and also (speaking of double duty) a Camembert small plate.
A BLT salad with sliced chicken breast seemed more luncheon than dinner fare, but its charms included a fried egg, avocado slices and a brisk tomato vinaigrette.
For dessert, a deep-dish maple-walnut tart gave a strong performance, as did warm apple crumb cake. But dense, overly sweet chocolate-almond bread pudding should have gotten the hook. Likewise the soggy crust on an otherwise lovely pear tart. Here’s hoping Guber, mental gymnastics behind her, will grow into the spotlight.