You'd think a restaurant scene would thrive in a diverse neighborhood like Brookside. But except for Sharp's, Joe D's and Jalepeno's, it didn't have much in the way of sit-down dining until the three enterprising Bautista brothers -- Roberto, Juan and Gabriel -- took over the dimly lit H-shaped space at 6307 Brookside Plaza three years ago and turned it into a Mediterranean-style restaurant. Carmen's caught on so fast that no one seemed to care -- or even notice -- that the food wasn't particularly sophisticated and the service was, at best, uneven.
Though I'm in the minority, I shake my head in dismay when, on any number of balmy summer evenings, I see patrons happily waiting outdoors for their chance to get a table inside. "The food is fabulous, the location is great, the ambience is wonderful," says my friend Carmen from Guatemala. (She's no relation to the Bautistas; they named their restaurant after their mother, who still helps cook at California Taqueria, a restaurant they don't own.) "What's not to like about it?"
I thought about her question as I dined at the Bautista brothers' new Carmen's on the Boulevard, which may not have the amiable neighborhood sensibility of the Brookside location, but makes up for that with better food. And more parking. The new place has more style than its older sister (though not necessarily tasteful style -- painted in shades of saffron and deep plum, the interior looks like a set from a road-company Italian opera), and it's definitely more European in its approach to food and service. Though the new place has yet to find its audience, after a few meals there, I think I could become a Carmen's convert.
Taking over the Southwest Boulevard building that had been occupied by Café Barcelona, the Bautista family kept the tile floors, the tiny bar and a couple of the previous restaurant's Spanish tapas offerings. That's a bit ironic, because Café Barcelona's owner-chef, Jose "Don Pepe" Fernandez, recently decided to stop serving a menu heavy with Spanish and Italian dishes at his El Patio restaurant down the street. But the Bautistas (who retained one of Café Barcelona's chefs) are rolling out those same dishes: veal and pasta, fried calamari and paella and garlicky chunks of charbroiled chicken spiedini (misspelled "spidini" on the new Carmen's menu). The service is friendly and smooth, and the waiters can discuss the kitchen's eclectic repertoire with as much knowledge as the restaurant's owners, who hover in the background, watching everything.
And it's hard not to like a restaurant where Tony Bennett's old records get as much play on the sound system as those by younger Spanish balladeers and where servers hurry out carrying wicker baskets filled with sesame-dusted slices of white bread (baked by Bagelworks) for dipping in the house concoction of olive oil, chopped basil, garlic and crushed red pepper. (For the less adventurous, there's butter.)
We were wise enough to save some of that bread for scooping out every last drop of the delicate saffron cream sauce covering our appetizer of fat, juicy sea scallops -- and for soaking up the jarringly sweet marinara accompanying the bland "spicy" empanadas. We pushed aside the latter, a lumpish wedge of doughy, half-baked pastry stuffed with mild chorizo and chopped potato, to tackle a more rewarding plate of grilled shrimp. Wrapped in a crisp curl of bacon, the shrimp practically sizzled as we dipped them in a punchy chili-tomato sauce wickedly named for el diablo. On another visit, I found the Tortilla Espanola, a Spanish omelet, far too filling to pass itself off as an appetizer; the thick, dense wedge of savory cake, baked with eggs, sliced potatoes, onions and green peppers, might make a terrific light meal on its own.
Carmen's version of a house salad is one of my favorites, because it bears absolutely no resemblance to any other similarly named plate of greens in town. Chopped romaine and iceberg lettuce come tossed together with vinegar, oil, bits of red pimento and purple onion, chunks of chopped artichoke hearts, a splash of lemon and lots of grated parmesan, all chilled. I could eat a bucket of the stuff -- and probably would have if the servers hadn't hurried over with dinner.
Though the dinner menu at Carmen's on the Boulevard is barely a shade different from the Brookside Carmen's, the entrees I tasted downtown seemed to be prepared with more care and attention. The service in the new restaurant is distinctly more formal and polished, which only enhances the flavors of a meal. Both of the Carmen's kitchens navigate a familiar but beloved culinary territory; instead of focusing on standard immigrant-Italian fare or fractured Spanish dishes, they wisely take the middle ground, serving continental dinners. There are, for example, three variations on meats topped with the seafood, asparagus and cream concoction named for Sweden's King Oscar II. Charbroiled steak medallions come splashed with a saffron cream sauce or a pimento cream sauce. And diners can choose between no fewer than five incarnations of the spiedini motif.
My friend Bob, a spiedini freak, sampled two: the Chicken Jailen, in which the hefty chicken chunks sit on a bed of cheesy fettuccine Alfredo and artichoke hearts, and the Chicken Beatriz, drenched in lemon-butter sauce with chopped mushrooms, capers and black olives. Though he enjoyed both dishes, neither provoked the aria-inducing passion of the Steak Margarita, its two tender medallions of perfectly grilled beef covered in a cream sauce thick with artichoke hearts.
I had the same reaction to the Shrimp Sebastian, with plump crustaceans sautéed in a sauce of tomatoes and fresh basil, lightly flavored with a drop of anisette and topped with salty crumbles of feta cheese. It was an intoxicating combination of textures and flavors, but after three bites, I felt punch-drunk. On a later visit, I chose more simply: a bowl of angel-hair pasta tossed with olive oil, garlic, crushed tomatoes, basil and slices of hot grilled chicken breast.
That was a wise decision, because I wanted to try the new Carmen's desserts, which also evoke continental cuisine. A bakery-made spumoni cheesecake looked festive, though it lacked the dazzle and creamy texture of the fluffy chocolate cheesecake, discreetly flavored with a hint of amaretto, baked by one of the waiter's aunts. Another house-made dessert was a silken chilled flan, floating on a sleek puddle of caramelized sugar. It vanished after four bites, a creamy finale to a meal that, like the dessert, managed to be formal and unpretentious at once.