Carmen's Got It
There is a big problem with chef/owner Carmen Gonzalez's new restaurant Carmen. The problem is that there are no problems. Who is going to believe a review that says something like that?
Okay -- the location could be a problem, judging just from past history. The restaurant is in the David William Hotel, which has been an unlucky setting for several other talented local chefs, perhaps because of the modern monolith's personality-free atmosphere. Gonzalez actually has had previous experience with cooking cutting-edge cuisine in extremely dorky locations; her mid-1990s post-New American eatery, Tamarind, was in an airport motel. Here, she's ripped up the wall-to-wall carpeting that made the main dining space look like a motel function room, and transformed the interior into an enormously appealing mix of stylish sleekness and homey warmth, making the space suitable for anything from business dinner to romantic date to preclub party to a relaxing solo snack for lone workaholics heading home (this last due to a remarkably friendly waitstaff).
What makes Carmen especially all-occasion is that it is actually three eateries in one. There's a regular 50-seat restaurant, two private chef's dining rooms, and a casually stylish European-style wine bar with a selection of about six dozen wines (many of them unusual, like our refreshing $30 Spanish Albarino or a $40 Italian Arneis; fourteen of them available by the glass) and a bar menu of knock-your-socks-off "chef's favorite" light Bites. There's considerable crossover among the three areas, with certain bar "Bites" doubling as restaurant starters, so diners who opt for an informal bar grazing needn't worry about missing, for instance, the Florida lobster and avocado terrine appetizer. Which would be worrisome to miss. Garnished with tangy housemade key lime mayo and crisp plaintain fritters, the tender lobster construction is fabulous North-South American fusion.
If I had to describe Gonzalez's food in one sound bite, I'd call it NuevAmericana, with strong accents on the first two syllables because her cuisine really is New Wave -- not just essentially the same old stuff labeled as new. Although strongly Latin-influenced (her heritage is Puerto Rican), it's not Nuevo Latino so much as Nuevo Pan American, incorporating influences and ingredients from both hemispheres into a creative cuisine where complex, bold flavors balance each other perfectly rather than overwhelming. Case in point: Carmen's chicken entrée. "Geez, I don't want to do the same old chicken stuff," groans the chef. Surprise! She serves a skinless (but cooked still-moist) breast rolled around a stuffing of goat cheese, mashed plaintain, and caramelized onion, then cut into pieces like a New American sushi roll, and topped with a warm black olive vinaigrette whose pungency perfectly counterbalanced the savory stuffing; a julienned three-tomato relish provided refreshing crunch and juice.
Another new take on an oldie, this one almost Alice Waters-like in its "make it local/lighter/fresher" approach, was grilled whole pompano with island mojito and yuca mofongo. Tomato-based mojito is a traditional Puerto Rican fish topping, but the base is generally canned tomato purée, and the fish usually snapper. Gonzalez's mojito used all fresh vegetables -- charred tomatoes, roasted red peppers, and Vidalia onions -- and the far more assertive flavor of pompano (a Florida fish that seldom appears on Florida menus) stood up much better than delicate snapper would have to the mojito's tang. Mofongo is also the Puerto Rican unofficial national dish, but the mofongo at Carmen substituted mashed yuca for traditional plantain and sweetly mellow roasted garlic for raw, and contained no added oil.
Then there was the night four of us hit the bar and ordered one of every Bite but the burger. Orgasmic. Elegant little roasted corn and scallion pancakes came topped with a tube of crème fraîche-stuffed smoked salmon. Sirloin and mango dumplings featured a pungent Latin ground-meat filling in delicate Asian steamed shells; each one-bite beauty was served in its own spoon, surrounded by a subtle seventeen-ingredient sauce with pronounced notes of soy, ginger, sesame, and honey. Salt cod, so often crudely over-salty, was somehow succulently sweet in bacalao and potato fritters -- light, marble-sized balls topped with red pepper coulis.
Monkfish croquettes, so much subtler than ham, were greaselessly fired crisp outside, almost custardy inside; for dipping, a bowl of romesco sauce, most often a peasant-hearty texture from ground almonds and bread crumb thickening, was silky smooth. Rock-shrimp empanadas were near bursting with the tender spiced shellfish nuggets. Garlic aioli-garnished yuca fries made one question why anyone would bother frying potatoes. The mountain of luscious, crisp shoestring fries that came with our mini-sandwiches of moist, slow-roasted adobo rub pork answered that question, and the sandwiches themselves were as tasty as any I've had in Miami. Do not, by the way, turn down the catsup offered with your fries; it's homemade, as is everything at Carmen down to the pickles.
For dessert, a cheese tray of fontina, Gorgonzola, and goat cheese was wonderful, all three at the ideal state of ripeness -- and at room temperature, not right out of the fridge, so flavors were full. But the essential ultimate dessert is the chocolate soufflé, crackling crust outside, intense but cloud-light bittersweet chocolate inside, and a warm, molten center. An additional amuse-bouchée dessert, lovely little flans, may also appear on your table if the chef's impressed with you. (Tip: Ordering every Bite but the burger probably helps. And we shoulda ordered the burger.)
Even before moving from Manhattan to Miami a decade ago, I'd considered Norman Van Aken in a class of his own among South Florida chefs. But I can now recommend, without reservation, that any diners who're shut out of Norman's -- or would prefer to only spend half the price of a dinner there -- will be thrilled by the same sort of solidly conceived innovation, with a bit more of a Latin accent, at Carmen. Without exception, every dish I had in two visits reinforced the same message: that Carmen is the most exhilarating eatery to open in the Miami area in years.
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