Friday, February 28, 2014

DOING DISHES: Tapas Part II of V - Carmen's Café

Patience and Zena are two words that have never, EVER, been used in the same sentence. Except just this once. And never again. 

Foodie Friend and I made it over to Carmen's Café in Troy, NY in record time last Friday despite snow and ice and slush and parked cars on both sides of all those one-ways, the cold and the wet and the foggy everything. We were very hungry and excited to be on an adventure without the usual villains chasing us about.

What a welcome sight to find our destination! This small corner bistro was painted in colors reminiscent of warmer climes, brightly lit, and very welcoming. There were patio chairs and tables outside for summer service, or winter ninnies. A signboard advertised Latin Jazz, but that wouldn't be until Troy Night Out, so we were going to be spared a $5 cover. Street parking only, the neighborhood is a bit dreary, and, sorry to say, it smelled like gasoline and a recent fire somewhere nearby. But the good aromas wafting out of Carmen's captured our attention and we happily darted inside looking forward to trying some of what Executive Chef Chris Faraci had to offer.

Carmen's is mostly a breakfast and lunch destination, with some weird hours, but on Friday nights they stay open past 6 p.m. and offer up tapas - a separate menu, half of which are specials. The promise of something new on the menu is a good idea to get those return customers. The decor is really lovely, rustic in a way that was still somewhat savvy, with simple chairs and tables, good art, and a pretty bar area that is probably more of a lunch counter most days. Even with just a few guests the place was noisy, but happily noisy. Not sure what it would be like filled with music - the place is pretty small; some day we'll have to check that out.

We were almost 30 minutes early for our reservation, probably because I was driving too fast, but the table was ready for us and the place was relatively quiet, only two other tables, one a party of six and the other nine. It never got much busier. We were greeted and seated; our other two friends hadn't arrived yet.

Then we waited and waited and waited while the only server busied herself with the two other tables. We got water at one point, then the special tapas menu to look over. I asked for a Corona but was told they only had Corona Light. OK. But this was not a good start. Finally, after 35 minutes, my beer finally arrived. Things went quickly south in the north when FF decided she wanted a beer. The server asked "What do you want" and FF replied "What do you have?" and the server said "Magic Hat, Corona Light, I don't know." She reluctantly brought a regular menu over - the one that has the breakfast and lunch offerings - because the menu binder included the beer and wine list. But we were warned that they didn't have everything. So when FF looked at the scant beer choices and decided she wanted a glass of wine instead the conversation went something like this -  FF: "What do you have then?", and the server replied "What do you like - white or red?" and suggested a Zinfandel. OK FF decided. The server brought FF a white (pink) Zin. O-K. Strike 2.

She returned with the wine, as well as some olives and oil and bread. These were delicious - tiny salt cured black olives, green Arbequina olives, chewy rustic bread, and a bowl of olive oil laced with herbs. With drinks in hand and a snack we were feeling a bit less agitated.

The complimentary bread, olives and oil with herbs (tarragon?) were lovely

As our friends arrived I continued to peruse the regular menu, which I asked our server to leave for me to look over. I really liked what I saw. Breakfast offerings included spicy Latino dishes like chorizo hash, interesting sides like yucca fries and a Portuguese roll, omelets, and pancakes galore; lunch promised salads, Flamenca Chorizo Stew, and a Cubano sandwich. Rusty liked the idea of chorizo hash - he said that alone made him want to come back soon. Oh, we finally got plates and napkins and silverware, although my bundle was fork-free.

But when Rusty (not his real name) ordered a Peppermint Decaf Iced Tea off that regular menu our server got all wound up for some reason. I think maybe we weren't supposed to HAVE that menu, or order off of it. She snatched it up and went away with it, but not before giving FF the hairy eyeball. I tried to calm myself. Zena, Goddess of Fire wanted to continue to look at that menu but didn't want to start her shift early by fighting the forces of food service. I drank some more beer....

The tea was actually really tasty - slightly sweetened and real.

We ordered our first round of tapas, which were all delivered at one time, not necessary but good form. We really enjoyed the Marinated Manchego cheese with garlic, rosemary, olive oil, crunchy little marcona almonds and sun-dried cherries. The combination of flavors was lovely, really delicious, lip-smackingingly good - dry and tart at the time time and nicely balanced. But it wasn't finger food. And it wasn't fork food either. However, very tasty. That same combination of flavors in a form that's easier to get into your face would be a simple but worthwhile improvement. Note this was the ONLY cold tapas on the entire menu of 13 offerings, not sure why.

Messy but tasty Marinated Manchego
We also enjoyed the Alcachofas Fritas, fried artichokes that were slightly crunchy on the outside, hot, a bit greasy, served with a squiggle of house made aioli. Then 2 Empanadas - we ordered one meat seasoned with olives, capers and onions, and one shrimp flavored with onions and piquillo peppers (they also had a veggie option and a chicken option). The crusts were oily but still tender and flaky; the beef tasted a bit like salisbury steak, but still good. The shrimp was really delicious - delicate and fresh. The emps were also served with that aioli - nice and gentle, smokey, not overwhelming. I appreciated that Chef took the time and trouble to prepare it. Our fourth choice for this round was Roasted Chicken Thighs, which is English for Roasted Chicken Thighs. These were fabulous - wrapped in salty Jamon Serrano ham (really?), and a crunchy thin round of sweet potato, surrounded by fried beet slices and beet greens. This was my personal favorite of the night - complex, salty, sweet, bitter, crunchy, and nice tender chicken - a real treat.

Clockwise from left - an empanada cut into three servings, the fried artichokes, and a personal plate of of shared goodies, including some of that chicken I loved so much

Round 2: Everything in foodsville was so far so good and Zena and friends were slowing down a bit and getting into the laid back groove of being out in Troy of all places on a Friday night. We ordered the Pan Caramelized Brussels Sprouts with balsamic, the Albondigas al Jerez (meatballs sauteed with sherry and garlic), the Chorizo Stuffed Mushrooms because Rusty was NOT leaving without a hit of chorizo, and an order of the Platanos.

Platanos on the right, mushrooms on the bottom, meatballs on the left and the brussels at 12:00 o'clock
The Platanos were fried, sweet, not too firm and, to use the technical term, not too gushy either. The mushrooms were buried in chorizo and cheese and cilantro. Bride of Rusty pointed out that it was a good mushroom dish for people who didn't like mushrooms, because you couldn't taste them. The meatballs were laced with the flavors of oil and lemon and stock and sherry, scrumptious. We thought they were baked, not pan sauteed as it said on the menu, because the texture was quite soft and tender and there was no browning, but that's not a complaint. Finally, the brussels: they tasted burnt to my palette, with hard/crispy outer leaves, and greasy; also these creepy deep fried white beans sat on top. The beans were dry, kinda mealy. I wasn't crazy about this dish but everyone else seemed pleased so I'll just leave it at that. 
Small salt cured black olives and green Arbequina olives. Very nice.
Overall we were very happy with the tapas at Carmen's. Some of the dishes were quietly creative, and all of it made from scratch, with a nice variety of meat, fish and veggies. Our one complaint about the food was only that everything was greasy, not always in a bad way, and fine when you are going out for tapas as a snack with a drink. However, as a meal it was heavy like I was being held down, and you KNOW how much I hate that! We loved the platanos but I think if any one of us had eaten all four they would surely have died. Hmmmmmm - maybe there's a secret weapon here that I need to consider. Anyway, more fresh, cold tapas would have been welcome additions to the menu. These could be very simple preparations to foil the richness of the current spread. 

Carmen's needs to make some serious improvements in their wine and beer offerings (selection and availability!), and the servers need to know what the hey they are serving. Tapas is about the drinks as much as it is about the food. You can make lots of moola-ka-hi serving nice beers and wines. People drink more, and eat more, when the pairings are good. A separate wine/beer/beverage menu is a must.

Dinner for four, with four drinks and one soft drink and eight tapas with tax and tip was $27.00/person, which was very reasonable considering the quality of the food. 

It was nice that during our visit Chef Chris came to the table to say "hi" and ask if we were enjoying our meal. He's a nice guy and he's going places, that's for sure. I suggest you check out their web site - It's very hip and up to date and fun to explore.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

PS: FYI if you are following a Honda Civic, gold, 4-door that doesn't appear to have a driver it's probably me. Steer clear. I may be in a big hurry to check out some more tapas!

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