4715 Transit Rd., Williamsville, NY 14221
Web: Carmine's Italiano
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Italian South American Spanish Tapas
"While inauthentic, the tapas menu at Carmine's gives patrons more of a chance to explore with small, affordable dishes that may lead them back to larger menu choices next time."
Tapas has a specific meaning: Wikipedia accurately describes it as "a wide variety of appetizers in Spanish cuisine," and fans know it as Spain's version of Chinese dim sum - miniature plates of food that can be enjoyed as snacks or assembled into full meals, brilliantly disrupting the traditional conceptions of lunches or dinners dependent on entrees. But these days, because the word tapas has become a culinary buzzword and potential draw for customers, it's commonly being misappropriated by restaurants to mean "small dishes that have only modest Spanish influence," a trend that we first noted locally at Buffalo's Toro. That trend continues with two more restaurants this week. While all three of these places are worth visiting on their own merits, and deserve attention for what they're doing right, most of their "tapas" offerings would be unrecognizable as such in Spain. Knowing as much before going in will help serious tapas fans avoid surprise and disappointment.
We've already reviewed and very much liked Amherst's Sole (5110 Main St., Williamsville NY 14221, 716.362.0356), a restaurant that describes itself as "built upon the subtle and seductive flavors of the South American continent," so we were excited when it announced this past week on the radio that it was refreshing its menu to feature new tapas offerings. While South American cuisine isn't the same as Spanish cuisine, and Sole's menu leans towards fusion fare rather than pure renditions, the potential for Sole to offer something authentic was there, and even if it didn't, we were pretty sure that we'd have a good meal.
We did, though it wasn't really what we were hoping for. As with the prior menu, Sole's "tapas" menu is really just a list of its 14 appetizers, many of which were familiar from before: guacamole, tortilla soup, two types of nachos, and two pizzas are offered alongside cheese croquettes, a stuffed poblano pepper, and empanadas. Across the board, neither the portions nor the prices are especially tapas-like - they're bigger and higher, respectively - but we went with three choices anyway: the Jumbo Grilled Shrimp ($10), the Crab & Roasted Corn Cakes ($13), and the Grilled Asparagus & Crispy Serrano Ham ($9). The other items are similarly centered on an asking price of $10, give or take $4, with more items at or above the $10 mark than below it. For kicks, we also tried the Mushroom Paella ($18), a full-sized entree that's very commonly found at Spanish and tapas restaurants.
While each of the three appetizer dishes was interesting, none was tapas in the classical sense of the word. Sole's Jumbo Grilled Shrimp was a typically attractive plate of five prawns that looked as if they could have come out of the Tierra y Mar Salad we'd previously liked, served atop a lightly creamy apple and jicama slaw. We were very pleased with the size and flavor of the warm shrimp, which were coated in a baked-on pomegranate and pepper barbecue sauce that pleasantly differentiated them from ones we'd had here before; the room temperature slaw didn't do too much for us. By comparison, the Crab & Roasted Corn Cakes were even more beautifully plated, with splashes of bright green cilantro oil and tomatilla salsa adding color to the three medium-sized cakes, while dabs of piquillo coulis - a thick sauce made from peppers, honey, and onions - sat atop them waiting to add extra flavor. The cakes were untraditionally soft and only slightly more firm than "gooey," with plenty of crab flavor but little in the way of obvious meat alongside the kernels of corn; we liked but didn't love them. Sole's sauces did more for this dish than the cakes themselves, though the plate was a good value for the price overall, and surprisingly filling.
We were less enthusiastic about the Mushroom Paella and the Grilled Asparagus & Crispy Serrano Ham. Generally served in huge portions and cooked for fairly significant stretches of time, paellas are mixes of rice, vegetables, and seafood that can completely fill a stomach or two with a mix of moist top rice and crispy undercarriage. Sole's rice was evenly undercooked - a major failing - but loaded with other ingredients, namely fried and caramelized pieces of portobello mushroom, onions, asparagus, and tomatoes, plus mildly cooked spinach and arugula, and even chunks of goat cheese. Too light on flavor, the paella's ingredients seemed mismatched to the dish, and the deep-fried mushrooms didn't add as much as they would have without breading. Truly disappointing was the odd Asparagus & Ham dish, which Sole interestingly delivered as a small but pretty portion of underwhelming asparagus, dry, overcooked mushrooms, and ultra-thin, deep-fried ham that might as well have been onion skin. None of the items tasted good separately or together; splashes of truffle oil on the plate and a whole fried egg came across as purely visual plating additions that didn't improve on a poor concept. We wouldn't order this dish or the paella again.
While the tapas and paella items we tried this time at Sole weren't mindblowing, they were part of a larger meal for four that included non-"tapas" items we've had before and enjoyed; thus, we continue to feel that our prior three-star rating is on target given the overall quality of the food and experience here. As with our next restaurant, if you don't go in expecting genuine tapas, you'll be pleased with your meal here.
Though it has similarly Latin roots, the Italian restaurant Carmine's comes at tapas from a very different direction: here, Thursday night tapas is advertised prominently on an outdoor sign, and though you're basically just being offered a number of small Italian and American dishes, the prices and the portion sizes are just right. Carmine's 14 tapas picks range from $3 to $6 in price, centered around $4; some are unique, while others offer a chance to sample items that you mightn't have tried in larger portions elsewhere on the menu.
The unique ones included the Blackened Halibut ($6), a several-ounce block of fresh but heavily cajun spice-rubbed and skillet-blackened fish, served on a plate with a rice pilaf that was far more rice than pilaf. It was a nice little cut of fish, and we genuinely liked the strong, peppery crust, which made more of a positive impression than the Cajun Calamari ($4) - this plate really split our opinions. Neither of us was bowled over by it, but for the asking price, the portion of lightly fried, mildly spicy squid rings was generous, losing one of us only due to its dryness. Carmine's includes a bowl of plain marinara, but the dish would have been more compelling if it instead included a spicier sauce that heightened rather than masked the squid's cajun flavor.
Other items were half- or quarter-portions of items from the main menu. We generally liked the Shrimp Cargo ($5), three big, mozzarella- and scampi cream-topped prawns that arrive on spinach-stuffed mushroom caps. While the cream and cheese elements struck us as unnecessary, the plump shrimp and fresh mushrooms were tasty and surprisingly large given the price - the standard appetizer order of five goes for $9, and we'd consider getting more next time. By contrast, the Twin Artichoke Fritters ($3) were taken from the $7 appetizer, and while the artichoke hearts inside the deep fried balls were too hard, the low price of the dish made it easy to put aside.
Cut down from the entree menu was the Asiago Stuffed Gnocchi, a $5 plate from the $12.50 main course: we liked but didn't love the dumpling-like, cheese-filled noodles, which were mixed with plenty of fresh sliced green and red peppers, mushrooms and onions, then topped with a finely chopped basil pesto sauce. We also tried the Chicken Parmesan ($4), a single cutlet served unceremoniously on a dry plate with a little tomato sauce, a fine melted cheese top, and acceptable breading; chopped parsley was scattered on top as a light garnish. Not beautiful and not wonderful, it was nonetheless a nice little portion for the price, and a fine accompaniment to the other items. Other tapas-resized noodle entrees included a Fettucini Carbonara, a Tortellini Bolognese, Penne Palermo, and Lasagna, all priced at $5 or less.
Though we're not rating Carmine's yet, our tapas meals here and at Sole were certainly memorable, albeit for very different reasons. Neither offered traditional tapas, but while Sole's dishes had more glaring surface similarities to authentic Spanish appetizers, Carmine's options were far closer to tapas in spirit thanks to their more aggressive pricing and balanced portion sizes. While a "tapas" meal at Sole could be over in two or three items that were as expensive and filling as a traditional meal, the tapas menu at Carmine's gives patrons more of a chance to explore with small, affordable dishes that may lead them back to larger menu choices next time - this parallels the role of tapas relative to larger racion and media racion portions in true Spanish places. While Western New Yorkers mightn't yet have a place to experience what tapas is supposed to be about, Central New Yorkers do, and we'll continue to keep our fingers crossed that someone will try a similarly authentic version locally.