Winter Park's Carmel Cafe & Wine Bar is a new concept that showcases fresh twists on Mediterranean cuisine. Guests will notice traditional flavors associated with the cuisines of Italy, Spain, France, Greece and Morocco.
The boxy exterior resembles a small warehouse. The dining room boasts a vibrant decor with original artwork and splashes of color. Seating is a mix of booths and tables, including communal.
The modern elements extend beyond decor. Each table has a MenuPad, allowing guests to utilize iPad technology to view and order food and drinks. Servers are on hand to help guests use the device. During one visit our MenuPad malfunctioned, and the orders were placed at a nearby electronic station.
Wine-pairing suggestions are listed with the menu items. Another plus: All wines are available by the bottle or in 3-, 6- or 9-ounce pours.
We started with the meatball lollipops pomodoro ($6.99) from the "signature shareables" portion of the menu. Four large meatballs sat in a shallow pool of house-made tomato sauce. The meatballs were nicely compacted, without the toughness that comes from overworking the ground mixtures.
Our sharing platter ($14.69) of drunken goat cheese, midnight moon cheese, marinated olives, honeycomb, marcona almonds, slender grissini bread sticks, toasted ciabatta and sopressata was enough for four guests to nosh. The sopressata, thin slices of dry cured Italian pork, had a nice kick on the finish.
The Moroccan lemon chicken ($9.99 small plate, $13.49 large plate) with pine nuts, a deft touch of saffron, olives, lemon and vegetable couscous was expertly balanced. The mix of rich notes from the poultry, nuts and saffron and the lively tang of the citrus and olives melded together effortlessly.
Our Basque crab cake ($8.49 small plate, $13.49 large plate) with roasted almonds and a dollop of avocado salad was over the top. The cakes were pure lump meat with no filler.
The shellfish and chicken also paired nicely with a side of pistachio apricot quinoa ($2.99).
For a sweet finish, the dessert trio ($5.79) featured two chocolate-coated truffles presented like lollipops with a side of custard. The truffle coating was so hard our spoons couldn't crack it. The bottom of both had a thinner layer of coating, enabling us to flip the truffles and get to the wonderful velvety mixture inside. The puddinglike custard, which was perhaps four teaspoons in a small ramekin, upstaged the truffles and deserved to be a sweet option on its own in a larger portion.
Carmel Cafe & Wine Bar was created by a small Tampa-based chain. The Winter Park restaurant is the first of several locations planned for Central Florida.
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Carmel Café & Wine Bar
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Where: 140 N. Orlando Ave., Winter Park (between Morse Boulevard and Symonds Avenue)
When: Lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday; dinner 4-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4-9 p.m. Sunday
How much: $3.99-$24.99
Beverages: Beer, wine and specialty cocktails