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Carmen's Restaurant is a moderately priced casual Spanish restaurant located in the Queen West area of Downtown Toronto.
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Review: Something to sing about

By Alan A. Vernon, reviewed on May 09, 2013
In the classic Bizet opera, after being seduced by gypsy girl Carmen, Jose, a trusting soldier, abandons his childhood sweetheart and deserts the military, only to end up losing her love to a bullfighter. The tragic tale of passion ends with José killing Carmen in a...
In the classic Bizet opera, after being seduced by gypsy girl Carmen, Jose, a trusting soldier, abandons his childhood sweetheart and deserts the military, only to end up losing her love to a bullfighter. The tragic tale of passion ends with José killing Carmen in a fit of jealous rage.

At Carmen, on Queen West, I too was hopelessly seduced, only in this tragic tale it's with the promise of a perfect paella ($30-$38). And who better to deliver this Iberian delicacy than Toronto's top tapas makers Verónica Carmen Laudes and chef Luis Valenzuela. The former space of Caju has been reimagined with a more playful, colourful approach with the added kitsch of figurines - think Miranda, not Bizet's gypsy queen. But a postered wall of the famous 1805 Goya portrait of Dona Isabel de Porcel signals that Carmen is Spanish with a capital S, and that means deciding on which tapas, tapas, and more tapas to gorge on while sipping one mighty smooth sangria ($12).

Divided into classic and more modern offerings, the meal begins with an amazingly tender order of alcachofas fritas ($7), gently fried artichokes topped with Maldon salt and a bright, lemon aioli that isn't overwhelmed by garlic. What makes padron peppers ($10) such an enormous delight is not that these teensy little green peppers, a cross between a jalapeno and a cayenne, are just so darn cute, it's not knowing until you bite into one whether it's sweet or fiery hot. Mussels ($7), while plump with a little a nice heat lift, may be considered more marinated than pickled, but bonus points for the clever sardine-tin presentation.

Buttifarra con alubias y PX ($12) may look more like British comfort food, but the moist, plump Catalan sausage (handmade especially for Carmen) with white beans is dressed up with an artful swath of Pedro Ximenez sweet sherry. Who said bangers can't be a class act? Even a deconstructed gazpacho salad ($9) of green, yellow and red heirloom tomatoes, cucumber and basil leaves atop a tomato puree is irrefutable evidence that simple seldom fails.

At his point the good-first-impression meter is hovering near perfect, but it's about to go off the chart with the beautifully basic but nevertheless sophisticated gamas al ajillo ($12), perhaps the best grilled shrimp I can recall since a sampling of the tandoori seafood at Nirvana in Mississauga. Even three large pieces of hake ($12) (from the same family as cod and haddock) with parsley and cilantro is simply sublime. Not sure why we don't see more of this fishy in other restaurants.

But now it's the moment we've all been waiting for. An agonizing hour passes since ordering the signature paella de Carmen ($35). Our mouths start to water like dogs denied bacon as the paella makes its way over. A hot cast iron pan is plunked down and its filled to the gills with shrimp, clams, mussels, scallops, chorizo, chicken and saffron rice. But like someone in the next seat hacking uncontrollably during your favourite aria, what follows is a devastating disappointment: waterlogged rice with nary a hint of saffron; mussels, most of which are closed; cold buffet-style rubbery shrimp; and chicken and chorizo as hard as a marble countertop. Epic fail.

I didn't want to hurt chef's feelings by sending it back, but we were left with no other viable option. You can see the hurt in chef Valenzuela's eyes as he makes his way over to our table. Clearly, he is crushed. Now I am that heartless, unfaithful tramp, Carmen. Profuse apologizes ensue. Not to mention erasing the charge of this fiasco from our bill. Chef admits that the kitchen got slammed so he was too busy to supervise. Well, it takes bull-sized balls to humble yourself like this in front of a customer and fess up to such a mammoth mistake. Blunders like this usually come with some sharp remarks from my arsenal of snark. But his graciousness in trying to remedy the situation got me all choked up. So before I pass my final judgement, I thought I might again point out that all the other dishes were star-studded successes, including a sweet rice pudding ($9), cooked with coconut, mango and passion fruit, and a superior creme caramel ($6) with a burnt sugar sauce as deeply smoky as a fine French press coffee.

Life will not imitate art this time as I refuse to condemn Carmen to death for such poor paella. The real tragedy here would be not to recognize Valenzuela's resolve to remedy a bad situation. Like I always say, I'd rather have a pretty good meal with a superior, sincere waiter than a great meal served with a sour side of server attitude. I'm looking forward to an encore one day.
Reviews are meant to describe a dining out experience at a given period in time and are the personal opinion of the writer.
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2 Comments for Carmen's Restaurant

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Tina Riga does not recommend Carmen's Restaurant

Good food but overpriced. Very stingy with bread and a birthday cake that took 45 min. to be delivered, because they thought we wanted it for free. Can't run a business like this. We'll never go back. Good luck.
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By Nathalie Mukena...

Nathalie Mukena Kamuanya made a comment about Carmen's Restaurant

anybody has any comments about their experience at Carmen's? Hoping to have my wedding there.
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