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Thursday September 18th 2014

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Lunch suggestion: Carmen’s Lunch Bar


By Shelby Smithey…

The saying “the best gifts come in the smallest packages” rings true for downtown Pensacola’s newest restaurant Carmen’s Lunch Bar, winner of the Pensacola Business Challenge.
Nestled into a small space next to the Bodacious Olive, Carmen’s is small in size but packs a punch with its flavorful and eclectic cuisine. Chosen among over 100 business plans, owner Maricarmen Josephs sophisticated but intimate tapas bar will be financed by Quint and Rishy Studer in its starting phase.

The restaurant itself is tight for space, with a small table seating four facing its large front window and a U-shaped bar which seats about 18. Three outside tables are available as well. The décor is modern and minimalistic and the kitchen is partially open.

It’s hard to compare Carmen’s to any other restaurant just because of the variety of cuisine styles, but in this case variety is definitely working to its advantage. With only six entrées on the menu, it was surprising to see such variety in so few choices.

From Vegan Moroccan Vegetable Curry to Julie’s Famous N.C. BBQ, there’s no doubt that Carmen’s features a blend of style influences. Showcasing cooking expertise with Southern and International style with only six entrées and eight appetizers is no easy feat, but each dish is so different and memorable that it makes it easy to forget that the choices are so few.

Carmen’s small menu may be seen as a setback, but the limited choices show that Josephs is confident in the taste and quality of her dishes. Carmen’s has both a day and night menu. From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. the restaurant serves appetizers and entrees, and from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. it serves tapas and sliders.

The day menu includes three specialty drinks: The Arnold Palmer, a sweet blend of iced tea and lemonade, Carmen’s Cranberry-Orange Iced Tea and an alcoholic Cranberry-Orange Bubbly Soda. I had the Arnold Palmer which was refreshing and sweet without being too sugary.

For an appetizer, I ordered the Spanish Pepper Poppers with Lump Crab. The peppers were small, so the portion size could have been more for $7, but the taste made up for it. The melted manchego cheese combined perfectly with the generous portions of crab meat and topped on the red peppers gave it the perfect balance of flavor.

For my entrée, I ordered the Stracotto Slow Roasted Beef that came on a ciabatta roll with mozzarella and arugula with a side of potato salad. Rosemary and thyme accented the roasted beef really well and the ciabatta roll was a perfect bread counterpart. The side of horseradish-herb potato salad was rich and creamy and the horseradish really set it apart from any other potato salad I’ve tasted. My entrée was $12, and after the size of the appetizer I was expecting a smaller portion but the size of the dish was reasonable, but not heaping.

The best part of Carmen’s is the freshness of the ingredients used, and the flavors really come through in the dish. The food is light, but still filling. Carmen’s also has many healthy choices on the menu, with most of the dishes being gluten-free. Carmen’s isn’t exactly cheap, but is reasonably priced for the quality of its food.

Carmen’s flavor and originality of its cuisine make up for the lack of space and small menu, and the well-executed dishes could outshine meals from restaurants twice its size. Carmen’s is a great addition to downtown Pensacola and excels as that middle-ground between the upscale restaurant and the cheap lunch spot.

Carmen’s Lunch Bar is located at 407-B S. Palafox Street and is open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.