Carmel Café & Wine Bar
372 West Lancaster Avenue
RESTAURANT CLOSED OCTOBER 2014
Domiciled in a building that has been home to numerous (failed) culinary endeavors – most recently the Hogfish Bar & Grill and Flavor – the Carmel Café & Wine Bar is part of a mini chain operation boasting five outposts in Florida. The Wayne restaurant is the company’s first venture outside the warm confines of the Sunshine State.
The interior, completely renovated after the previous tenants vacated the premises, is now dark, sleek and sexy, with modern art providing sophisticated splashes of color. There’s a cozy diminutive bar, three adjacent high-top communal tables, and a semiprivate wine room for small parties. A labyrinth of booths comprises the remainder of the seating arrangements. The room has obviously been dressed to impress … unfortunately, it just can’t quite pull it off. No matter how many decorative embellishments are applied, the restaurant’s chain roots are still very much in evidence. With all due respect, Carmel strikes me as a Seasons 52 wannabe, but it simply isn’t in the same league.
The cuisine is Mediterranean-inspired – which has been dubbed “Mod Med” by management – and tariffs are refreshingly reasonable. Many of the evening entrées come in both small and large portions; and wines are available in three-, six-, or nine-ounce pours and also by the bottle, so it is possible to dine here without causing your pocketbook any undue distress. But the kitchen, in my opinion, still has a long way to go to get its act together.
Flatbreads have become all the restaurant rage of late; and Carmel’s versions are certainly worthy of consideration. The margherita (pictured) – sporting slices of ripe plum tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, Parmesan, and fresh basil – is a particular favorite, as is the grilled lemon chicken & artichoke with Parm & arugula. But you may also team your flatbread or ½ flatbread choices with the house salad, black olive Caesar, cup of soup or your choice of side.
Sandwiches are also pretty good bets. The roasted turkey, for example, comes replete with roasted red pepper and an excellent basil pesto. The chicken pita may be ordered with either fried or seasoned & grilled (go for the latter) and comes festooned with feta cheese, red onions, tomato, and assorted spring greenery. My nod, however, goes to the BLTA, a tasty combo of bacon, organic mixed greens, tomato, avocado, fresh mozzarella, and basil aioli all tucked into crusty whole-grain bread.
All sandwiches come with your choice of one side dish or, for a mere $.99, you may substitute a cup of soup or a house or Caesar salad. In my opinion, though, the sandwiches here are best companioned by fries, and Carmel’s seasoned spuds have just enough spice to keep your taste buds standing at attention.
Among the small plates, the mac ‘n four cheese is something of a must. And these aren’t your usual run-of-the-mill bland-leading-the-bland cheeses – and there’s not a cheddar among them. First you have Parmesan and then Asiago, an Italian cow’s milk cheese with a flavor, when aged, that is similar to Parmesan. There is also an Italian Fontina that is quite pungent and flavor intensive. Finally, Manchego, a cheese made in the La Mancha region of Spain. Its distinctive flavor is well developed but not too strong, creamy with a slight piquancy, and an aftertaste that is characteristic of sheep’s milk. Put these four stalwarts together and you have a tasty combo that totally tantalizes the palate without overwhelming it. Definitely worth a try.
Lunches at Carmel have been thoroughly enjoyable… Dinners, on the other hand, may only be described as a kind of gastronomic Russian roulette. Within a certain focused framework, the kitchen acquits itself reasonably well. Once it ventures outside those narrow parameters, however, the results are variable at best. Entrées, for example, do not appear to be this kitchen’s strong suit.
At the top of the main course heap is the presentation of braised short ribs. Tasty, indeed, topped with a first-rate olive tapenade and accompanied by a flavorful creamy polenta. Kudos also to a starter of shrimp ceviche served up with vegetable crisps. After those two bright spots, however, things go downhill fast.
The basil grilled salmon, for example, sounded wonderful and, set on a bed of Israeli couscous crowned with a Kalamata olive tapenade, it surely looked the part. However, as the old proverb reminds us: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” And taste-wise it fell short. Not that the dish was bad; but it was ho-hum at best and lacked those sharply focused Mediterranean flavors that excite the palate.
But the salmon was a work of culinary art compared to the nightmare of the spinach gnocchi. Gnocchi is Italian for “dumplings”; and they can be made from potatoes, flour, or farina. Eggs or cheese may be added to the dough, and finely chopped spinach is also a popular addition. Gnocchi are generally shaped into little balls, cooked in boiling water and served with butter and Parmesan or a sauce.
Texturally, you expect gnocchi to be soft to the bite… but those served up here were complete mush. And rather than being formed into riddle-edged shells as is generally the case, they were sent forth resembling – to put the matter as euphemistically as possible – large green turds. The beurre blanc sauce was badly congealed and both sauce and gnocchi exhibited the unmistakable deleterious effects of heat lamp overexposure (see photo). Bottom line: The dish was an unmitigated disaster that should never have been allowed to escape the confines of the kitchen.
Coming in a close second in the Little Shop of Horrors department was the chicken Madeira. The chicken breasts were dry, overcooked, and not particularly well trimmed. And the sauce… the strangest Madeira sauce I’ve ever had the displeasure to ingest. I can’t say with certainty, but the taste & consistency appeared to owe their dubious origins to Gravy Master.
The sides sampled constituted yet another of those “mostly bad news” scenarios. My prize for the worst side dish ever offered up within restaurant precincts goes to the utterly disgusting vegetable couscous. This dish looked – and tasted – like the regurgitation of an endangered species. The Brussels sprouts with bacon were horrendously overcooked and mushy… So much so, in fact, that they struck me as frozen rather than fresh. On the other hand, on the first go round the perfectly seasoned cauliflower mash was outrageously delicious and totally addictive. On the second try, in the company of the aforementioned chicken Madeira, it was a mere shadow of its former self.
Desserts here, like almost everything else, are hit or miss. The chocolate lava cake, for example, is strictly generic… Conversely, the warm poached pear with ribbons of salted caramel and vanilla ice cream is very, very good. Go figure.
The entire restaurant is run via iPads, which can either be a blessing or a curse to patrons. The iPad is presented to diners when they are seated, along with a regular printed menu. This provides pictures of possible choices and allows individuals to order independently of the server and control the pace of the meal – which is very important, as items come flying out of the kitchen at the speed of light (if dishes are ordered simultaneously, it is quite possible that you could be enjoying your second bite of appetizer when entrées put in an unwelcome appearance).
The iPad enterprise sounds good in theory… but it also smites of “gimmicksville” and serves as yet another reminder that the restaurant is still, beneath all the glitz and glitter, a chain operation. Many people are unfamiliar with the iPad, and others, who perhaps labor in front a computer screen all day, simply don’t want to be bothered. Then, of course, there is another issue: Since special “runners” from the kitchen (usually not the waiter/waitress) deliver the food, and diners order everything from the iPad without benefit of server, may they not balk at tipping 18 to 20 percent to someone for simply asking “Is everything OK?” four times and dropping off the check?
One of two final thoughts… Carmel faces some mighty stiff competition – both for food and bar trade – from a plethora of top-notch restaurants, all within shouting distance. And during various visits, both at lunch and dinner, neither the bar area nor the dining room proper has exactly been jumping. Right now, as I see it, this restaurant has one thing going for it – reasonable prices. But reasonable or not, people aren’t likely to continue to throw good money after bad food. One thing appears certain, however… if the Carmel Café & Wine Bar is to survive and prosper – and survival appears problematic at this juncture – there must be MAJOR changes in the kitchen.
The Artful Diner
Diner is an independent, freelance food writer. His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.
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