Nestled amongst the familiar strip of Lancaster Avenue’s chain restaurants and high-priced boutiques, Carmel Café & Wine Bar is anything but ordinary with its unique atmosphere, taste, and service.
Amid a row of similarly shaped buildings, Carmel looks ordinary enough from the outside; with an oddly square façade and modern signage, the café could be easily mistaken for an ordinary store, touting nothing on the outside that seems to indicate the bold flavors on the inside. Walking into what vaguely looks like a cardboard box, you may be taken aback by the dimly-lit yet incredibly hip foyer. The chic hostess stands behind a podium filled with iPads, rhythmic new-age music plays softly in the background, and you feel as if you’ve entered into an exclusive club in the heart of the city. With a softly-lit bar and glass-enclosed wine cellar gracing the background of the leather booths and granite tables, the restaurant seems to exude a sultry yet tasteful vibe. Its ambience alone is fitting for a sophisticated night out with friends, family, or a significant other.
For a Wednesday night, the restaurant was well-filled but not quite full enough that we would have to wait for a table. The hostess grabbed an iPad from her stack and ushered us to our warmly-lit booth, complete with modern white dishes and a wine glass filled with chilled water. Though we were also given menus, the iPad is a virtual menu, where you can peruse the multitude of appetizer, meal, and dessert options with full pictures, descriptions and prices. This ‘technological waitress’ was accompanied by Laura, a human, who graciously assisted the iPads capabilities. With Laura’s help the first time, we used the iPad to simply ‘add’ our desired appetizer to the ‘basket’, which once verified went directly to the kitchen. With this quick and painless way of ordering, our appetizer of whipped goat cheese, wheat crackers, and assorted antipasto toppings came to our table within five minutes. When we were ready to order our meal, we simply tapped the iPad and were treated within minutes. Though the iPad was easy-to-use and relatively painless (the menu would occasionally switch to an older version), I found that I missed the waitress’s overly-personable nature. Suffice it to say, however, the technology was refreshing and ultimately fun to use.
Although both its atmosphere and hip service befitted an exclusive party, Carmel’s food far surpassed this exclusivity. With the moniker, “vibrant, fresh, and full of flavor”, Carmel’s menu has a great variety of easy starters, mix-and-match meals, and perfect side dishes. The appetizers are best for sharing: edamame hummus, calamari frites with zesty aioli, spinach gnocchi, et al. A nice addendum to conventional starters is Carmel’s flatbreads with toppings like sausage and pineapple, braised short rib and portabella, or tomato margherita. As aforementioned, we started with a whipped goat cheese and wheat crackers. The cheese was light with a delightfully tangy edge, made complete with smooth olive oil, olives, sundried tomatoes, or roasted garlic. Carmel’s meals are served in either small plate or large plate portions, the smaller being perfectly portioned with the addition of an appetizer and dessert. They have everything from rustic grilled chicken skewers to sausage and broccolini ravioli. I chose something classic and protein-filled: steak frites, deliciously juicy medium-rare filet served on a bed of crispy fries. The béarnaise aioli that it was served within completed the rich texture, yet its lemony edge cut the weight of the meat. And with full bellies, dessert is most definitely recommended. Though they only have three items on their sweets menu, the poached pear with salted caramel and vanilla ice cream makes up for this lack. With coffee, it’s the perfect companion.
For the perfect mix of hip atmosphere, tasteful technology, and elegant food take a visit to Carmel. Though it comes with a heftier price tag (meals vary from ten to twenty-five dollars), Carmel is great for a special evening out with a significant other, a special family member, or a high-class evening with friends.