Friday, July 20, 2012

Carmel Cafe and Wine Bar: A Shooting Star

How many times have you heard the assertion that 90 percent of restaurants fail in their first year? Well, I've got some news for you: According to a study done by Ohio State University's hospitality management program, that's a myth. Results of the study, published in 2007, found that about one in four restaurants close or change ownership within their first year of business.

Surprisingly, the nine-out-of-10 urban legend seems to have been perpetuated by none other than American Express in a 2003 TV spot featuring chef Rocco DeSpirito. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Ohio State hospitality professor H.G. Parsa asked American Express where they got that number and the company had no clue. Uh oh!

One local restaurant that's beating the odds, whether accurate or inflated, is Carmel Cafe and Wine Bar. In fact, I'll wager it's destined for "chaindom," which is hardly surprising when you know who's behind it -- a restaurant success story himself, one of the Outback Steakhouse founders, Chris Sullivan. His savvy new group premiered the first Carmel Cafe in Clearwater in 2010, the second at this location in Carrollwood in 2011 and this year adds two more -- one which recently opened in Sarasota and another that will launch next month in South Tampa.

Is it any wonder this is a winning concept? Small plates offered at a good price point, mouthwatering beauty shots of all the menu items showcased on a user-friendly iPad, an interesting selection of modern Mediterranean entrees, nice pours from a wide array of wines, comfortably hip and delightfully lit decor...Everything is so tempting and enjoyable that before you know it, your guest check has ballooned. Ingenious!

Each table gets an iPad. We were given a printed menu too.

Carmel Cafe is especially fun for a group because many plates are geared for sharing and the iPad menu promotes an "I'll-order-this-if-you-order-that" mob mentality. One thing I want to point out: You set the pace of the meal, so if you initially order from the iPad everything you plan to eat, expect to see all of the courses crowding your table at one time. Nobody told us that bit of information when I first visited for lunch and the appetizers and salads appeared simultaneously because we ordered our whole meal in one full swoop. At dinner, our server explained that the diners set the pace. If you want to linger over your wine and nibble on your appetizer for 20 minutes, have at it. When you're ready for the next plate, reach for the iPad and tap in your choice.The order shoots to the kitchen and as soon as the dish is ready -- which is crazy fast -- it's brought to the table. Armed with that knowledge, we had a leisurely dinner that flowed flawlessly.

During my two visits, here are a few things I sampled:

Chickpea Fries with Tomato Jam and Curry Aioli
A little crispy and a little creamy. Sister Foodie and I liked these with the curry dip.

Pistachio Apricot Quinoa Couscous
This was unusual but not memorable.

Red and Yellow Roasted Beets with Goat Cheese, Watercress and Arugula
A very tasty lunch salad that I would repeat on another trip.

Pressed Angus Burger with Caramelized Onions and Chili Aioli
 A Hubmeister favorite! 

Spinach Gnocchi Marseille
Hard to go wrong with mussels, shrimp and scallops in a bouillabaisse broth.
 I could have done without the goop on the crouton but in general
the flavors were mighty fine.

The evening atmosphere attracts a more sophisticated crowd -- picture romantic-date-night 20s and 30s meets middle-aged-to-aging country clubbers who can knock back their fair share of vino.The night of our visit the bar area was buzzing but pleasant, packed mostly with people waiting for tables.

Some interior shots for your enjoyment:

Pretty is a pretty lame adjective, but here it suits.

Lots of wine. Mmmmm.....
Carmel Cafe is open for lunch and dinner and serves brunch on the weekend. Reservations are accepted for parties of six or more, but smaller parties can call ahead for preferred seating.

Verdict: Fun night out

Carmel Cafe and Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

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