At about the same time that pasta slipped its Italian confines and became a standard offering at every kind of restaurant--some five years ago, give or take a season--a fair number of upper-range establishments began offering what amount to parallel menus.
These split listings typically allow guests to order a formal, relatively high-priced dinner (first course or courses and entree with vegetables) or a simpler, lower-cost meal of pasta or designer pizza. Always a nice break for anyone savvy enough to understand that it is possible to dine cheaply and well in extravagant surroundings, these double bills also cater to parties in which some members’ stomachs are growling at a lower key. Simply put, these menus are both useful to consumers and handy marketing devices for restaurants.
The inevitable outcome of this trend is that some restaurants prove less than ambidextrous when they attempt to handle two types of fare. In the case of the new Villa Carmel in Encinitas, which bills itself as a purveyor of “Continental” cuisine (here, this fuzzy term is defined as French and Italian), guests can dine happily on any of a number of excellent pastas and pizzas. However, they might wish to think twice before ordering from the formal, French pages of the menu.
The previous tenant of these quietly decorated premises was Cafe Biarritz, a mercurial restaurant that alternately sent its clients home singing or grumbling. Villa Carmel has recycled Biarritz’ pink and gray decor and retained the open kitchen that fronts one of the two dining rooms, and the place generally is pleasant enough except for the uncommonly bright lighting, which might please a surgeon but makes the candles on the tables seem redundant and even a touch silly.
If the lighting needs to be toned down, the service could use a good tune-up and certainly would profit from better supervision, especially in the area of when and how to clear a table. (This problem is common in San Diego County, and possibly everywhere, and needs to be addressed. The only server more annoying than the intrusive one who removes plates one at a time as diners finish, rather than when all are done, is the server who doesn’t trouble to clear side plates, empty glasses and the like before offering coffee and dessert.)
Villa Carmel is worth visiting for its pizza and pasta, which generally seem well done and are considerably less expensive than its formal entrees. The kitchen rolls the pizza crusts quite thin, so that they puff just enough to make them into light, tender foundations for the imaginative selections of toppings. One pizza that vanished quickly from its platter combined feta cheese, artichoke hearts, tomatoes, cured Mediterranean olives and oregano, which, intentionally or not, amounted to a federation of Greek flavors that went together handsomely.
A seafood pizza teams scallops, shrimp, mussels and clams with ricotta cheese and pesto (the Genoese blend of garlic, basil, nuts and olive oil), and a third, quite elegant-sounding version combines shallots, goat cheese, rosemary and prosciutto.
Someone in the kitchen has a good feel for the subtleties that can be wrung out of tomatoes, basil and garlic, ingredients that when left to themselves are anything but shy.
A sauce of these three and a little olive oil dress the spaghetti that heads the pasta list; right behind it comes a dish of angel hair in a similar sauce that also incorporates the more tangy notes of oregano and sun-dried tomatoes. This was a good, vibrant sauce, the flavors well balanced so that it seemed both pungent and delicate. A nice delicacy also characterized Villa Carmel’s version of spaghetti carbonara , a much-abused dish that the restaurant interpreted as pasta with cream sauce, peas and snippets of Black Forest and prosciutto hams.
Classic carbonara calls for bacon, eggs and Parmesan cheese, but in this case, there is no reason to quibble over the name, because it is an excellent preparation.
The kitchen’s willingness to fudge on the French pages of the menu was not commendable. The rules of Caesar salad have been pretty well laid down by now and should be clear to all, but this one included butter lettuce as well as Romaine, skipped croutons in favor of tomatoes, and gave every evidence of including mayonnaise in its dressing. It was not, in other words, a Caesar, nor was it in any way worthy of its $5.85 price tag.
In a somewhat different vein, a wilted spinach salad was doused with a remarkably tasty dressing of honey, vinegar, oil and bacon, but it was not wilted, and, worst of all, the stems had not been discarded. For $5.95, a fairly high price for a first course-sized salad, the kitchen definitely can take the trouble to stem the spinach.
Among the soups, a Mediterranean-style fish chowder was offered on two recent nights. Stew-like in its consistency, the soup included strong accents of tomato and red pepper, and shrimp and flaked fish of several varieties gave it substance. This chowder did not lack for flavor, but it was too thick to be enjoyable.
Squid steak in a pair of guises (one breaded and fried, the other rolled around a stuffing and baked) headlines the brief fish list. Of the four finned offerings listed, only the Norwegian salmon was available one evening. This was somewhat annoying, although it is always better for an establishment to stock too little fish and run out than to over-order and serve it past its prime.
The entree list consists primarily of grills (cooked, like the fish, over mesquite), and includes a pair of steaks, rack of lamb and lamb brochettes, a grilled chicken breast flavored with lemon and sage, and--sometimes--a veal loin that has been wrapped in provolone and prosciutto. Most are accompanied by a simple sauce and placed over beds of gently cooked vegetables that are among the kitchen’s finer accomplishments.
A roast duck, in a theoretically sweetened red wine sauce that was so silent as to be understated, was reasonably tender but not at all juicy; it was, in fact, boring.
Lamb brochettes might have been made interesting by their accompanying garlic-Roquefort sauce had the meat been juicier, but it, too, was dry. The same sauce fared better with a thick veal chop that did receive the proper attention from the kitchen; the problem here was that the server had not made it clear that this dish was being substituted for the dressier veal loin listed on the menu.
The desserts continue in the French mood, and the house creme brulee , a somewhat pudding-like concoction whose brown sugar glaze tasted curiously like campfire-toasted marshmallows, might make a Frenchman moody. A small round of puff pastry, stuffed with strawberries and topped with caramel sauce and whipped cream, made a respectable dessert, but, like the creme brulee , it did not seem grand enough to justify a $4.50 price tag.