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Carmel Cafe...Warm Your Heart Fall Favorites Have Arrived

         Swanky seating and devilishly dim lighting welcomed me for a fun night of Fall feasting at the new South Tampa Carmel Café just a couple of nights ago.  Since my very first experience at the Carrollwood location this past summer, I have excitedly returned to both Tampa locations numerous times, each time, more impressed than the last. Carmel Café prides themselves in their wonderfully executed Mediterranean tapas as well as their fun and efficient iPad menu which gives customers a refreshing take on placing orders in a restaurant.  This handy device provides pictures of every menu item and complete control of the timing of menu selections.  Because they have so brilliantly set up this nifty ordering system, dishes come out fast, real fast.  Sounds pretty amazing…and it is.

        Carmel Café generously invited me to a seasonal menu tasting where I was so privileged to indulge in their newest spiced-up, warm-your-bones, Fall favorites.  With fantastic wine parings throughout, they deserve to toot their horns for this righteously delicious dinner event. First to the table were their Fall cocktails.  Normally not an avid lover of bourbon, I found myself giddy with each and every sip of the Italian Old Fashion.  Buffalo Trace Kentucky bourbon, lemon juice, simple syrup, peach jam and Amarena cherries joined in libation harmony with this winner.  

         I also had some sips of the delightful Watermelon Granita made from Rosangel hibiscus-infused tequila, house-made sour mash, agave nectar and garnished with a fresh hunk of watermelon, basil and a salted rim.  It was a unique and tasty medley of ingredients but next time I’d be sure to opt for sugar over the salted rim.  

      Just when I was getting a bit too comfortable downing my Old Fashioned, our first course was served.  Cream cheese and Serrano stuffed dates were plated adorably and tasted even better.  The contrast of sweet and savory in the little bundles of yum had my taste buds screaming for more.

      Next was the Danish Baked Brie.  Served atop a puff pastry with toasted walnuts and dried cranberries galore, it was truly a traditional Fall classic.  Unfortunately for me, my body detests nuts so I had to take my friend, Megan’s (I Run for Wine) word for it.  She simply couldn’t get enough of the warm and creamy goodness that played a fun game of texture with the crunchy walnuts and flaky pastry.  I was so jealous.  She highly recommended it to all the nut-eaters out there.  

        I need not be jealous for long.  At last, something I could eat-a seasonal flatbread topped with caramelized pear, bleu cheese and roasted red peppers.  Splendid combination of toppings right here.  Again, Carmel proved they are quite the sweet and savory enthusiasts.  

      Also sitting before us were roasted peppadew peppers stuffed with goat cheese.  These tiny little pops of food fun were packed with pepper heat but were nicely mellowed out with the delectable goat cheese filling.  Not a stand-alone plate, they are now a part of Carmel’s Mezze Platter- a starter containing a plethora of Mediterranean goodies like hummus, pita, marinated artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes.  

         With my keen sense of smell for delicious goods, I detected our next dish approaching the table immediately.  Spinach gnocchi drowning in a decadent cream sauce was just as aromatic as it was decadent.  These heavenly pillows of spinach and potato were complemented beautifully with the surprisingly light cream sauce kicked up with my favorite fall spice, nutmeg.  I almost lifted the bowl to my mouth to slurp the sauce.  Then I remembered I wasn’t at home.  

      Thank Goodness there wasn’t an overwhelming portion of gnocchi because next up was the Seafood medley- a bowl liberally filled with scallops, shrimp, calamari, mussels, chorizo, green olives, Israeli couscous and roasted red peppers all swimming in a fragrant Saffron broth. I was in culinary bliss.   As a Tampa native who loves all things Spanish, the abundance of the ever-so expensive (and usually scarce) saffron was a real treat.  Thank you Carmel for not skimping on that wonder of the world-most restaurants are not so generous.  

      As if we hadn’t been spoiled enough, a plate called “Chicken Madeira” had made its way out.  Reminiscent of Chicken Marsala, this dish contained moist and tender chicken cutlets covered in a rich Madeira wine sauce and topped with Portobello mushrooms.  Adorning the chicken was a mound of parsnip-mashed potatoes.  Smooth and sans the skins, this mash was also flavored with a variety of fall spices. Simple enough but prepared flawlessly, this was probably the runner-up to the gnocchi dish. 

     As an additional side to the Chicken Madeira, we were given every child's favorite- Brussels Sprouts.  If these scary green orbs had been cooked with this much crispy fried bacon when I was a kid, I would have been begging for seconds.  Bravo, Carmel.  Turning a kid's worst nightmare into a veggie dream was accomplished.  

     Last but not least, our final savory plate had arrived. Four-cheese Stuffed Cannelloni dressed in a house-made Bolognese sauce was plated with perfection with the rolled cannelloni pasta sitting so elegantly in a row and the red sauce so attractively poured on top.  The meaty sauce was both tangy and spicy, pairing well with the al-dente noodles and loads of ricotta, Parmesan, Fontina and provolone cheeses.  Just splendid.  

        Barely making room for dessert, this was not a sweet plate to resist.  A poached pear came aside a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and drizzled in a salted caramel sauce.  Again, sweet and savory merging so agreeably.  From start to finish, Carmel Café proved they have not only achieved representing the flavors of Fall but also know how to balance sweet and savory and provide a taste "theme" throughout a multi-course meal.  I noticed varying levels of Fall spices and heat in every dish- a feature I found to be particularly admirable.  This was a night of feasting not to be forgotten.  

      With locations in Tampa, Sarasota and Clearwater, Carmel Café is not too far of a trek for most.  Happy Hours every weeknight evening and a Prixe fixed dinner for two for $25 on Sunday and Monday nights, there are even more reasons to go.

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