Carmel Cafe and Wine Bar, Tampa, Fla.
Yes, this seems like a great idea: have the non-alcoholic write about a wine bar. Actually, if you’ll bear with me, it really is. On the surface, this would seem to be like having Amy do a review of a steakhouse, but Carmel is far from just a wine bar. Sure, the Tampa Bay chain’s focus is mainly on wine, and for good reason, because it has quite the collection of wines going for it. But there’s also the cafe portion of Carmel’s name to focus on, and it’s really an underappreciated gem, mainly because of how different the upscale atmosphere is.
Right from the beginning, it’s clear that things are different here, because Carmel doesn’t stick to the traditional system of telling a waiter or waitress what you want to order. You will have a waiter or waitress to assist you, but when you sit down, you’ll be handed an iPad along with the normal paper menu. The reason is simple: Carmel is all about giving the customer the freedom to choose the experience that they want. If you’re not really interested in waiter interaction, it’s totally optional. In fact, you actually don’t have to speak to the waiter at all if you don’t want to.
The reason is because the iPad serves as both a menu and your own server. If you want to place an order for a certain food item or a wine, all you have to do is find it on your iPad and send it to the kitchen. The second you do, your order is sent back and will come out as soon as it’s finished. If you’ve ever gotten annoyed about a waiter rushing you, that’s not a problem at Carmel, because you’re in control. The iPad will even suggest drinks to pair with the food you’ve ordered, which is a very nice touch. Clearly, this is an idea for the future, and it’s probably going to expand as time goes on. It’s just a great way to put yourself in control.
However, if you’re the kind of person who just can’t get used to ordering from an iPad, or if you just want some human interaction, not to worry. Carmel’s wait staff, possibly because they don’t have to pressure the customer to order at certain times, are some of the best in the business. Our server that night was a friendly guy named Chris, and quite honestly, Chris proved himself worthy of enshrinement in the Jimmy Lopez Hall of Fame because of how professional he was from beginning to end. Repeatedly, he stopped by to check in, without ever once interrupting the atmosphere or flow of our meal. That’s a rare skill for a server to have, and when you get a server like that, consider yourself fortunate. If you’re lucky enough to get Chris as your server, you’re in for a first-class experience.
Now, on to what else makes Carmel a first-class experience, which would be the food. Truthfully, Amy had been waiting to take me here for a long time ever since she had been for appetizers and drinks with her friends when she lived in Tampa, and with us in the Sunshine State for Thanksgiving, this was the perfect time for us to experience it together. Without question, after receiving some breadsticks and sauce to snack on, our first plate that we tried was going to be Nan’s Goat Cheese, which Amy had tried on her first visit here.
As soon as Amy tasted it, she knew that we had to come here, mainly because I love high-quality goat cheese. I don’t know what it is that makes it so creamy, but when goat cheese is good, it is really good, and it’s simply one of my favorite tastes of any food. So when Amy told me she had a goat cheese appetizer that I had to try, well, this was something that I had to experience.
Holy cow, was this amazing. First, Carmel serves what they call a drunken goat cheese, which means that the goat cheese is soaked in white wine to give it another layer of flavor. Even as a non-alcoholic, I can certainly appreciate the flavors that come with alcohol, and the wine that the cheese is soaked in is a perfect complement. Second, the goat cheese comes with olives, crackers, sun-dried tomatoes and cloves of garlic, all of which are available for dunking in the cheese. The garlic is mild and buttery, a really nice treat. For a real culinary experience, try all three with goat cheese on a cracker. I did multiple times and loved the multitude of flavors going on at one time.
Third, as I mentioned before, when goat cheese is good, it’s really good, and this one was really good. The cheese is mild and creamy, creating an incredible taste that melds well with all of the flavors on the plate. Goat cheese is at its best when its texture is allowed to shine, and this was about as good as it gets. As far as appetizers go, this one is very tough to top.
Didn’t mean we weren’t going to try. While looking over our menus, Chris pointed out a special of a three-course meal that included an appetizer, soup and an entree, all for a price that was roughly about the cost of one entree. Needless to say, given how Amy and I like to experience as much of a menu as possible, we decided this was the way for us to go, and started off with a combination of edamame hummus and chickpea fries to split between us.
Both of these were fantastic. Usually, chickpeas and hummus are synonymous with each other, but this time, the chickpeas are formed into the traditional fry shape and come out looking more like Belgian frites. Whichever one of those two they are, the fries/frites are simply fantastic. They’re served with tomato jam and curry aioli, which basically serve as a much, much higher brow version of ketchup and mustard. I’m not the biggest fan of curry myself, but I absolutely loved this. The tomato jam is a little on the sweet side, which is a nice change of pace from the curry and works great with the chickpeas. It’s pretty dang awesome. The edamame hummus is also excellent. Dipping crackers into pureed edamame is a little bit different, but when the soybeans are of this quality, it’s totally worth the change.
The second course was the soup, and this time, there was going to be no sharing. Let’s be honest, it’s really darn hard to share soup, and truthfully, we didn’t want to do it anyway, because the soup in question was Carmel’s lobster bisque. Both of us love the taste of pretty much anything that comes out of the ocean, and with this being topped with truffle oil, I had a feeling that this soup was going to rank right up there with the best.
Sometimes, I know exactly what I’m talking about. This soup was simply perfect. We both love creamy soups, and this bisque had the perfect amount of cream to create a fantastic texture. At the same time, the flavor was unmatched. A proper lobster bisque is darn hard and time consuming to make because so much flavor comes from boiling the lobsters and getting the taste out of the shells, but Carmel’s version does the trick. Even better, this thing is loaded with chunks of lobster meat. Every spoonful of soup had a nice amount of lobster on it, and the lobster was succulent. I honestly can’t think of a single way that this could have been better. Seriously, I could have just eaten the lobster bisque, and not only would I have been satisfied, but Carmel’s spot would be earned on that alone.
But the story doesn’t end there. No, we still had our entrees to come, and for me, that meant pumpkin ravioli. I love pretty much all pastas, especially filled ones, and the idea of pumpkin ravioli was intriguing to me. Throw in a sage cream sauce, and you’ve got a pretty good combination there.
With pecans added to top it off, this dish is basically autumn on a hot plate, and I was very pleased with it. This being the Thanksgiving season when we visited, this was a perfect combination for the season.
As she usually does, Amy opted to go a little bit hotter than I did, choosing a Moroccan lemon chicken with pine nuts, olives and lemon, along with a vegetable couscous. This was an excellent blend, as the lemon really stands out along with the vegetables, creating a really unique flavor that she genuinely enjoyed. Personally, I preferred my meal, but that’s not to say hers wasn’t very good. It really was, it’s just a little spicier than my tastes run. As someone who enjoys the heat, Amy found it to be the perfect spice level.
That doesn’t even mention the small side dishes we chose to sample, as Amy opted for seasoned fries while I added mashed cauliflower. If you’ve never had mashed cauliflower before, it’s a really interesting texture. It’s a little liked mashed potatoes, but more lumpy and with an obviously different taste. It’s pretty healthy and it tastes pretty great, which is definitely a winning combination.
For something a bit more mainstream, Amy went with the fries, which were also pretty dang good themselves.
Even after all of that, we still weren’t done. After all, this is a wine bar, which means two things: One, the alcohol is probably very good (and Amy tells me that it is, after she sampled a couple glasses). Two, if the alcohol is good, that means any dessert that has the alcohol involved is also going to be good. With that in mind, and given my love of pears, the poached pear was an obvious choice.
I love poached pear, so much so that I’ve made it a couple times in cheesecake. Truthfully, one of the best things about it is how good it makes my apartment smell, because the wine that the pears soak in is mixed with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, which makes any kitchen it’s in smell wonderful. I don’t know what the kitchen smelled like at Carmel after poaching this pear, but with vanilla ice cream and caramel on our pear, I do know that this thing had every flavor working beautifully for it. The alcohol was a wonderful complement to the other sweet flavors, and I was absolutely thrilled with this dessert’s quality. There wasn’t a thing wrong with it, and it served as the perfect finish to a surprisingly amazing meal.
It’s almost inconceivable that a meal of several small plates at a wine bar can be this fantastic, but that’s the culture that Carmel has created here. It’s not your typical restaurant experience, and that’s the way that Carmel likes it. If you’re willing to embrace something different and give your tastes a new experience, you’re going to find something that’s pretty darn incredible in one of the most welcoming and laid-back atmospheres you could expect to find. It’s certainly an experience worth seeking out in south Tampa.
Time to go: Lunch if you have a tight budget, dinner if you can afford to spend a little more. The prices are a little bit lower at lunch, so if you’re trying to save, go early.
Wait during my visit: None. This place should get more traffic, but does not.
Location: Carmel Cafe is in south Tampa, located at 3601 W. Swann Avenue, on the corner of Swann, Henderson and Himes. For some reason, the city planner of Tampa came up with the idea of a diagonal street cutting through the city and decided that couldn’t possibly go wrong, so three roads meet here.
Cost: It isn’t cheap, but it isn’t bad. Appetizers can cost about $5 to $7, while soup is $3 to $4 and entrees range from $8 to $16. A word of warning here: if you’re going to be ordering appetizers or sides, you really don’t need the large entrees. The small will work just fine.
Parking: No challenge. Parking is abundant.
Seating arrangement: This can be in booths, tables and chairs, couches or stools. Take what makes you comfortable and adds to the atmosphere.
Specialty items: Poached pear, lobster bisque