Thursday, September 4, 2003

Mount Tapas

Carmens de la Calle Café peaks with abundant wine, food, and song

Posted on Thu, Sep 4, 2003 at 4:00 AM

Release Date: 2003-09-04

This is the third in a series of tapas reviews. to read the first two installments, click on "Fast Forward" and "Empanada Lovers, Rejoice!."

The feisty Carmen, the cigarette-factory femme fatale of Bizet's opera of the same name, turns out to be a reasonable role model for San Antonio's Seville stand-in, Carmens de la Calle Café. Although no one there is named Carmen (the owner is Paula Sullivan), the lusty flavors of the food and the just-this-side-of-seedy atmosphere with its vestiges of the old Diva restaurant (also opera-appropriate) seem perfectly in tune with the tale of our passionate heroine and her spangle-suited bullfighter suitor. There's even a music connection: Flamenco Fridays, complete with dancing.

At other times, live jazz and catch-all world music are featured, and frankly this was my real reason for going: I didn't expect much of the food. Arriving at 7:15 on a Thursday to an empty house, I began to lose hope for the music as well, although recorded laments from the likes of Piaf and Dietrich did keep hope alive. But an hour or so into the experience, we were well into working our way down the chalkboard tapas menu, a decent crowd had begun to arrive, the evening's jazz trio was warming up, and the picture seemed both dimmer and brighter: The light had faded, but the food was already exceeding expectations.

Carmens stretches the definition of tapas in both size of servings and type of offering; it's all bigger than life. (Even bigger plates are served at lunch.) A plate of assorted olives with the house version of tostadas was probably the closest to tradition, and even here the tostada/crostini servings were unexpectedly generous. The olives, pimento-stuffed and spicy, were the least of it. Toasted rounds of bread came variously topped by a spunky hummus with sundried tomato and undisclosed spices, marinated artichoke hearts, and an indifferent black olive tapenade that was the only disappointment.

Seriously warmed up by this point, the excellent Langham Trio, with a substitute, but no-slouch drummer, had proved it could play subtly and softly with affecting intensity, and the grilled Moroccan sausage with dried figs and an intense-in-its-own-right tomato sauce grooved right along. Both sweet and spice-accented, this jazzy plate was a show-stopper, one of the evening's favorites. Carmens' paella isn't always available, but if it is, leap right on it. Studded with bountiful bits of seafood, sausage, and chicken, it's full-bodied and fine. And so, for that matter, is the couscous with grilled vegetables. Onion, portobello, eggplant, peppers: They're all flavor-packed and parked atop a super-scale Israeli version of the more finely textured Moroccan model. Dining Companion found the texture a little mushy, but we (the "royal we" is used when we're pulling rank) think he was being a tad picky.

Carmens' wine list consists of a row of bottles at the counter. Mostly Spanish and Chilean, they offer good value at a modest markup. Sherry is also available, and this is what the tradition-bound Spaniard would certainly be sipping, but we opted instead for a Casillero del Diablo cabernet (about $19). Unpretentious, it stood up to most everything put in front of it - and seemed just fine until a local wine rep happened to sit down at an adjacent table. Sometimes there are perks, and this was one of them. If your pocketbook allows (and you can find the stuff at retail anywhere), allow me to recommend Silver Oak's new merlot, the Twomey Cellars 2000 Napa Valley, which runs about $60. Here's a wine that practically begs comparison with a jazz trio. It starts out smoothly integrated and mellow, and then breaks into a bravura riff with time and a little discreet sloshing around in the mouth. Eucalyptus and dried cherry were among its many virtues. Sure, you'll do fine with one of Carmens' other selections (this is not one of them), but the Twomey did get down with the daily special flaky spinach and almond empanadas (more almond might be welcome) and an appealing Spanish version of a flatbread pizza topped with spinach, peppers, tomato, squash, a little basil, and feta cheese. Prosciutto-wrapped pear with manchego cheese and roast pork with a mango sauce wouldn't be shabby companions either.

Whatever your wine, finish it before ordering dessert, especially if it's the Tropical Cheesecake. Served very cold (it seemed to have been frozen), it's dense and delicious, and the topping of puréed mango, apricot (maybe), and coconut was vibrantly colorful but not as intensely flavored as the color promised. Here, a little more tropical verve would assure the evening's ending on a high note. Not that it didn't. •

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