Only now, in my third post about Carmine's, am I able to speak from experience. My grandfather was in town for grandchild graduation week, so, as is customary, we tapped his pocketbook for dinner. (I kid!) With our "Pop" in tow, I knew that Carmine's only needed to service our stomachs, the entertainment was already provided.
Carmine's new interior is pretty suave. Sets of red-seated maple chairs surround reflective marbeled tables; a soft glow from candelabra and hooded ceiling lights covers the dining room. Since it's always crowded there's usually a dull roar, but I think it only invites you to carry a boisterous conversation. The waitresses are also very friendly and easy to chat with. Although Carmine's may not be a bring-the-whole-family restaurant, the staff has a great way with younger diners - like earnestly convincing them the andouilles won't be too spicey.
Carmine's menu has some notable motifs: crab meat is in everything, shrimp is always blackened, and nothing but dessert escapes Creole spicing. If nothing else, the themed selections give the restaurant an attractive uniqueness, Carmine's = New Orleans' Creole. Along with regular menu items is a consistent nightly specials' list, which customarily contains, among other things, a fresh fish and a grilled duck dish.
Before we placed our orders, our post-graduation hunger made it unanimously apparent that something was missing...bread. Our empty table cried for slices of warm baguette and a slab of butter. Alas, none would be found over the course of our meal, not even with my soup.
The soup I selected for my appetizer, Crab Three Ways Bisque, was the night's special. If I remember correctly, the crab was prepared as a broth, as meaty lumps (of dungeness), and as a sole blue-tipped claw. The soup's broth was a deep brown; it was topped with scallion, buttery and sweet, and fittingly thick. The wealth of juicy lump crab meat made the cup of soup a satisfying starter.
In the window of the resturant sits a lush picture of a duck and fried oyster dish from Carmine's that appeared in Philly Style magazine. When the waitress described the featured duck dish, I recognized it to be similar to the one pictured in the photo. Thus, I made my entree decision -- Roasted Duck with fried oysters and jambalaya.
We also found the quality of the entrees to be varied. Pop's crab meat pasta with pomodoro (err...tomato) sauce was nearly devoid of meaty substances rendering it an expensive Italian pasta dish. The other pasta dishes were similarly uninteresting. The fish special was a much better choice. If I remember correctly it was a blackened cod glazed with a fruity-sauce, and underneath was an excellent sweet jasmine rice.
My own choice proved much better. The dish was so busy with flavor and mouthfeel, it was almost fool-proof. The thyme-scented jambalaya was bountiful and filled and flavored by hot 'n' spicey andouille sausage cuts and blackened shrimp. The rice in the jambalaya was not even as creamy as a pilaf, which was appropriate because the plate was surrounded by a thick, viscous, brown roux. The popular Creole sauce was a tad too filling, but the duck, which was more dry than crispy, needed it. Finally, the star of the dish, was the fried oysters. The oysters were briny and smooth with a crackling crunchy crust that was just fantastic. Although weak in parts, taken together the jambalaya and oysters helped elevate the merely ok duck to make the dish thoroughly satisfying. (Because it was like an entree and an appetizer combined, it's also a great deal at $23.)
I wasn't expecting much from Carmine's desserts - one reason being their ethnic dissimilarity compared to the rest of the Creole-inspired food - but my Marscapone and Goat Cheese Cheesecake was awesomely delicious. The cake had a pleasant bite that was less smooth than stiff, which is appropriate for a goat cheese-based dessert. The marscapone added a sweetness similar to a good Italian cream. The adorning strawberry sauce was also a fittingly sweet addition; a tart raspberry or lime would have been out of place.
The sight of half-eaten glasses of Tiramisu - "too much cream" - and the lukewarm response to the cinnamon bun bread pudding told me that not everyone was so pleased.
Carmine's Creole Cafe is obviously not without some food-related ills, but combined with strong service and a comfortable ambience, it is a restaurant to which I will return. If its location was no so convenient, however, I would have second thoughts.
Location: 232 Woodbine Ave., Narberth