On a Fast Track

With its modern Mediterranean flavors, the casual Carmel Café & Wine Bar is cause for celebration in Winter Park.

Carmel’s feast: (Clockwise from front) Shrimp and mango flatbread, Ahi tuna, steak frittes, meze platter, lemon chicken.

Roberto Gonzalez

Welcome to the age of “fast casual.’’

It’s the latest buzzphrase in dining, a slightly nebulous concept that includes many options a step above drive-throughs and “fast” joints and a level below more formal sit-down places. Adding organic and local ingredients into the mix, it is the idea behind the success of BurgerFi, Qdoba Mexican Grill and Brazilian chain Giraffas, and it is transforming the restaurant business.

There also are variations called “polished casual,” with upscale design and a more adventurous menu, such as The Cheesecake Factory, P.F. Chang’s and Bonefish Grill (which coined the term in 2006); and “modified casual,” with counter service and higher-end ingredients, such as Panera Bread and Noodles & Company. And of course we’ve all experienced “uncomfortably casual” and “this waiter is far too casual.”

Thanks to the buzz surrounding the upcoming Trader Joe’s specialty grocery, the stretch of North Orlando Avenue near Winter Park Village is prime territory for fast, casual and good, the latest contender being Carmel Café & Wine Bar.

Four previous locations—two in Tampa and one each in Sarasota and Clearwater—have primed Carmel Café for Winter Park. Named after the trendy, food-centric city in California, it’s honestly not much to look at outside (industrial block building with a big wooden box at one corner), but it is comfortable and West Coast-ish inside, with large Expressionist paintings along one stone-accented wall and a cool blue backlit bar. Service is attentive, helpful and far from casual, and augmented by “MenuPads” so that you order via iPad from your table.

Pictures and nutritional information are available on the tablet, and impulse ordering is encouraged—another glass of wine or a second appetizer are at your fingertips.

The menu could be labeled tapas if the plates were smaller. The meze platter ($13.99) features hummus made from edamame, Japanese soybeans with a sweeter, greener flavor than chickpeas; artichoke hearts marinated in vinegar and oil; muhammara, a spicy Eastern dip made from red peppers, garlic, walnuts and tangy pomegranate; and fried feta cheese. The meze also includes a dish so good I stole the idea for my own kitchen—small bright red Peppadew peppers grilled and stuffed with goat cheese, the tangy hot African peppers balanced with smooth, milky cheese.

Order crunchy and smooth chickpea fries ($4.99) while waiting for entrees or with a glass of wine, or a grilled shrimp and mango flatbread ($7.99). I’m not a tremendous fan of flatbreads, but Carmel’s version—crisp shrimp accented by slightly bitter arugula and savory fontina and goat cheeses—is a creditable dish.

Carmel’s entrée menu leans toward their “Mod Med” (modern Mediterranean) theme. Moist, Greek-inspired grilled salmon, accented with olive tapenade ($15.99); Italian ravioli verde stuffed with spinach ($11.99); and a  standout Moroccan lemon chicken ($13.49), roasted with saffron, pine nuts and olives, with rich flavors reminiscent of tagine cooking. Fish lovers will enjoy the seared Ahi tuna ($11.99), as simple and delightful as it should be.

Although the idea of “fast casual” is attracting attention, the concept isn’t new, not even in our area. I remember the late ’Za-Bistro in Maitland almost 10 years ago pioneering the casual high-end style, and doing it well. But it’s not an easy road, as the quick demise of that place, along with Truffles Grill, Limoncello, La Nuova Cucina and countless more have shown. Carmel Café seems to have the right combination of food and attitude to make it work. 

And then we drink

The wine bar part of Carmel has a select list of pours from Italy, France, South Africa and, of course, California. Those available by the glass (most of the list) come in 3- , 6- or 9-ounce servings—nice for those who like to discover new wines—and are offered by the bottle at half-price on Wednesday nights. 

Carmel Café
& Wine Bar
140 N. Orlando Ave.,
Winter Park
Entrees: $11.99-$24.99

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