It can be too easy to overthink a new restaurant in a food-crazed city – triply so when the restaurant is Spanish and the city is Toronto in the summer of 2013.
We're having a Spanish moment. Cava and Torito Tapas Bar, two of this town's longstanding quality Spanish spots, have been joined of late by the full-on Spanish Patria, as well as the Spanish-inflected Bar Isabel and Edulis, all of them with very good to excellent cooking. Matt Kantor, a peripatetic, much-respected chef with a love for Spanish modernist food and the cooking of San Sebastián, announced plans this month for a Basque-style spot in Leslieville.
Spanish ingredients and ideas, meantime, from Marcona almonds and patatas bravas to Canadian-style paellas, have even begun turning up on Club District menus. I shudder, but this has to be a portent of some sort.
The latest of the bunch, called Carmen ("Because every Spanish woman is named Carmen," one of Carmen's owners, who is Spanish, and named Veronica, has said), opened in March in the former Cajú space on Queen Street West.
It is a project of the chef Luis Valenzuela and Veronica Laudes – okay, fine, her full name is Veronica Carmen Laudes – who also run the popular Torito Tapas Bar on Augusta Avenue in Kensington Market.
Where the Torito space is loud, cramped and barrel-chested masculine (it is decorated with bullfight posters), Carmen is roomier, more stylish, more feminine, with bent-wood seating, modernist pendant lighting and black and white portraits of retired flamenco dancers by Ruven Afanador, the Colombian-born fashion photographer.
There is also an enormous, wall-filling portrait of a ruddy-cheeked Spanish woman who appears to be deep in thought. Maybe that was the source of all my overthinking.
The first time I ate at Carmen, I couldn't stop thinking that the paella wasn't quite as good as the ones at Edulis; that the 12-bottle wine list has nothing on Cava's selection; that the patatas bravas are so much better at Patria, where the kitchen dirties them up with a fried egg and torrents of peppery sauce; that, damn, feminine or otherwise, Carmen really can get incredibly, conversation-smotheringly loud.
And then I caught myself enjoying it, surrendering to the sangria that comes in half-litre Bernardin jars, to the smoky, head-on, charcoal-grilled garlic shrimp, and even to the paella, which was pretty terrifically tasty on second thought. If the place were a wine it wouldn't be the brooding, inky Rioja gran reserva – that's not what Carmen aims for.
Carmen is the light, cheap, well-chilled summer sipper, the $16 Albarino that you guzzle on a swinging patio near La Rambla, over good-in-the-moment finger food and flirty, not quite intelligible (but you like where it's going) talk. If you can look at Carmen that way, the place is serious fun.
Better still, the restaurant has plans to open a 36-seat patio in the coming weeks, Mr. Valenzuela said. I expect that it will become one of the most popular hot-weather spots in town.
Mr. Valenzuela's menu is divided into tapas tradicionales, tapas de vanguardia, and paellas, the latter of which, we're told in small type, are "meant to be shared in a kindhearted and casual manner."
The traditional tapas aren't bad. The alcachofas fritas – fried baby artichokes – come hot, salty and properly greasy. They're a great, fast-vanishing accompaniment to a cocktail or sangria. The sardines, vinegar-cured in-house and packed with roasted tomato sauce into polished steel sardine cans, are a cute idea that also tastes great.
The kale salad is a kale salad. I expect that you'll read that as either glowing praise for your morally superior vegan lifestyle or with an eye to disembowel the next person who says "kale" within your earshot; either way, you're exactly right. To its credit, it comes with raisins, pine nuts, fennel, fresh ricotta and a tiny hen's egg that's been soft-poached and deep-fried. (¡Qué lástima, veganos!) Still, it tastes like kale.
The tapas de vanguardia section is where the good stuff's at. Those grilled shrimp, for instance: not "vanguard" cooking, by most definitions, but they do go down nicely. The rabbit rillettes – conejo confitado con aceite de arbequina sounds so much more romantic – are a minor triumph, capped in their little jar with creamy, bright-toned apple butter in place of the more typical cold-hardened lid of fat.
The botifarra sausage, a down-home Catalonian classic, came slow-cooked and then seared, over creamy-centred white beans. Fantastic.
The fried green tomatoes are a can't-miss, also. The dish looks like an intricate layer cake, with four thin tiers of battered, fried tomato sandwiching fresh corn, red peppers and snowy feta cheese in a stack.
You will want to order one of the paellas. The paella del Carmen is your usual, more or less: Caribbean prawns, a few clams and mussels, a pair of scallops, sausage, chicken, saffron, etc., in the wide pan that some people call paelleras .
When I tried it, there was none of the socarrat that Spaniards prize – the crusty, concentrated bits where the rice has stuck to the paella's sides. (Mr. Valenzuela said in an interview that he has since switched from stainless steel pans, which the rice didn't stick to, to plain steel ones, which do the trick.) Still, the seafood is cooked properly, which is to say not too much, and the stock the rice has simmered in is dark and deep tasting.
The paella de montaña is a terrestrial variation made with rabbit, meaty, shell-on snails and artichokes. There is tempranillo in the broth. I loved it. Carmen also offers a paella "Antoni Gaudí," made with roasted quinoa and something called a "vegetable mosaic." Who knows, it could be great. I did not order it.
Desserts are light and fun: a no-frills "sweet paella" of loose rice pudding; a strawberries and cream number in a cup; grilled pineapple with pink peppercorns on top (this is pretty great); custardy flan.
Don't think too much.