There's something to be said for understated elegance: the kind of classic, simple sophistication that translates effortlessly regardless of the times. As alluring as that sounds, in recent years many new restaurants have aimed for a rustic, homey feel (communal tables and shared plates, anyone?) which can result in inadvertently sharing your dinner with chatty strangers.
Carrollton Market is a breath of fresh air in a small package, harking back to the kind of refined, attentive restaurants that not only deliver phenomenal meals but make dining out feel like a luxury.
Located in the former home of One Restaurant and Lounge in the Riverbend, the space has been converted from a dark, deafeningly loud lounge to a breezy, light bistro-style environment that uses clever design tricks to punch above the weight of the space. Shades of eggshell and cream give the restaurant a clean, ethereal vibe, while marble tabletops — including an almost-in-the-kitchen chef's bar and cocktail spot — are both dignified and anchoring. The sound problem has been solved by cleverly disguised panels that are camouflaged with the walls and create a sense of depth.
The cocktail menu is solid across the board, featuring drinks that are complex without being gimmicky and crafted to pair well with entrees. Many drinks do an unusually fine job of blending spirits that at first glance seem like strange bedfellows, including the Eau Rouge, which weds cognac and mezcal with the fruity notes of grenadine and orange bitters. The Flight of the Bumblebee, a tequila-based drink with an undercurrent of honey and lemon, is a punchy play on a toddy and smooth enough to become the perfect sipper for the duration of a meal.
There's nothing lightweight about the dishes at Carrollton Market. From starters to main courses, the offerings are comforting and rich. (If you're in the mood for a few light tapas and a salad, head elsewhere.) Two outstanding dishes — oxtail terrine and lamb pappardelle — could easily become overindulgent, nap-inducing messes in the hands of a chef less skilled than Jason Goodenough, who renders both with a refreshing degree of delicacy. The potato-wrapped terrine is buttery and earthy, with a biting, fresh shallot compote that makes salt-of-the-earth dining feel glamorous. The pappardelle's buoyant noodles are hearty enough to support the thick Two Run Farm lamb ragout, while flash-roasted cherry tomatoes bring pops of sunny flavor and welcome bursts of color to the dish.
The restaurant's take on chicken and dumplings elevates farmhouse fare from lackluster dough balls and stewed poultry to a downright sinful combination of salty speck, potato gnocchi and tenderly shredded chicken offset perfectly by ample amounts of tarragon, which might just be the comeback herb of 2014. The menu's second chicken option — a stuffed chicken breast galantine with tasso and andouille — is passable but struggles to find its footing as a middle-of-the-road dish on a menu full of standouts.
If you're not looking for a hot, heavy butter and cream affair, the garden-oriented menu items also deliver. The roasted baby carrot and red beet salad is a visual delight, featuring meaty chunks of juicy beet on a bed of peppery arugula and honey-herb ricotta that enhances the natural sweetness of the vegetables. The Gulf yellowfin tuna "hot oil" also is worth exploring, with citrus and sesame and soy mixing on the plate, allowing an already highbrow piece of fish to be experienced in a new fashion.
Even those who typically skip dessert should consider rounding out a meal with the black and white bread pudding. While bad bread pudding often combines the worst of all flavor and texture combinations — stale, sticky, cloying — this variation will erase all previous sorrows with its tender, sweet bread and chunks of dense dark chocolate. It's a rich conclusion to a meal at a very welcome new dining spot.