CARMEN: Closer and closer to a taste of Spain

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416 532 0404  |   $4-12 Sharing Plates, $30-38 Paella  |   922 Queen St W

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So I haven’t been reviewing much lately, mostly because I haven’t really tasted anything exciting. That said, I’m going to give a quick shout to Kinton Ramen and Playa Cabana for some tasty meals. But this review is about a restaurant whose offering got me off my ass to write: Carmen.

imageImage credit: blogTO

Food

I originally came here to eat paella on my never-ending quest to find a worthy comparison to those excellent versions I sampled in Barcelona and Valencia. However, in the midst of that quest, I may have discovered the real gold in the tapas that sit just above the paella on this menu.

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Before getting there, I was happy to see Estella, a favourite of mine that you can now find at the LCBO. If you’ve been to Barcelona, chances are you knocked back a few of these during your stay.

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Our very first plate was the most typical: juicy gambas (prawns) topped with olive oil, salt and black pepper. Perfectly cooked, sweet, and a really good start to any meal. Would have liked the heads to still have some of the good stuff inside to suck out, but I won’t complain too much.

I don’t usually comment on price, but $12 felt like a steal for these guys.

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Next were patatas bravas, another staple, covered in bravas sauce and an aioli. At first glance, it appears to be sauce overkill, but it looks more heavy-handed than it is. The bravas sauce is a bit spicy, has a good depth of flavour and is just plain addictive; the potatoes also do have some crisp, although I wouldn’t have minded a bit more. To me, this is Spain’s tasty equivalent to poutine.

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Next were layered fried green tomatoes with feta, corn and red pepper chutney. The textural contrast was the best element of this dish. It was quite light and the thin slices of tomato were very uniformally breaded and crisp with a softer interior. While good, I think this dish was missing something on the flavour side (acid? spice? pepper?).

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On the other hand, this dish was perfection and you could smell it as it hit the table. The morcilla (blood sausage) is complex, rich, and fragrant, and is well complemented by the garbanzo stew beneath. As you eat, pieces of the soft sausage start mixing with the stew and it makes for a bread-dipper’s heaven.

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Our final dish was the Paella Carmen with scallops, clams, mussels, chicken, and chorizo. I’ll review this in bullets:

- Loved the heavy use of basil, great twist

- Perfectly cooked scallops, very difficult to get timing right with delicate seafood

- Chicken and chorizo were flavourful bites

- Saffron was a supporting taste without overwhelming others

- Crispy rice around the edge was nice, but the layer along the bottom of the pan was largely missing - we even left it for five minutes on the table in the hope of developing a base layer of crispy goodness. No dice.

- Rice was a bit oily, may have been in an effort to create the aforementioned crispiness, but it never quite worked.

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Our first dessert was a holy shit dish. Ripe pineapple, baked for a bit with pomegranate molasses, pink peppercorns and mint (apparently some lime zest and salt here too). Just WOW. Utterly delicious, very unexpected, and something I will try to replicate at home and likely fail. You need to eat this.

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The close to the meal came in the form of a very delicate flan that was really light and a had a pleasant touch of toffee/creme caramel flavour. A very different dessert than the pineapple, but the juxtaposition was welcome.

Service and Ambience

While the outside of the restaurant lacks some character, the inside certainly isn’t short on it: a giant wall painting, vibrant primary colors, shoes hanging from walls and figurines along the banquettes. It’s a warm, casual space that reminds me a lot of some of the newer, laid-back tapas bars I visited in Spain.

imageImage credit: blogTO

Service was great throughout. Our server answered all our questions effortlessly, and even managed to have the kitchen dig up a ripe pineapple when there initially appeared to be none (it’s an understatement to say we were grateful).

The Reco?

Some of the best Spanish food I’ve had in the city to this point. I’ve been asking for something like this for a while, and Carmen delivered on nearly every dish and over-delivered on more than one occasion. I will be bringing people back here soon. Especially for that pineapple.

Other Reviews? 
image Globe & Mail    |     image blogTO

image Posted by: Jacob, Visited Jul 14, 2013

Carmen on Urbanspoon

THE COUNTY GENERAL: Wouldn’t wait again

416-531-4447    |    $10-18 entrees

 

Headed over to this new spot on Queen West for a country brunch with a twist on a Sunday morning. Had some reasonably high expectations with a 40 minute wait. Here’s my take on it.

Food

Very small brunch menu with classics, each of which has a little twist on the traditional. The two that most appealed to me were the corned beef hash with pork belly and the English breakfast complete with blood sausage, baked beans, two eggs and sautéed mushrooms. Our server recommended the latter, while my friend had the fried chicken sandwich with avocado and tons of fresh cilantro.

My plate was pretty good. Baked beans had a pleasant spice with a generous cumin flavour, eggs perfect over easy, and mushrooms added to the earthy quality of the plate. Now I’m no blood sausage/boudin noir/black pudding expert, but the mushy texture was off-putting personally. I know it can come in a variety of textures: this one turns me off. An all-spice flavour is what I picked up most, but not much outside of that. For $18, it’s a plate with good variety.

My friend’s fried chicken sandwich was a little on the small side, and my bite had some grizzle in it. However, big fan of the liberal cilantro to keep it fresh and the chicken was moist. Heads up, it’s also a little messy. Fries aren’t anything special, but the ketchup seemed house-made which was a nice touch.

We were curious about the dessert. They have a cupcake, a cookie, and a pie that vary frequently. I went with the apple pie with a layer of sharp white cheddar on top and my friend went with the chocolate cupcake with salted caramel.

The apple pie was fine, don’t know that the cheese added much and generally got lost in it all. The cupcake had the chocolate and salt, but caramel didn’t come through at all. The offensive part of it was the butter cream on top that literally tasted like salted butter. Too much fat for me.

I also had a little $12 mimosa (really? $12!) and my friend’s Shirley temple had no grenadine, no cherry. Not a huge deal, but it’s such a standard.

Service and Ambience

Really small inside which explains the long wait. I like the look of it though, with plenty of wood everywhere to keep the country feel.

They call your cell when your table is ready, which I thought worked out well and the estimated wait was close enough. Once we arrived our server was friendly, and had an opinion on the menu which I like to see. Only thing I wasn’t so happy about was that the cheese on my pie was an extra $2, which was a surprise and wasn’t worthwhile.

The Reco?

If I were just eating the two mains, had no wait and lived nearby, I’d say check it out. But places with long waits need to be held to a higher standard, and the dessert/drink missteps kind of killed it for me. In the end, especially after going out of my way to eat there, I didn’t see the value.

Other reviews:
Globe and Mail

 Posted by: Jacob, Visited Nov 6, 2011

The County General on Urbanspoon