As I'm writing this, Florida weather is nearly as good as it gets. I'm sure this will be no more than a brief interlude, causing sweat-drenched and/or rain-drenched readers to scoff at my enthusiasm, but right now it's great. This is true day-drinking weather.
The cool breeze and mild humidity has inspired me to seek out a few new (to me) places to have a nice afternoon snack and cocktail. Of course, an outdoor component is a must. My first pick on the list is Carmel Kitchen & Wine Bar, a small chain with seven locations in Florida and Pennsylvania.
Let me start by acknowledging that the chain designation might give you a preconceived notion, as it did me. Drop that. Carmel belongs in the same chain category as World of Beer and Brass Tap: highly competent, worthwhile small chains that are quite far from feeling bland or corporate.
Carmel has Florida locations in Winter Park, Sarasota, Carrollwood, Tampa and Clearwater; I stopped by the Clearwater restaurant. Located in a large shopping plaza near the Countryside area, Carmel occupies a nondescript spot near the corner of the plaza, which turns out to be a nice advantage.
The slightly offset space stays pretty quiet relative to the other side of the plaza, making the patio a nice place to relax without exhaust fumes, loud cars and other congested parking lot woes.
The concept here is straightforward: casual but smart Mediterranean fare paired with an intercontinental wine list and seasonal cocktails. There are around 40 wines on the menu, and most are available in three serving sizes, encouraging guests to explore the selection a bit more than would be possible at your average restaurant.
The interior dining area is dark and intimate, with bright splashes of color — paintings and photos of laid-back countryside (Mediterranean, not Clearwater) life, a bright-blue backdrop behind the bar — serving as lively contrast. Out front is a breezy, covered patio lined by potted plants and populated by cafe two-seaters and plush red sofas, cooled from above by ceiling fans.
The ordering process is a new one for me. Carmel uses a tablet running MenuPad software as its ordering interface, which allows guests to order at any time without having to flag down a server. As usual, I had a lot of questions about the menu (sorry, restaurants!), so I had more interaction with our server than was strictly necessary, but the fact that she was always nearby and attentive despite the automated ordering system dispelled any concerns I had about the MenuPad setup creating an impersonal dining experience.
The MenuPad comes with a full menu, including descriptions of wines with accompanying pairing suggestions, as well as pictures of the various dishes and specialty cocktails. The wine selection is pretty diverse, ranging from regions as far apart as Napa Valley and New Zealand, and there's also a house-made sangria. Most wines are available in 3-ounce 6-ounce and 9-ounce ("big pour") serving sizes.
The varied serving size concept cleverly complements the menu, which features many shared plates. It's all about sampling a few things: small servings of several dishes and small servings of several wines.
The spirit selection hits all the marks, and the specialty cocktail list is well-chosen. There are six options, which change seasonally. (Yes, there's a Pumpkin Spice Martini.) The Lavender Lemonade is an ideal sidewalk-sipper, as is the Peachberry Cobbler, which muddles peaches, blueberries and strawberries with cinnamon, Amarena cherry simple, Sobieski and triple sec. For a real taste of fall, you need to order the Harvest. Buffalo Trace with muddled clove, orange and cinnamon, finished with simple syrup and cranberry. Fall is my favorite season, hence the preoccupation with what limited seasonally appropriate weather we receive around here!
Get out there and enjoying some day-drinking weather of your own. — [email protected]