140 N. Orlando Ave., Winter Park | 407-513-4912 | carmelcafe.com | $$
We’ve all experienced that awkward situation at the dining table when social mores and dining etiquette battle it out with hungry eyes and salivating palates over the last morsel of (insert delectable food item here). The ensuing dialogue, more often than not, is an exercise in verbal artifice: predictable machinations that lead to a whole lot of eye-rolling from others seated at the table:
“Please, go ahead.”
“No, no, no, you have it.”
“No, you have it, I insist.”
“But it’s your favorite, you have it.”
“I’ve had plenty. Please, knock yourself out.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, yes. Enjoy!”
“OK, thank you.”
I can’t believe that jerk ate the last piece. How rude!
That, or the leftover morsel goes uneaten in the name of gentility. (If you’re dining with family, the opposite occurs: fingers fight for the last piece until all that’s left is a mashed pulp.) Such circumstances are virtually guaranteed when you and your friends make the conscious decision to dine on tapas – which, in this country, aren’t a precursor to dinner, but rather its replacement. At Winter Park’s stylish Carmel Café, diners have the option of selecting “small” and “large” sizes on some sharing plates – the former allowing for a more conversational, Madrid-like tapas experience; the latter a more meal-focused one.
Without a doubt, the “large” order of crab cakes ($9.99, $14.49) was necessary to maintain a decorum of civility among my guests, and the four average-sized, mildly spiced orbs thoroughly gratified. Really, apart from the heavily sauced, mushy spinach gnocchi ($9.99, $14.99) – an utter fail – most of what we sampled we really enjoyed.
Of note was the roasted and grilled Tunisian chicken breast ($15.99) glazed in a 14-spice blend and served with perfectly done haricots verts. A heady saffron rice might have been a more worthy accompaniment than dipping sauce, but we weren’t complaining. Apart from the unyielding buns (don’t you hate those?), the lamb-and-veal sliders ($8.49) were a favorite of the table. A “large” option should be offered for these as well; only two come in an order. The mix of braised short rib, fontina cheese, portobello mushrooms and fig marmalade meshed well atop the flatbread ($8.99), though the crust reminded us of Carr’s crackers.
As you’d expect from a restaurant serving “modern Mediterranean” cuisine, there’s plenty for vegetarians, like addictive chickpea fries ($5.99) that compelled one of my dining comrades to declare, “Now this is how you serve hummus to a redneck!” Pistachios gave the roasted red and yellow beet salad ($8.79) an added reason to order it, and while we found the four-cheese mac ($5.49) unusually spicy, the table managed to finish it all in a matter of seconds. Chocolate-hazelnut cannoli ($3.79) was a standout capper (get at least two orders), though you may want to save room for the pound cake with strawberries and amaretto cream ($5.79) as well.
There’s a nice selection of wines available in 3-, 6- and 9-ounce pours, though less than a handful from Spain. Many are from California (hence the “Carmel” in Carmel Café), though our server really pushed the signature watermelon-tequila granita ($8), a crisp and refreshing libation we got for half the price during happy hour.
The older, hipster-free, Winter Park crowd seemed taken by that drink, as well as by the iPads Carmel employs to showcase its menu. While gimmicky, we did find the food photos and suggested pairings useful as we passed the device around the table, proving once again that even in these impersonal, iPad- and Facebook-frenzied times, we can find time to share, and share a “like.”