One of the advantages of having younger siblings is the ability to watch some of the television shows that you might not normally watch without getting beat up by your friends. Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? is an example of one of these shows. Carmen was a master villain who directed her minions to steal world landmarks. She dressed in a trench coat and a wide brimmed hat to disguise herself. In the end, the villain would get caught by the astute contestants but Carmen would escape much to the dismay of the chief who was played by the late Lynne Thigpen. Even though I was an older teenager, I did learn a lot from that show. For example, it taught me that the Washington monument looked like a dildo and that Louvres is the one with the pyramid in the courtyard. In fact, I may have gotten an ‘A’ in geography because of that shifty laddie.
I have been keen to try Carmen since it replaced the space along Queen street that Caju used to occupy. Following the blueprint of Cava and Patria, it focuses on Spanish inspired tapas except in this case adds a few twists and turns here and there. We arrived at around seven to a quarter-full restaurant so getting a seat didn’t seem a problem. By 730, however, the place was full so I considered us afortunado that we got a seat.
Carmen has an impressive cocktail menu with a focus mainly on bourbon and tequila. I started with the Almodovar ($14) which was Bourbon, triple sec, lime, mint and olive oil. It was nice summer cocktail with fresh flavours which matched the acid and fattiness in some of the early dishes. Loved the olive oil.
There were a small group of us, so we ordered a docena of dishes to try the array of flavours that Carmen offered.
1. Pulpo Vinagretta ($8)
A cross between ceviche and an antipasto .The acid is sherry vinegar instead of lime and plenty of olive oil is used. Served with fresh bread, it was a delicious start to the meal.
2. Jicama con Aguacate ($8)
More Mexican than Spanish, these little morsels were a tasty bite of fresh flavours. I have a jicama fetish so I thought they were just delicious.
3. Marinated Olives ($4)
I’m not an olive fan but based on the feedback from the table and the visibly appealing presentation of different sizes and colours of this popular fruit, I’d say it was a good spent for four bucks.
4. Ribeye Pintxos ($14)
A delicious take on these Spanish snacks. The amount of beef was a little stingy but attractive and well prepared.
5. Carne Tartara ($12)
Hardly a traditional Spanish dish, beef tartare is a Toronto restaurant staple. This one compares well to the others in the area. Pickled ramps and cucumber accessorize the beef along an in-shell quail egg sitting atop it.
6. Patatas Bravas ($7)
These were a true representation of one of Spain’s most recognized dishes. Slightly sweet and spicy sauce was slathered atop a generous plate of crispy potatoes and finished with streams of aioli. Very enjoyable.
7. Crispy bread, fresh tomato spread and manchego cheese ($6)
Nicely presented, fresh, simple and authentic, this dish was a pleasant facsimile of the homeland favorite.
8. Pork Tenderloin
A piquant sauce beneath slices of nicely cooked pork tenderloin and topped with manchego cheese, this dish was simple but delicious.
9. Blood Sausage
Probably the funkiest dish on the menu, I enjoyed the nicely seasoned sausage covered in melted cheese. Surprisingly, blood sausage is quite a universal dish but I think very few of those cultures top it with cheese like you would escargot or nachos.
The versatile (and foodie friendly) bird was served with flavours including olive and almond. It was a well executed dish.
11. Galletas ($2.50 each) and Helado ($6)
I suppose you could call this the Spanish version of cookies and ice cream. Normally served separately, we decided on these as small and sweet ways to end the meal. No complaints. The cookies were moist and flavourful and not over sweet despite the use of dulce de leche and the rhubarb ice cream was a tart but enjoyable finish to the evening.
Carmen opened in the midst of the Spanish invasion and before the explosion of the small plate phenomenon in Toronto. It sticks to both the blueprint of traditional tapas with dishes like Patatas Bravas and Ribeye Pintxos but also offers “vanguardia” dishes with fusion concepts including Mexico and the Middle East. All in all, the food was above average. The vibe was a little quieter than some of the other eateries in the area which made for an enjoyable night of discussion instead of trying to speak over the bellowing voices of the in-house music. I didn’t see Vic the Slick , Patty Larceny or any of the other minions associated with the show attempting to steal silverware or the large painting of a woman (who I presume might be Carmen) off the wall. However, I thought I might have seen Carmen Sandiego herself lurking around the shadows of restaurant…but then again, maybe it was just Joanne Kates.