By LEN LEAR
For 21st Century Media
Carmel Cafe & Wine Bar, a Florida-based concept which started in Tampa just three years ago and now has five locations in the Tampa Bay area, opened its first non-Florida restaurant last September at 372 W. Lancaster Ave. in Wayne, previously the site of HogFish Bar & Grill, which had the shelf life of a peeled banana, and its predecessor, Flavor.
Although it could not be known at the time, last fall was not exactly an ideal time to open a restaurant anywhere in the Delaware Valley. “We did have a strong start,” said Brian Johnson, one of two partners in the 140-seat restaurant (the other is Doff Fleshman), “but then came the terrible winter. We lost power a couple times, and there were so many days when people were not going to fight the snow (to come to a restaurant). The spring could not come fast enough for us.”
Carmel Cafe reminds me somewhat of Seasons 52, the mega-successful restaurant in the King of Prussia Mall. Also headquartered in Florida, it is based on the concept of low-calorie dishes that do not sacrifice flavor. The Carmel firm, which will also soon be opening a second area Carmel Cafe & Wine Bar near the Wegmans’ store at Street Road and Route 611 in Warrington, lower Bucks County, offers light, Mediterranean-inspired fare. Terry Ryan, a co-founder of the chain, was also the bell cow behind Oceanaire, a gigantic, spectacularly opulent seafood restaurant at Seventh and Walnut Streets in downtown Philly. (The building had previously been a PSFS bank branch, where I actually worked in the late 1950s as a teller-in-training.) Oceanaire opened early in 2007 and only lasted a little more than two years. The other Carmel founder is Chris T. Sullivan, who once headed the Outback steak restaurant chain.
Interestingly, even though the city of Carmel is on the central coast of California, not Florida, I think the Tampa-based company selected the name because they are trying to create a hip California vibe. Carmel is not a franchise operation, however. It is a limited partnership, and the two partners in the Wayne restaurant are local guys, Johnson and Fleshman. “I was with both Outback and Legal Seafood,” said Fleshman, “but the corporate people made all the decisions. Now we make the decisions here.”
The physical appearance of Carmel Cafe & Wine is stunning. In the bar area there are four granite-topped tables which look like a fun place to be during Happy Hour. There is also a semi-private wine room. The dining room sports earth tones, comfortable booths, dark carpets and light wood tables, and it is honeycombed with large, eye-catching, abstract paintings.
As a nod to the digital age, servers hand customers iPads with appetizing photos of the items on the menu. One can order from the iPad or from a traditional paper menu. On yelp.com, many of the “reviewers,” including some who liked the restaurant very much, complained about problems with the iPads. Several “yelpers” also complained that the lighting was too dark, although we did not find that to be the case. In addition, many commented that the noise was extremely loud on weekends. We were there on a Thursday, and it was not overly busy, so noise was not an issue. For us personally, almost every area restaurant that is crowded is way too noisy, but most younger people do not seem to mind.
In addition to the iPads, other innovations are the option to order many dishes in either small or large plates with an obvious differential in price. Also, almost all wines are available in three-ounce, six-ounce or nine-ounce pours, as well as by the bottle. Many of the wines are priced at about $10 for a six-ounce glass, but many others are in the stratospheric regions of $12, $14 or $16. One really good buy is the toothsome Sangria, made with fresh fruits and sold for just $6 a glass. There is also a “cocktail of the month,” which is available for $5 all day, every day; wines are 50 percent off on Wednesdays, and “tinis” (martinis) are just $5 on Thursdays.
Food prices are quite reasonable, and the quality overall is impressive. A “mezze” platter is a huge appetizer for two ($15) consisting of divine roasted red peppers (we bow our heads in honor of whoever made them), jewel-like artichoke hearts, edemame hummus that we found too bland, silky goat cheese-stuffed peppers, a singing square of fried feta cheese and snappy sundried tomato slices, accompanied by grilled pita triangles.
A starter of spinach gnocchi with parmesan cream sauce ($10) was not the usual soft ivory pillows of potato dumplings but rather green basil-accented cylinders that were too doughy for our taste.
On the other hand, two entrees both blew us away. The grilled salmon ($18), aesthetically presented and graced with a whisper of basil, was impeccably moist, anointed with al dente green beans and a sophisticated kalamata olive tapenade. And a Mediterranean sea bass ($23) was a virtual elixir, an exquisitely fork-tender prize that beckoned from the plate like a moist magnet.
Like some other area restaurants (e.g., Tango in Bryn Mawr and General Warren Inne in Malvern), Carmel urges customers to sign up for membership cards to encourage regular patronage. It is one way to helicopter over the competition. Some benefits are: a free flatbread for signing up, a free gift on your birthday and $20 credit for every $200 spent in the restaurant.
We were lucky enough to secure the only available space in the restaurant’s parking lot. On a weekend I can see how this could be a problem. There is lots of competition nearby — Chili’s, White Dog Cafe, Peppercorn, Estia Taverna, Paramour and an armada of restaurants on Wayne Avenue in downtown Wayne — but Carmel Cafe & Wine Bar has the potential to entice a large and loyal customer base. Our server, Sarah, had a personality even more bubbly than the sparkling water we were served.
For more information, call (484) 580-6725 or visit www.carmelcafe.com.
Len Lear’s dining column appears regularly in Ticket.