First, let me say that Caseus is probably one of the best restaurants in New Haven, based both on the inventiveness of its culinary ambition as well as the sheer mastery of execution.
With that out of the way, I have to confess that, at times, it feels like the experience of eating at Caseus does not always match the quality of the food. The biggest problem is the physical layout of the restaurant, which is split into four distinct dining areas: the patio, the bar, the front of the house and the back. While the first three areas are rustic, charming and well-lit (if a bit cramped), the back of the house feels distinctly segregated from the charm in the front. In addition to being the only place in the entire restaurant that can comfortably seat more than three people at a time, this area is located uncomfortably close to both the bathroom and the kitchen, making for a frazzled ambiance. With wood paneling reminiscent of a ’70s hunting lodge and a singular steel table utterly at odds with the bistro style of the rest of the restaurant, it is noticeably worse to sit here.
It may be that others don’t have the same requirements for their dining experiences; that good food is enough. But my quarrel is less with the accommodations themselves than the gap between the best and worst tables. It seems unjust that two parties having the same meal will have such different experiences, based totally on location.
Perhaps, however, that’s part of the charm of Caseus. Caseus’ main appeal, as well as its major drawback, is the overwhelming atmosphere of hominess. While touting itself as a bistro, both the tenor of the food (heavy) and the manner of its presentation (beautifully cooked food in an unkempt pile) speak of the hands that went into them. The service is eminently friendly and useful — it’s one of a few restaurants I’ve ever been to where asking the server for a favorite dish consistently yields success, though this is perhaps because the menu is uniformly excellent. But on the night I visited, all of my food came at once, leading my party to voraciously devour the entire meal in about twenty minutes. Part of the reason to eat at a restaurant is the pacing of the meal — the measured, deliberate, even ceremonial procession of each dish.
Yet all of this is completely and totally forgivable because of the excellence of the food. With a commendable focus on the seasonality of produce and on sourcing superior meat, it’s hard to go wrong. But Caseus is only getting started there — what follows is an impeccable notion of flavor combination and beautiful technique with a rustic sensibility. The braised butt (Berkshire pork, of course), with collard greens and a jalapeno cheddar corn muffin, was gorgeously tender and flavorful. The bright bitterness of the greens and the crumbly starchy muffin were ideal counterparts. Perhaps even more impressive was the roast chicken. Far from perfunctory, the bird boasted crisp brown skin, supple juicy flesh on top of a salty, crunchy, sweet and surprising apple, cabbage, potato and bacon slaw. The appetizers were just as good, made with the same loving preparation. The butternut gnocci was especially good, appearing in a silky, rich sauce redolent of sage and flecked with cheese.
And of course, the cheese dishes did not disappoint. The cheese plate is never a bad choice, appearing on the requisite slab of wood, with dabs and jots of almonds and local jams and little toasts and crackers to mop up. The grilled cheese makes A1’s pasty selection cry. Caseus’ sandwich is hearty, gooey and complex: the definitive comfort food. Another wonderful feature of the menu is its mutability — specials are almost always spectacular, with different themes for each night (foie gras Wednesdays, duck and apple Thursdays, pacific halibut Fridays and heritage pork Saturdays).
More than anything else, it’s clear Caseus cares for its customers. They believe firmly that a good meal can ease ills, deflate weariness and foster cheer. Since its 2008 opening, this hasn’t changed. Unfortunately, at least in terms of service and decor, rough edges are still evident. But regardless, it seems that Caseus will continue to play around, all in the name of good times and good food.