Just like Flava Flav – well, back when he had credibility, anyway – I’ve often found myself disappointed by things that have received a lot of hype (Avatar, anyone? I mean, the special effects were good: just imagine if they’d hired a writer, too!). That gave me quite a cause for concern when I finally took the plunge and went to the swanky Carmen restaurant in Medellin’s fancypants suburb of El Poblado.
Because, people have been talking this foodie shrine up – it’s even been rated “Oh my God” by no less than the New York Times. You could say that my Flava Flav sense was tingling, boy. Another cause for anxiety was the phantom of my former, OCD-suffering, restaurant-owning boss, who always haunts me whenever I go anywhere that serves food. I often catch myself watching which hand people serve me with, how glassware is being carried, and how far away from the edge of the table cutlery is positioned. Sometimes, I hate myself.
Well, I shouldn’t have been worried. I can assure you that I remain completely enthusiastic about this place. Although the Ghost of Occupations Past did spook me with a few details – my grenadilla pisco sour was delicious but had a slightly gross colour; the lights in one of the men’s toilets was out; and I’m not really sure what message about the food they’re sending by having Listerine available in said loos – I was happy to tell him to shut up and pay attention to the food. Because the food was indeed OhmyGod amazing.
What you get at Carmen is top-notch local meat and produce given some clever Asian touches cooked in the best French tradition, all presented with a distinctively Californian flair – it’s as simple as that. I noticed a few hints of the latest gastronomic techniques, both from the kitchen and in the service; but well-constructed dishes bursting with big, bold flavours don’t let things get too precious or ethereal – the banh mi is beautifully turned out in the best contemporary style, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a plate of sandwiches; and the tenderloin may well be dry-aged, but that doesn’t stop it from being good old steak and spuds. The ice-cream – if you let me continue a theme here – may come in amazing, cutting-edge flavours like cinnamon toast or popcorn, and the plating could possibly have been overseen by a calmer, less intoxicated Jackson Pollock, but it is ice-cream. Delicious comfort food given an artful, modern treatment. The result of all of this is some of the best high-end/smart-casual food you’ll find in the country. It wouldn’t be out of place in other, more familiar fine-dining capitals around the world.
And the joint itself is pretty schmick, too. The design of Carmen beautifully matches the philosophy expressed in the food. Clean, unfussy lines, with a slight retro touch, do just enough to create the right kind of atmosphere. Although, as we hadn’t booked on a busy Friday night, we were happy to sit inside downstairs and watch the show from the intensely bustling open kitchen, the outside patio is a highlight – if you ever want to propose to that special someone, book a booth well in advance, and you’re giving yourself a pretty good chance.
One more gripe, though, although the service was efficient and quietly cheerful, my inner five-year-old boy was a little sad that he felt the staff didn’t really care about him enough. I like unobtrusive service, but I still want to feel the love. Having said that, it was a pumpingly busy Friday night, so, really, fair enough!
All in all, Carmen deserves a lot of the credit for bringing high-end contemporary dining to Medellin. Take the plunge – believe the hype, as this place really does have mad flava! Boing.