Monday, July 19, 2010

Carmen in North End is Secret Worth Keeping

Located just around the corner from bustling Hanover Street in Boston’s North End, blink and you might miss Carmen amongst the countless neighborhood Italian restaurants. Pity, since this charming, romantic hideaway whips up some of the finest upscale Italian cuisine the North End has to offer.

Carmen’s interior is intimately smug. A mini bar is located up front, while brick walls, low lighting, and arms-length wine racks create an Old World ambience.

Small plates from the wine bar (all reasonably priced at $6) include a generous portion of wonderfully fresh marinated mushrooms with smoked bacon and sherry vinegar. The grilled asparagus with truffle vinaigrette and pecorino we sample, however, is quite bland in flavor. First courses are uniquely prepared and impressive. Homemade ravioli of braised short rib, herbed goat cheese, and sage brown butter ($14) is heavenly, featuring pillowy pasta tubes doused in a subtly rich, but not-too heavy reduction. Spice cured beef tenderloin with arugula, parmigiano, lemon vinaigrette, and aged balsamic ($15) contains thinly sliced strips of meat that are surprisingly crisp and slightly candied in flavor (do I detect a hint of licorice?) It’s an oddly appealing, inspiring dish sure to hover in one’s mind (and on one’s palate) long after the meal’s completion. The same can be said for a perfectly executed grilled flatbread with caramelized onions, grapes, walnuts, robiola cheese, and aged balsamic ($15). Its crust is beautifully crisped and the pie strikes a perfect balance between sweet and tart.

Don’t miss the handmade pastas, which include a non-traditional Italian version of a French crepe – called a crespelle – stuffed with porcini mushrooms and caramelized onions, topped with Carmen’s famous Bolognese sauce ($20). While the presentation left little to the imagination (more closely resembling a Sloppy Joe than a crepe), the dish was flavorful and satisfying (albeit a bit too heavy given the summer season). For entrees, seared sea scallops with sweet corn, pancetta, and shrimp risotto, served alongside carrot puree ($29) were fresh and light, although the accompanying risotto and puree did nothing to accentuate the flavor of the fish. The slow roasted rack of pork with roasted acorn squash, braised escarole, and spicy mustard sauce ($26) was unanimously voted as the strongest entrĂ©e of the lot. The meat was perfectly cooked (not overly dry, which happens far too frequently in restaurants nowadays) and the mustard sauce packed a sweet and spicy (once again, that candied flavor) wallop. Due to limited space at Carmen, dessert is not offered (no problem for us, as we headed one block north to Hanover Street and ordered delectable cannolis at Modern Pastry).

Our server was genial, knowledgeable of the menu, attentive, and accommodating (i.e. she requested that the kitchen serve half of the flatbread without cheese due to my wife’s dairy allergy). Glasses of wine and water were frequently filled without raising a finger. Speaking of wine, Carmen’s list is extensive (roughly twenty bottles of white and sixty reds, each broken out by region and reasonably priced). House-made seasonal white sangria ($18/litre), about which our eating companions had previously raved, is rather dull, but did help stave off the unbearably hot environment (dining on a hot summer evening at most any North End establishment will pose the same problem given that the majority of them have open-air dining).

Overall, Carmen was a memorable dining experience. It may not carry the lofty nametag or reputation of other neighborhood heavyweights such as Mare or Prezza, but its delectable fare is more reasonably priced and its atmosphere emphasizes romance over flash, substance over style. This is a place to hide from the throngs of ravenous people crowding Hanover Street. It may not be possible, but Paul’s Palate would like to keep this seductive, secretive dining destination all to himself.