The Cultivation of Confusion

Coltivare, in Ithaca, is resolutely one of the most gorgeous dining rooms in Upstate New York, and I say that with a fair amount of confidence. The concept of this subway-tiled, exposed brick walled, scraped wood tabled restaurant is a learning environment for the culinary students of Tompkins Cortland Community College, and last summer when I brunched there, though the food was good not great, I very much looked forward to the evolution of the menu and the kitchen as the students came up to speed.

We returned a couple weeks ago, again for brunch, and I'm still a little perplexed. The marketing is using all the right buzzwords to hook me, like "farm to bistro," and seasonal; the guys lined up behind the bar are young and mustachioed; the service is refined and cheerful. Here's the hitch: there's not a thing on the menu I really, really want to order. I love food more than almost anyone I know, and I can usually hone in on the dish I want in approximately 30 seconds - otherwise I'm agonizing between the two most interesting things and hoping my fellow diner will order the one I don't end up with so we can both taste it. At Coltivare, I couldn't decide, but it was because nothing was really all that enticing.

For the gorgeous interior, locavore sourcing, great cocktails, and ambitious concept, the food should be cravable, but for me, it's just ok.

We loved the tiny, two bite scones and moist, sweet carrot bread squares in our basket, but the banana bread was very dry and scant on flavor. The orange butter was tasty, though.

The big stuffed French toast was big and stuffed with ricotta and allegedly fruit, though I only got fruit flavor from the sauce on top. The waiter forgot to bring maple syrup when he first brought the dish, so our first few bites were dry. Once the syrup arrived, things perked up into more appropriate sweetness and texture, but this dish didn't blow either of us away. It was good. Not particularly inventive or demonstrative of culinary school technique.

I had been hoping for a hash made with brisket or short rib or pork shoulder, and that wasn't to be found on the menu, so I went for the croque Madame. For $12, it was good, thin, crusty bread, average ham and very little of it, mild Gruyere cheese that added almost no flavor to dish, and two eggs. The menu boasted bechamel sauce, which would at least speak to the students learning a French master sauce, but honestly, if it was on there, I couldn't even tell. Bechamel is a cream sauce, which may not always have assertive flavors, but if you're using it to teach, why not use it as the vehicle to jazz up the dish? Infuse it with herbs or citrus; make it a mornay and add cheese to bolster that snoozey Gruyere! Something! There was zero artistry or skill put into this dish, save possibly the pickled onions on the side, and since I wanted something to go along with it, I had to pay for a side of fries. How is a ham sandwich teaching anything to culinary students? I could make this dish with jet lag and no recipe.

The fries are good: hand cut and seasoned with coarse salt. Peace.

This is the second time we've dined here on a weekend, and the second time only two other tables were occupied on a busy Saturday morning in Ithaca. Every other restaurant near The Commons is jammed on weekends, so the empty dining room informs me that I'm not the only one being left cold by this uninspired fare.

Coltivare holds a lot of promise. I would hate to see this beautiful facility go to waste. I'm hoping the leadership here loosens the reins a bit and lets the kids unleash new ideas and some modern dishes. This menu is crying out for an infusion of the kind of food this extraordinary, modern interior deserves - and frankly, that the wonderful local products of the Finger Lakes deserve! Some creativity is all that's needed to make Coltivare a success.

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