It's a lot of fun to find restaurants that no one knows about, encourage people to go and hear about how much those people like it.
But there is another responsibility in this job. Sometimes there is a restaurant that is packed, and what people need to know is if it is worth leaving their name at the host stand and waiting 45, 60 minutes or more for dinner.
Judging from a number of visits, Carmel Café & Wine Bar has had a steady stream of customers since opening in Clearwater's Northwood Plaza in November. Waits on the weekend can top an hour, and not the kind of hour where they tell you an hour, then seat you in 20 minutes to make the place look like a hero. It was an hour.
A look around the dining room and it isn't hard to see the draw. It's drop-dead gorgeous. A nice mix of classic and contemporary with rich woods, reds and blues, and the lighting sets a mood without requiring flashlights to get around. A handsome bar area dominates the entry side, with communal first-come high-top seating and a bank of vertically positioned flat-screen monitors displaying . . . well, I have no idea what the purpose was. There were pictures of food and places, presumably of the food's origin? Ultimately, it was wall art, I guess.
The left side of the room is the dining area, and in the middle are a number of lounge-y furnishings for getting extraordinarily cozy while sipping wine and noshing on small plates.
It all creates quite a scene, with the nicely dressed patrons filling an attractive room. The volume quickly reaches levels that don't allow for casual conversation when the room is full, but it still seems strangely loud even when the place isn't packed.
In such a vibrant setting, the expectations for the food became elevated. Knowing the key players — Chris Sullivan, an Outback Steakhouse founder and its former CEO, and Steve Cook, the veteran of Tampa's Mise en Place who led the collaborative effort on the menu — also set the bar high.
Some of the food delivered, some didn't.
A starter plate of assorted spreads and garnishes ($13.99) included a nicely sesame-spiked edamame hummus, a pomegranate and walnut pepper dip, and a traditional eggplant spread. On the side were fried chunks of feta, artichokes and a puckery peppadew relish. Neatly stacked chickpea fries ($4.49) had an interesting texture on their own, and carried the flavors of their condiments: a sweet-tart tomato jam and a heady curry aioli. It is easy to see those dishes turning diners into regulars.
The flatbreads were less successful. We tried the bacon and artichoke ($5.99) and the short rib and portobello ($6.99). The toppings on each were fine, though sparse, but the bread itself was disappointing. It was tough and felt reheated rather than freshly baked.
The entrees, some of which were available in small or large sizes, fell into three categories.
First, there were the good ones. The steak frites ($8.99 small, $12.49 large) included a delicious piece of meat, grilled and sliced. A bearnaise on the side was well executed, but the meat didn't need it. The fries were crisp on the outside and soft inside. The crab cakes ($7.99/$11.99) were constructed of jumbo lump and had a pleasant, clean flavor. And meatball lollipops ($5.99) were cute and tasty.
Another set of dishes were fine but drastically overcooked. On separate visits, we asked for the Angus burger ($6.99) and the lamb chops ($9.99/$13.99) medium rare. I would never fault a kitchen for missing the temperature by one level, but we got both solidly well done. The lamb was still tender, and came with a tzatziki that livened up the dish.
Then there were some flat-out disappointments. There are two chicken dishes: a lemon chicken ($8.99/$11.99) and grilled skewers ($5.99/$9.99). Each came to the table without any color and very dry. A grilled salmon ($9.99/$13.99) had similar issues. And two pasta dishes, a seafood gnocchi ($11.79/$15.99) and four-cheese satchels ($7.99/$9.99), looked nice in their bowls but brought less flavor than their menu descriptions would have implied.
Desserts were mostly successful. A pound cake with strawberries ($5.79) was simple, but got a nice twist with the cake toasted. And a chocolate lava cake ($4.79) is lushly inviting, even if you've had it a hundred times before. The chocolate budino ($3.79) was intriguing but too soupy and spicy.
Great care is taken in the wine list, which features 70ish bottles from around the world, including surprising options from places like Israel and Greece. About half are available by the glass, most with options of 3-, 6- or 9-ounce pours.
Service was genuine and friendly to the point of familiar without being cloying. There was an ease to the service, even at the loudest and most crowded times, that left me wondering why it isn't this good everywhere.
Is this a new chain in the making? The slick look of a winner is there. And the team behind it has a track record that suggests reasons for optimism that any kinks can be worked out.
Jim Webster can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.