Small Plates and Big Taste at Carmel Cafe

By Megan McDonald June 12, 2012

Flatbreads--which are also part of Carmel Cafe's "After 5" promotion--are a popular menu item at the restaurant.

The University Park corridor is becoming Sarasota's new restaurant row, and it's dominated by the modern American chain restaurants, those high-concept operations that are conceived and designed to deliver the way we want to eat now. I was among several dozen editors and food writers trying out the new Carmel Cafe and Wine Bar last night. Carmel Cafe is the latest brainchild of serial restaurateur Chris Sullivan, legendary founder of the Outback chain, and that may have helped coax so many of us out after a long Monday back at our computers.

This is the third restaurant in the chain—there's one in Tampa and one in Clearwater. Carmel is billed as a "modern Mediterranean cafe," with small and large plates designed for grazing and sharing. We got to sample a parade of the dishes, all of them good and most offering a modern twist on Mediterranean flavors—edamame hummus (its fresh-green color was as pretty as the hummus was tasty), grilled flatbreads, lamb lollipops, beet salad with red and yellow beets (terrific) and everybody's favorite, chickpea fries with tomato jam or a killer creamy curry sauce. One of the "modern" touches is that you get your own customized iPad—they call them MenuPads—which allows you to scan the menu, see pictures of every dish and even suggests pairings for your food or wine. It was fun to scroll through all the offerings, though well-trained servers were hovering, ready to answer any questions.

Most small plate servings range from $8-$12—pretty reasonable, considering the quality of the food—although if you're like me, you will probably want to sample several different dishes, which can raise the tab quickly. Carmel serves more than 60 wines, in a three-ounce, six-ounce or nine-ounce pour. None of the thirsty journalists at our table had any interest in the three-ounce pour, but it would allow you to taste a number of different wines in an evening.

With vibrant interiors by Tampa architect Albert Alfonso, the restaurant has the high-energy vibe of a fun, neighborhood hotspot, which is exactly what managing partner Andrew Grassick hopes it becomes. A good way to test it out: Every Wednesday from 5-7, the "After 5" promotion allows you a glass of wine (five choices) and a choice of one of five flatbread pizzas, from one featuring a braised short rib and Portobello mushroom with fontina cheese and Mission fig marmalade, which sounds way too rich for me but might thrill the meat-lovers out there, to the shrimp, mango, goat cheese and arugula concoction, a favorite at our table.

Carmel Cafe, 8433 Cooper Creek Blvd., (941) 893-5955;

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