Le paradis n'est pas artificiel …

September 26, 2004

Carmelita's: Cultural Density Yum

The only thing I miss after leaving America is its cultural density. That is to say, they have more people and more niche markets, and therefore there are such places as...

a tiny, ever-been-there book-store (in 'Frisco) which stocks both Pound and Chomsky, can make connections between the two, and hosts jazz sessions where one can request "On Green Dolphin Street";

a low-down Mexican joint "where, early in the morning, you can order leftovers from the previous night, with a couple of fried eggs, and they plop a pot of coffee on your table..."; (Reported by a friend; secret Seattle location still pending) and

Carmelita's, a Seattle restaurant that serves subtle, simple, and savoury vegetarian food, or, my favourite style of cooking...

Being a member of a target market is terribly delicious.

Read on for a long sort of review of Carmelita's

Carmelita's is an upper-mid-range joint — in American dollars — but on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of Blaine and I meeting, we went anyway. We have no regrets, though we'll have to eat out very little for the coming month; it was the kind of food where every bite tastes just like the memories will later. Not all meals hold this power to linger, like a good book of imagist poetry...

Preface: the setting
The atmosphere is of rust and wood; it is very simple and not extravagant; a mural of poppies covers an entire wall. Occupied by an informal, thirty-something crowd, from patrons and waiters. Like all nice restaurants, it mysteriously smells like nothing.

Canto One: tea, bread and oil
They started us off with the black jasmine tea we ordered (nostalgically; Blaine seduced me with good jasmine tea), some rosemary sourdough bread, and a dish of olive oil. The latter was premium and buttery, with a miso-textured heart of darker, caramelized-shallot oil. The taste was warming and rich, very basically satisfying in its salty-sweetness. This is a culinary trick we will perform at home for good friends. They quickly refilled our basket with a different, soft potato bread, and we had to hold back on filling up on this alone.

Canto Two: soup and syrup
Chanterelles are in season — we'd cooked some from the farmer's market for Blaine's mum's birthday the week before. They have a fruity, liquory flavour, which was well maintained in this bisque. The texture was dense but fine; light but creamy. Delicate slices of porcini with Italian parsley and olive oil were mounded at the centre, surrounded by lazy drizzles of a thick red balsamic reduction. This surprising fruitiness hit it off with the fruity chanterelles and the salty-herbal subtext of the broth. Vibrant and celebratory, yet familiar.

Canto 3: beets, fennel and peaches
The dinner thus far had been quite hearty; then in walked this dish, cool and simple: a stack of beets, golden and red; three fans of braised fennel; and a pile of skinned peaches, each keeping their distance on a square plate. A mild mint-balsamic vinaigrette teased the beets, and amber and green shallot and basil infused oils, the fennel and peaches.

I wanted to rename this number Respect for Vegetables. We loved the way the earthy paganism of beets contrasted against the laciness of their paper-thin cut, and the sprouts on top. The fruity-savoury trick again won favour in the peaches, and the fennel was wisely dressed light, to allow its subtle anise flavours room to play. Everything still just crisp. A peppering of minute chives. A refreshing course, especially for those into veggie minimalism.

Canto 4: roots and flowers

When this main course came I was immediately struck by its Tim Burton aesthetic: on the platter, a castle of fingerling potatoes, upon which perched two dark and twisted zucchini blossoms, their deep green stems trailing down into a crescent of grilled cantaloupe, a cloud of translucent green and gold zucchini. The dish was dusted here and there with sprouts, and splashed with the same sharp balsamic reduction.

When we tore open the pursed blossoms — which smelled distinctly of petrol, that duskiest of floral notes — out spilled a diced, intensely red bell pepper salad, touched by thyme and something smokey. This went well with the little castle, which turned out to be your classic potato salad, and the sweet smokiness of the melon. As for the perfectly in season, mellow flavoured zukes? Respect. For. Vegetables.

Canto 5: figs, pears and port
Two appetizers and a main course were perfect for two, but also so impressive as to urge us onto the gratuity course, dessert. This was a duo of German style tarts — the chef being no slack in the pastry department, either — with their almond-crumb crusts melting away into custard. On top of that, barely mangled figs and pears. We're talking nice big pieces — r.e.s.p.e.c.t. Excellent all 'round; figs don't need much help being fabulous, anyway, but the kicker for me was the maintenance of Carmelita's signature savouriness by a chevre sabayon — kind of like cheese cake but less stuff-yourself-silly, drizzled around with a mulled port reduction. Accompanied by a glass of tawny, and we were reeling in the yum of it.

Addendum: conclusions in pie

Overall, the magic of Carmelita's is simplicity: they employ excellent quality flavour-accomplices to uplift, contrast and dance with the essential flavours of good, organic produce. Such simplicity is both hard to reproduce at home (thus the restaurant) and inspiring to the novice chef.

For me, this meal was neck and neck with La Giostra in Florence, still my favourite, and for Blaine still leading by a bit more. It was notably mostly vegan. The cost was US$59, the price of ordering out for two-for-one pizza four times in Canada... but oh! Those poor vegetables! A trip to Carmelita's is like a lesson in vegetable philanthropy, opening your heart to the wonders of the root vegetable. I'll personally never be able to overcook a zucchini again.

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