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The food sings at this small North End gem


(617) 742-6421
33 North Square, Boston
Open Tue–Fri, 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. and 5:30–11 p.m.; Sat, 5:30–11 p.m.; and Sun, 5:30–10 p.m.
AE, DC, MC, Vi
Beer and wine
No valet parking
Access up two steps from sidewalk level; bathroom down full flight of stairs

CARMEN IS A 32-seat jewel of a wine bar/tapas bar/bistro that’s just Italian enough to fit into the North End. Chef Bill Bradley (ex-Bricco) opened it with small plates of distinctively flavored ingredients. Although he reportedly left on March 1 to take over the (formerly Todd English) Rustic Kitchen in Quincy Market, Carmen sails on with that wonderful concept. The menu is short and includes some daily changes. It’s mostly small plates, and there are no desserts — a custom that works in the North End because you can walk over to an espresso bar or Mike’s Pastry to complete a meal. Because Carmen is small and well reviewed, there have been nights when reservations could not be seated on time, and there were complaints of rushed service. But early on two recent weeknights, I walked right in and enjoyed terrific meals.

Food begins with a basket of crusty Tuscan bread and a pour of fruity extra-virgin olive oil. (When isn’t extra-virgin olive oil fruity? When it is " grassy " or " peppery " or " too mild. " )

Although the bar is not much of the tiny room, there is an entire menu of distinctive bar snacks, any of which would make fine appetizers at the table. They’re served on glazed terra-cotta dishes that would be called cazuelas in Spain. We had a perfect little dish of grilled squid rings and sweet cubes of winter vegetables ($5). Hard-boiled egg " in the style of Trieste " ($2) is actually a universally Mediterranean egg that is boiled longer than we do here, sometimes in the shell in a stew. It comes to the table sitting in a pile of sea salt, with the shell bright brown. Inside, the white is slightly caramelized for a different flavor, although Carmen’s kitchen minimizes the effect to keep the yolk from turning green.

Perhaps our favorite snack was the marinated mushrooms ($4.50), another proof of Nadeau’s Law: " The worse it looks, the better it tastes. " These button mushrooms are a pile of brown lumps in a brown dish, but the flavor is wonderful. The marinating is subtle enough to leave a mostly mushroom flavor, and then they are sprinkled with bits of . . . cheese? Garlic? No, it’s crumbled bacon, and it is terrific.

On the bigger appetizers, Carmen does well with the universal beet salad ($8). Although the beets are not charred or concentrated, they’re sweet and good, and the platter elevates the goat-cheese crouton to something special by mixing it with fresh peppers and getting a spicy crust around it. The accompanying mesclun is just perfectly dressed.

Among the entrées, the typical spice-crusted seared tuna ($21) is made less typical by Moroccan spices, especially cinnamon — a surprising and successful combination. It’s served in a fashionable heap topped with a tangle of fried sweet-potato shavings, and supported on thin slices of potato. A dish of seared seasonal scallops ($20) moves beyond the crowd by using seven bay scallops — heaps more flavor — arranged around a crunchy but rich asparagus risotto.

On the red-meat side, rack of lamb ($23) is served around a rich, risotto-like preparation of farro, the barley-like primitive wheat of Northern Italy, with plenty of cheese and some finely diced vegetables. The big story, though, is the meltingly delicious quality of the four small chops and the clever tamarind sauce around them. The haricot beans with the lamb were actually a little overdone, a rare error from this kitchen.

Yet another ubiquitous dish, duck breast with confit leg ($20), features even more tender and amazing duck-breast meat, although the thigh is not heavily spiced or cured for contrast. Mashed potatoes with real potato flavor, a comforting bit of gravy, and broccoli rabe nearly as sweet as Chinese broccoli complete the platter. Switch the mashed potatoes for the farro, borrow some spicier confit from Gordon Hammersley, and we’re ready for the bistro hall of fame.

The wine list is all Italian, which makes it entirely serviceable in the red-wine category, but a little tricky on the whites. Someone has located a Sardinian vermentino, the 2001 Sella & Mosca La Cala ($6.50 glass/$20 bottle), and it’s a reasonably crisp white wine, if not distinguished. For red-wine drinkers, the 2000 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo from Umani Ronchi ($6.50) — a nod to Southern Italian winemaking — has the structure and berry fruit ideal with this food.

The room is too crowded for romance, although darkness and candles at the table are helpful. The disco soundtrack is not helpful, although not as bad as it might be. The restaurant is also free of drafts. If I lived in the North End, I might eat often at Carmen. If Carmen were in the South End or Cambridge, it might be nationally famous.

Robert Nadeau can be reached at


Issue Date: March 20 - 27, 2003
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