Many of the dishes on the menu at Carmel Cafe and Wine Bar follow the main principle of the Mediterranean diet — vegetable based with meat used sparingly and appropriately. The flavor comes from healthful and fresh herbs, field-ripened produce and expert preparation. You don’t need a lot of meat when dishes are so well constructed.
Located in a strip center on N. Dale Mabry Highway, this is a hip, trendy hideaway with a great California cool-vibe. The restaurant offers a combination of tabletops and booths, colorful murals, dim lighting, and a sexy, inviting bar. There’s even a sofa area where you can enjoy a glass of wine with a friend or two.
The traditional menu consists of a creative range of tapas (small plates) perfect for sharing and grazing with a group of friends, or a table just for two.
The small plates are just right size, not too little, not too much. If you prefer your own meal, you can order the large serving.
Since there were four of us and we like to share, we went for several smaller plates.
We all loved the Chickpea fries, crunchy on the outside and creamy and delicious on the inside, served with a tomato jam we couldn’t get enough off. Because they are made with chickpeas, you feel like you’re getting something healthy (even if the nutrition facts don’t bear that out).
The tomato jam is tangy, with a hint of sweetness, while the curry aioli is slightly spicy. Carmel should really bottle these two sauces and sell them commercially.
An order of roasted Brussel Sprouts with bacon (which weren’t on the menu, we just heard they were fabulous), weren’t mushy like we remember as kids, but firm and even a little crunchy and bursting with flavor.
We also enjoyed the Mezze Platter, an assortment of edamame hummus, goat cheese-stuffed peppers, crispy fried feta, marinated artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomato served with plenty of grilled pita so you can enjoy the array of dips to your heart’s content.
The standouts on this dish: the edamame hummus, which sounds (and is) healthy times two and the crispy fried feta oozed creamy goodness inside a light, crisp exterior.
When we ventured into the signature meat dishes, an order of Shrimp and Vegetable Cous Cous drew raves. It was light and full of flavor, not bland and salty like it can sometimes be.
Another favorite was the braised short ribs. They were fall-off-the-bone tender and bursting with the slow-cooked flavor of wine and herbs, without any additional fat or oils. It was served with a side of creamy polenta and olive tapenade, which made for a perfect accompaniment. The polenta was a great alternative to plain old mashed potatoes. Cooking polenta to the right consistency can be a challenge. Again, Carmel got it just right.
The chicken flatbread with candied lemon was another example of how the restaurant brings big flavor to a simple dish — that little crunch of candied lemon on top of savory chicken hit just the right note.
The kitchen also nailed the Moroccan Lemon Chicken, with a touch of saffron and pine nuts.
For dessert, the lava cake was heaven on Earth — one was plenty for four. It arrived perfect — hot and gooey on the inside, and with a side of ice cream. The pound cake with strawberries also was simple, but exceptional, served warm and smothered with strawberries and a side of whipped cream.
We also were impressed with the restaurant’s wine list, which features an international array of vintages, including those from Italy, France, Australia, sold by the bottle and pour. We visited on a weeknight when it was half-off every bottle we ordered, which put a huge dent in our final bill.
Carmel offers a very unique way of ordering — by an iPad. You also have the option of giving your order to a waiter. That was the only time we ran into problems. We strongly recommend using the iPad. As friendly as our server was, he had plenty of tables that night and couldn’t give us the attention he normally would. When we gave him our order, the food took forever to arrive, and on one occasion, one of the items didn’t even make it to the table and we had to order it again — by iPad — an hour into our meal.
When we used the iPad, the food and wine were delivered to our table quickly by a kitchen server, and we were able to stagger our selections and keep track of what we ordered.
Sure, the service isn’t as personal, but it’s efficient and timely. And there seemed to be only one iPad per table, which allows one person to be in control — sort of like the television remote at home.