Monday, December 05, 2005

Carnivale: My Restaurant Review

Despite having been in the Windy City since the beginning of September, my husband and I have yet to crack into the epicurean world. It is a shame, but we just cannot afford to do that right now and we also just don't have the time or the energy.

However, it just so happened that while my husband was out of town last Friday night, I made plans with some friends and we decided to have dinner at Carnivale. It's a new restaurant with Latin flavors and its gotten wonderful reviews in its short existence.

When my girlfriend called for reservations on Tuesday, the hostess offered 6 or 9:30. I had to work early the next morning so she opted for six.

After the valet took the car, we headed inside to meet the rest of our party. The first room was a rather large bar, with low ceilings, and filled with some tables along the windows. The one thing that immediately struck me was that the bar was dark...very dark. I could hardly recognize our friend we were meeting. She was sitting at the bar talking with the bartender until she noticed us and said,

"Hi! You guys have to try these raspberry mojitos. They are wonderful! This is my second!"

She slid off the bar stool with a bit of a stumble and we were led to our table. There was a tall maroon curtain that divided the dining room from the bar. The room was a complete visual assault on the senses. Inside, there were over twenty foot ceilings from which eight light fixtures hung. They were the shape of enormous lamp shades paneled in red and yellow. My first reaction was that it looked like something an elephant would step on at the circus.

The walls were thick panels of bright colors including, purple, orange, lime, and pink. The room was bright; a complete contrast in every sense to the bar we recently left. The tables were scattered and dressed simply with white table clothes. Centered on the ceiling above was a jewel colored skylight.

Unfortunately, we landed at the table right next to the kitchen door. I ignored that and jumped to open the menu; eager to read the dishes that would reflect Peru, Brazil, Argentina and the rest of Latin America.

We settled on five appetizer:
Guacamole and Chips: The best of the five. Freshly made to order with amazingly ripe Avocados with a hint of lime and cilantro.
Beef Empanada: Another table favorite. The beef was layered with garlic and cumin and wrapped perfectly in corn flour. The perfect amount of beef to corn flour. We ended up ordering second helping.
Mini fish tacos: Nothing to write home to mom about. Simple whitefish tacos with a citrus tartar sauce. A bit bland and dull compared to the decor and my reaction to the first two items.
Crab cakes: At least they tasted like crab, but they lacked the consistency of a cake. When we attempted to split the two cakes for the table to share, they crumbled. The flavor wasn't bad, but they needed a binder.
Shrimp Ceviche: With roasted tomatoes and chilies. Not a table favorite and I think far from ceviche. I couldn't tell if the shrimp was raw or not because it was completely covered with the roasted tomatoes. I expected a little heat after the first bite and it never came; it was simply rubbery. Out of the three shrimp that were provided, two headed back to the kitchen.

Most of us took our friends suggestion and tried the raspberry mojito, which was delicious. Garnished with fresh mint, it welt down a little too smoothly as it lacked the overwhelming sourness of lime.

For dinner, I ordered the beef short ribs served with corn and peanut salsa and mashed potatoes. Seemed like an odd combination and I wasn't quite sure why mashed potatoes were on the menu at all. Now that I think of it, there were a few dishes that I questioned when looking over the menu. What is Latin American about a New York strip steak with roasted potatoes, blue cheese-bacon salsa, and port sauce? Or a mixed green salad with cucumber, tomatoes, carrots, and almonds?

Despite my confusion, I ordered a second raspberry mojito and soon enough my entree arrived. The short ribs were absolutely wonderful. Not completely falling apart but just tough enough so I had to use my fork to peel of the delicate strands of perfectly moist beef. They were truly delicious. However, the rest of the dish cannot receive similar praise. The mashed potatoes tasted ordinary and the corn and peanut salsa was non-existent. They were some stray peanuts and kernels scattered on my plate, but by no means did they resemble a salsa.

Three desserts were ordered. Let's just say pastry is not their strong suit. For some reason, strawberry shortcake was on their dessert menu and for another reason, one was ordered at our table. My friend said it tasted like it had been sitting in a refrigerator for days. Another item ordered was a chocolate tres leche, described as "chocolate cake soaked in three milks with white chocolate sabayon and coffee ice cream." The only thing I could taste was rum with a slight hint of chocolate. The third and final dessert was a trio or sorbet, of which only one past our taste test.

Although the passion and energy of the Latin American culture shine through the decor of Carnivale, the food was a less impressive. Even though it seemed that there was an attempt to stream the creativity into the kitchen, the presentation and overall flavor of the dishes were simply flat.

Overall, I'll give Carnivale a B-. I forgot to mention that we ordered five sides that never arrived. Turns out that was a blessing in disguise. But my friend had the waiter read back those items to make sure he understood what we ordered. Apparently, he misunderstood.

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