I would have never given this restaurant a chance. Modern Mediterranean fare…right up my alley. A Mediterranean eatery nestled in an unsightly shopping center next to a Chuck E. Cheese of all places…definitely not my scene. Wait a second. Don’t let me lose you yet. Thank goodness I accepted the very generous invitation to Carmel Café! This is a restaurant that deserves serious acclaim for its culinary efforts, spectacular service and esthetically appealing atmosphere. I had the absolute pleasure to wine and dine at the Carrollwood location but this one of a kind dining experience also has locations in Sarasota and Countryside. Oh and they are currently building a flagship location in: drum roll please…South Tampa.
Once I dealt with the chaotic Friday night parking thanks to the one and only Chuck E. Cheese, I walked into a dark, sultry and ever so swanky room filled with romance, friendship and everything between. Stone and crimson walls brightened with a colorful bar, abstract paintings placed perfectly throughout, and posh lighting beautifying every guest, this restaurant invites all to calm every nerve, to sit back and relax in the lush booths and to have one memorable night of delicious food and fun.
Carmel Café is not only sexy; they are quite “techy” too. With iPads at every table, guests have fun scrolling through a menu in a very nontraditional manner. These iPads also allow guests to have complete control with the timing of their drinks and dishes. Servers are still present, bringing the dishes to the table, ensuring everything is up to par and making sincere suggestions along the way. What strikes my fancy the most is that I did not once have to wait on the server to ask for another glass of wine. I simply ordered it through the iPad and in no time, she brought it to me. Not relying solely on technology, it was very evident that Carmel Café staffs their restaurant with knowledgeable, skilled, and friendly servers. Our server was not only on top of every iPad order, she was exceptionally polite and attentive, making my first Carmel Cafe experience that much more enjoyable.
We began our night with their seared Atlantic scallops. I was hesitant to order scallops because I am quite particular with their preparation. No need to be nervous…these scallops were enormous and seared to perfection! They cut like butter and were in a heavenly saffron vanilla sauce topped with peppadew peppers. The sweetness of the vanilla and the warmth of the saffron created a winning dish that I will definitely order again.
Having heard that their flatbreads are divine, we ordered their Portabella and braised short rib concoction. I was most amped about the short rib but was displeased when I realized they weren’t too generous with the succulent meat. With that said, the portabellas and the fig marmalade made the flatbread a memorable starter.
Next, we were served their gyros stuffed with lamb, peppers, onions and a delightful tzatziki in mini whole wheat pitas. Tasty enough but certainly nothing to write home about, these gyros were refreshing with the cool tzatziki and crisp veggies.
This night was certainly a never-ending culinary experience as there were many more sharing plates to come. With a couple of glasses of white wine ingested, I decided ordering Mac n cheese from a Mediterranean restaurant was a smart move. Indeed it was. This Mac n Cheese was decadent with four different cheeses including a fiery pepper jack. With a crisp crumb topping and devilishly silky tangy and smooth cheeses covering every noodle, I was in Mac n Cheese bliss. Ranks up there with some of the best Mac n cheese in Tampa-from a Mediterranean restaurant…weird.
To please our lovely server’s request, we ordered an interesting creation of calamari, olives and herbs, served cold in a zesty marinade. The presentation was attractive, the flavors fun, but somehow I just couldn’t get down with this dish. Perhaps it was the chewiness of the calamari, a feature I don’t mind so much when it’s fried. It was executed phenomenally, just not my favorite plate of the night.
My beau demanded we order the lamb and veal sliders. Having stated at the Pelagia that would be my one-time veal consumption, I resisted these marvelous little wonders. The sliders were brought to the table and after I had a few sips of my wine and looked over, they were demolished. He said that the meat was juicy and packed with great flavor. The mint cucumber sauce was the “icing on the sliders” with its bright and creamy zing.
Up next was a spinach Gnocchi seafood plate, looking so lovely with its vibrant colors from the shellfish and sauce. Gnocchi is a dear friend of mine as is seafood so I was especially attracted to this dish. Beautiful jumbo shrimp and flawlessly cooked mussels lay soaked in a bouillabaisse broth along with roasted reds and various fresh herbs. I prayed the fennel (written in the dish's description) would not overpower the glorious goods. My prayers were not answered. This combination of righteous shellfish, gnocchi and bouillabaisse had potential to be amazing if only the chef held back a bit with the fennel. Although not listed in the menu, I know I tasted some tarragon as well, an herb I most definitely despise.
As if we were not about to keel over and die from the abundance of food, I felt forced to order the lamb. After all, it is one of my top three favorite meats. I refuse to call these luscious pieces of meat a name that should only refer to a child’s candy because it makes my stomach turn. The lamb was decadent in every way. Impeccably marinated and grilled to absolute tenderness, I was so happy I had resisted devouring too much with the prior dishes. We had certainly saved the best for last. Served with tzatziki, this lamb needed no complement, for its lusciousness was spectacular on its own.
To wrap up this splendid night of intense indulging, we ordered a few desserts. Cannoli, Strawberry pound cake and Chocolate lava cake made the cut for my sweet tooth. The cannoli was awe worthy the second it hit the table. The moment it hit our palates-that was another story. So bland, so uninspired.
The chocolate lava cake, adorned with vanilla bean ice cream, spewed its warm gooey filling and was absolutely delectable to every last bite. A chocolate lover’s dream right there.
Finally, the strawberry pound cake, a dessert that may seem so unoriginal was absolutely, positively, breath-taking. The top of the cake had a sugary sweet and crispy glaze and the cake itself was beyond moist. The strawberries and mint, fresh and fragrant just took this dessert to another realm of deliciousness. I was in love.
Carmel Café is something different. With very few memorable Mediterranean restaurants in Tampa, I am not surprised that this establishment has been getting some serious hype. They deserve it. They took risks with an iPad ordering system. They didn’t stop at kebobs, orzo and gyros. They created an ambiance comparable to 5-star restaurants. They have done what it takes to excel in today’s demanding culinary world. With only a few minor complaints in one huge array of dishes, I was thoroughly impressed and cannot wait for the South Tampa location to open.