CLOSED: Carmen (Toronto)

Location: Toronto, Canada
Type of Meal: Dinner
Address: 922 Queen Street West

Having visited Barcelona last year, I’ve been experiencing pangs of withdrawal for their delicious and fresh small plates.  Undeniably, there’s been a rise in Spanish restaurants in Toronto over the last year, but most are a bit “trendy” and over-priced for my liking.  What I enjoy most about Catalonian dining is the casual vibe … just walk-in, stop for a drink and a couple of small dishes then continue on your way and repeat this grazing throughout the day.  Décor tends to be simple, you don’t need reservations weeks in advance and you certainly aren’t expected to dress up for a bowl of olives. 

My foodie prayers were answered when I heard about Carmen. Finally, a place I can go to and eat, rather than to “be seen”!  Of course, Carmen still isn’t as casual as Barcelona – reservations are recommended and the seating is much more spacious and comfortable.  But, the buzzing atmosphere and approachable staff brings back a taste of the easier life.

Before going to Spain, I thought I loved paella (from the delicious Toronto experiences).  But, when I actually tried it (refer to the 7Portes experience), I was disappointed.  Perhaps, my taste buds have been “westernized”, but what’s not the like about fluffy rice and large pieces of well-cooked seafood? 

The paella del Carmen ($35) is the perfect example of why I love Toronto’s take – plump grains of flavourful rice that’s just saucy enough to resemble a drier risotto.  Unfortunately, we were too excited and dove right into the dish on its arrival that there wasn’t a chance for it to develop a crust. Otherwise, having some of those crunchy nutty bits would have made it even better.  A significant amount of shrimp, clams, mussels, chorizo, chicken and scallops were dotted on top and throughout the rice and they were done well – just cooked and absolutely no rubbery seafood here!  Large leaves of fresh basil topped everything which was unexpected but adds brightness to the flavours.   

We also ordered several tapas to share.  The fried artichokes ($7) are extremely simple – battered, tossed with some salt and drizzled with aioli.  You can’t go wrong with these hot crunchy pieces.  Carmen should consider serving the aioli on the side as I found it to be a bit overpowering and would have liked to have the option of tasting the artichokes by itself.

The layered fried green tomato ($7) arrived cutely presented in its full tomato form.  These harder and tarter pieces of crispy tomatoes were delicious and extremely flavourful with the addition of feta and roasted red pepper corn chutney.   

We didn’t only eat fried dishes; to balance the above there was the kale salad ($10). Kale by itself can be quite plain, but the salad was well flavoured with the addition of ricotta, vinaigrette and pine nuts.  A deep fried poached mini egg topped it off (okay so there was maybe more fried stuff on this), and the runny yolk was smooth mixed with everything. Overall, was enjoyable and a good healthy contrast to the rest of our dishes.

The jicama shells filled with guacamole ($6) was a nice surprise with its pleasant presentation and burst of citrusy flavour hitting the tongue.  The creamy guacamole went well with the natural crispiness of the jicama (a root vegetable that’s similar to a potato) shell.  I loved my first experience with the thinly slice root vegetable – there’s a freshness of it yet is still slightly starchy.

Carmen’s beef tartare ($12?) arrives with the quail egg still in shell, which is a playful presentation allowing you to pour it on yourself.  The dish arrives with a decent portion of the tartare, which in itself is good but lacks something.  Perhaps it was because the other dishes were so flavourful that the tartare in contrast was sort of bland, but once you add a smear of the grainy mustard onto it everything intensified. However, more bread is really required!  It’s great a good portion size, but the four pieces of small crostini is simply not enough.

Carmen’s dessert menu isn’t extensive with just three options.  We decided to get two orders of the jicama cheesecake ($9) given how delicious the jicama shells were and had an interest in seeing how it would be used in a dessert.  The outcome is a cheesecake that’s thick yet not overly dense.  We enjoyed the blueberry jelly topping on the cake, which was prettier and tastier than the typical sauce.

That night we shared wine, but one guest tried the Carmen ($12) cocktail.  It’s certainly a nice looking drink with a striking egg white foam topping.  A mixture of gin, amaro (a herbal liquer), lime and cranberry bitters, the drink has an easy-going taste without being syrupy.

Indeed, you may be able to find better versions of their dishes at competing restaurants.  But, I’m not sure you can find it at Carmen’s price points and served with such friendliness.  Regrettably, I forgot to pick up the itemized bill before leaving so don’t know the name of the waitress we had that night (a pretty blonde).  But, she was such a pleasure; always attentive, pleasant and around to answer any questions we had.  My whole experience with Carmen was great that it’s definitely worth a return visit.   

Overall mark - 8 out of 10

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Gastro World's Grading System

  • Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
  • 6 - decent restaurant but I likely won't return
  • 7 - decent restaurant and I will likely return
  • 8 - great restaurant that I'd be happy to recommend
  • 9 - fantastic restaurant that I would love to visit regularly and highly recommend
  • 10 - absolute perfection!

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