There’s another casually upscale (or is that upscaley casual?) restaurant open along Orlando Avenue in Winter Park. Of course, Rocco’s and El Bodegon have had Orlando Ave. addresses for several years, and Houston’s, too, before it became Hillstone in a flash of marketing brilliance. Italio -- more fast casual (or casually fast?) -- opened recently, and others, including Marlow’s Tavern, are poised to go online soon.
Carmel Cafe is the newest, a modern Mediterranean restaurant out of Tampa. It has sprung up in a former office building space that has been converted into a beautiful and comfortable eatery, with splashes of colorful art and dramatic lighting. It's an immediately likable ambience, comfortable and inviting.
Carmel is also the latest to attempt to move the restaurant industry into the 21st Century with technology at the table, specifically the iPad as menu enhancement. I'm not opposed to the idea, and I like having information available to me, whether that comes from a live waiter or a device. Others have tried, including Terrace 390 in downtown Orlando, and the recently departed Truffles Grill, but both had limited success.
At first glance it appeared to me that Carmel Cafe had nailed it. The iPad app has all the menu items, including photos of the dishes to entice you. And it has the wine list online, as well, offering flavor profiles and tasting notes. But what impressed me was the cross-referencing. Select a dish and then see which wines are recommended for that food item. Or if you prefer, settle on a wine that you like and then see which of the menu items are recommended to complement it. Pretty neat.
That is until on my second visit when I chose steak frites as my entree. When I clicked on the wine recommendations several were listed. All of the whites. With steak? No reds? A flaw in the software or human programming error? Either way, it warrants a return to the proverbial drawing board for that one.
But what about that food? Most of what I sampled, including a wide array of items on my first visit as part of a media dinner, was good and recommendable. All of it priced nicely, and even better, available in smaller portions instead of the typically American supersized servings (probably the most Mediterranean concept that's been incorporated).
The mezze platter gives a good sampling of several appetizers, including a hummus fashioned out of edamame, a red pepper, walnut and pomegranate dip called muhammara, peppers stuffed with goat cheese, fried feta, marinated artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes and grilled pita bread as a carrying device for the dips. A full meal could be made of the platter alone.
The chickpea fries seemed like a good idea, but the batons were a bit mushy for my taste. I was also intrigued by the cod bruschetta. The tomatoey topping, though a tad skimpy on the fish, had a brightly seasoned flavor, but the bread platforms were about twice the thickness they should have been.
I liked the grilled lemon chicken and artichoke flatbread, which had bits of spicy arugula scatter atop for added flavor. (Aren't we soon done with the flatbread craze?)
My steak frites was good if a tad bit fancy for this basic entree. Still, I can't complain about tender angus beef grilled to a beautiful medium-rare and served with a rich bearnaise (would have liked a bit more of that for dipping the fries, which themselves were only modest). And at $10.99 for the small portion it was nicely priced -- and quite filling, thank you.
Braised short ribs, also described as pan-seared on the menu, were sufficiently tender and full of mouth-filling juices, served with a nice cheese infused polenta. I thought the crab cakes could have been crabbier, despite the server's enthusiastic description of "hardly any filler."
If you were to visit the bar you might conclude that Carmel Cafe has only a beer and wine license. But despite the out-of-sight liquor bottles, the bar offers several signature cocktails.
But the wine list certainly stars. There's an array of good choices -- even some reds! --and it's nice to have the electronic sommelier (if it can be trusted) for its descriptors.
Service is not yet as polished as it could be, but there were no missteps to speak of.
But service is one of the areas it will need to improve upon in order to compete with the neighbors. There are too many choices -- good ones -- in the area, so excellence is the only path to survival. Otherwise people will seek out something else. You know, by tapping "nearby restaurants" into their iPads.
Carmel Cafe is at 140 N. Orlando Ave., Winter Park. It is open for dinner daily (lunch and brunch hours coming later this summer). Here is a link to the Carmel Cafe website. The phone number is 407-513-4912.