When you first walk up the stairs from Seventh Avenue and enter Carne Chophouse, you catch a glimpse of old Ybor City in its heyday. It’s on the street floor of El Centro Espanol — built in 1912 as a social center for Ybor cigar workers — and the space is beautiful, with decorative embossed tin ceilings, intricate tile floors, and huge old windows that flood the room with natural light. At the top of the stairs is a center area filled with over-stuffed sofas that divides the bar from the dining room, delineated by wine-hued crushed velvet swags that dangle from a ceiling so tall the fabric seems to have a life all its own. This forms an intimate and welcoming foyer of sorts; it is an impressive, welcoming room. The dining area is sleek and stylish, with tall dark wood tables surrounded by high padded chairs that echo the color scheme. It is clear that the designers and management took great care putting the room together.
I would have loved to be in the completed room, therefore, when they finally looked at each other in horror and slowly realized that their plush, expensive seats were not so functional. Trying to use these tall chairs is reminiscent of the old Lily Tomlin comedy routine where she portrays Edith Ann, the wise 5-year-old in the chair too big for her feet to reach the ground. Once you pull your seat away from the table and hop (or climb) aboard, there’s no graceful way to pull yourself close again. You are forced to depend upon the kindness of strangers or to hold tight, rock from side to side, and attempt to “walk” your chair back into place; scooting in is not an option. The initial euphoria at seeing the room is quickly replaced by an urge for self-preservation.
The good news is the prices are reasonable and the menu has many yummy-sounding options, but unfortunately most of the food lacks balance. The deviled eggs look pretty, but don’t pack much punch, and the bacon fried chicken livers want for crispness. The spinach salad is topped by three little pear slices but absolutely drowned in balsamic dressing and walnuts; there is easily enough of both for ten salads. I simply don’t understand the excess. Fortunately, the julienned Havarti cheese in the salad is just about right.
Pork shoulder pot pie has a reasonably flaky crust, but is otherwise not memorable. One of Carne’s specialties is “chop steak” topped with a fried egg. Unfortunately, we ask for rare and get well done. The manager quickly apologizes and returns promptly with another, but it is still cooked beyond the requested temperature. The prime rib has no rib and is too salty, but the roasted Roma tomato half, topped with a cute, diminutive plastic red cow reflecting my request for rare beef, is tasty.
The braised lamb shank is tender, but bland, fatty and lukewarm on arrival. Conversely, the white beans in the cassoulet that accompanies the lamb are soggy, with way too much thyme on their hands. This may be the most over-seasoned side dish I have ever tasted; it is simply not edible. I can’t believe anyone in the restaurant tasted this batch of beans before they left the kitchen. Also, cassoulet is a staple of French cuisine and usually features a combo of duck confit, pork sausage, carrots, onions, and tomatoes; Carne’s version is just beans… which is perfectly fine, but please don’t promise cassoulet and, I beg you, easy, easy, easy on the assertive thyme.
Regular readers of this column know that for weeks I’ve been railing against the inability of full service restaurants to produce decent French fries, using the delicious spuds served at the minor league ballpark in Dunedin as a benchmark. How it it possible that an underfunded sports concession can trump any establishment whose business is food? Yet, week after greasy week, inexplicably, I am thwarted. This week, however, my detective work is over! Cue the “Hallelujah Chorus.” The one place Carne really shines is with its fries. While they are not the thick wedges I normally associate with “steak fries” per the menu, they are absolutely terrific. These potatoes are beautifully golden with just a few rustic hints of skin. The centers are lusciously creamy and perfectly complemented by the crisp exterior.
The baked Alaska is so huge as to be really awkward; it’s not so much an individual dessert as a big slice of an enormous ice cream dome. It’s easily large enough to serve two, but the meringue and cake hardly register. The flan is also atypical; it’s very light à la panna cotta and nearly sauce-free, lacking the pool of dark caramel that usually accompanies this dessert.
The service is friendly enough, but slow and not connected; it seems like both the kitchen and service staff need a clearer vision of what they’re trying to accomplish. A curious thing about a dining room that seems to aspire for elegance is the profusion of flat screen TVs, which are totally at odds with the ambience of the room.
Carne has so much wonderful potential. I only hope the kitchen will start paying more attention to detail and deliver on what is an appealing menu, and that Carne will decide what kind of restaurant it really wants to be.
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