The Review / Carte Blanche
Photos by kc kratt
61 Buffalo St., Hamburg
The concept of this restaurant mirrors its name: give the chef license to do as he pleases. Chef Andrew Murtha does just that at Hamburg’s Carte Blanche. The entrée menu favors (mostly) Italian classics, but the appetizers and specials make maximum use of seasonally available produce and proteins.
Carte Blanche’s main bar and dining room on the first floor are smartly dressed in warm wood and natural elements, including suspended branches and a burbling fountain. For both of my visits, I was seated in the second floor dining room, which feels very much like the upstairs of a house retrofitted into dining spaces. Décor highlights include some mysterious elements, like framed skeleton key wall hangings and an empty birdcage. Think of requesting a downstairs dining room in the warmer months; streams of cold air from the AC system tend to target certain diners upstairs. Al fresco dining is also available in a quaint alleyway, set up like a lounge with couches and tables.
An amuse bouche seems standard with every meal. We enjoyed a crisp crackling of chicken skin topped with creme fraiche on one visit, and a small square of toast with a smoky chicken salad on another. A complimentary bread course of popovers arrives still warm from the oven; the rolls greedily liquefy the cold butter offered in a crock along with them. These gratis extra bites pleasantly extend the evening and make for a leisurely paced meal.
The starter star is—without question—the mushroom toast. Locally grown Flat 12 oyster mushrooms are minced and perfectly browned in minimalist fashion to elicit maximum flavor. They are comfortably matched with goat cheese, which is layered between the mushrooms and a slab of hearty sourdough bread. An artful stroke of tempered egg yolk finishes the dish. One toast is big enough to share, but you’ll likely want it all to yourself. Other appetizers include a daily selection of impeccably shucked oysters served on a bed of ice with mignonette and cocktail sauce, bolstered with a heap of freshly grated horseradish. Another choice, tempura batter-fried vegetables, turn the seasonal harvest into decadent state fair treat.
Caesar salad; cacio e pepe
Salads feature a Caesar that is one of the better versions I’ve found locally. The garlic is bracing and the remaining flavors of lemon, vinegar, anchovy, and olive oil are nicely balanced. Along with Parmesan cheese, a showering of grated cured egg yolk adds a welcome extra note of savory richness.
Caprese salad is a rather simple preparation that doesn’t demand much in the way of cooking technique, but does require great ingredients and restraint. I was particularly impressed with the housemade fresh mozzarella. It tastes of fresh milk and possesses a positive brininess that makes sure it doesn’t get lost on the plate. The cheese is slightly warm, indicating it’s recently made and never chilled, something I’ve only experienced in Manhattan. It’s a revelation of sorts, because refrigeration irreparably changes the texture and structure of the new cheese. As we were just shy of local tomato season, I was pleased to see kitchen chose to pair the cheese with meaty heirloom and grape tomatoes, which help tomato aficionados survive until August. The finished plate is lightly dressed with a few drops of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, a sprinkle of fresh basil, and pyramids of crunchy salt.
Freshly made pasta occupies much of the menu. Cacio e pepe, by nature, is a simple dish of black pepper and cheese, so it’s best not to overthink it. While we encountered a decent rendition, I found it to be a little overseasoned, as if the sauce built from the cooking water was too aggressively salted or overly reduced. The potato gnocchi, which isn’t quite as light as we’re used to, is submerged in garnet sauce packed with jammy tomato flavor, sharing the bowl with near equal amounts of fresh mozzarella curds.
Entrees are nicely portioned and well composed. The veal marsala is smothered under a luxuriously glossy brown sauce that’s studded with Flat 12 mushrooms and set atop a pile of decadent mashed potatoes. Halibut is browned well, forming a pleasing crust, and paired with a toothsome risotto, studded with barely cooked, summer sweet corn for a nice textural feature. Duck L’orange features more of the kitchen’s mastery of the Maillard reaction, without overshooting my requested medium rare. Raw fennel and supremed oranges keep things light and fresh, while a base of polenta provides a sturdy foundation.
The bar follows suit with a solid collection of offerings. House cocktails showcase the classics. The Vieux Carre is silky smooth, offset by a jet black cherry and a touch of bitters pooled in the belly of the martini glass. Taps feature mostly craft beer, heavy on local favorites from Hamburg, Community Beer Works, and Big Ditch. The wine list is fairly compact with most bottles under $30, and $15 for select bottles on Wednesdays. We selected a French rosé that was light, refreshing, and a perfect complement for most of the menu.
Chocolate ganache; Viex Carre
As the concept of chef-driven cuisine continues to evolve, Chef Murtha’s Carte Blanche stands as strong evidence to support it.
Jeff Biesinger is Spree's fine dining reviewer.