This week, the big number “3” on the window wall will change to a big number “4” as Carmen’s Veranda enters its fifth year of feeding its Old Ottawa South neighbourhood.
There are more than numbers on these lively red, yellow and lime green walls. The menus – both wine and food – are affixed to them. So is the sign that instructs us to “Be Nice Or Leave.” (I know it’s meant to be cute, but it is something of a conditional welcome.)
A giant cactus is wrapped in mini lights. A collection of mortar and pestles, antique biscuit tins and old cookbooks line the nooks and crannies and shelves. Tables and chairs are vintage 1950s linoleum and Nogahide beauties.
Upon entering on our first visit we are instructed to read the blackboard menu and decide what we’d like to eat before we are led to our table at the back of the restaurant. “You can’t read the menu from there, and I can’t exactly bring it to you,” he chuckles.
(We don’t exactly join in.)
If I had one wish for this quirky little retro-looking neighbourhood restaurant as it celebrates a birthday, is that it work on the graciousness of its welcome and turn down the sometimes brusque, be nice or leave, manner about its service. It might also be nice to scrawl down the menu and wine list on a piece of paper so those tables out of eye-shot of the wall menus don’t have to figure out what they’d like to eat and drink before getting settled.
Otherwise, I think this little place is dandy.
Carmen’s is a bit of a one of a kind, both for the eccentric looking space itself, filled with quirky touches, and the diminutive woman chef in the headscarf who toils away in her teensy open kitchen plating dishes of yummy food.
Chef and co-owner Carmen Letourneau’s food has plenty of upfront flavours and well balanced textures. She pairs shaved fennel and shards of sharp parmesan with soft leaves of Boston lettuce and gives the mound a sweet-tart blood orange and honey handling. In lieu of bread and butter, she brings us baked pita chips, oiled and herbed, and a pot of tarted-up hummus, with garlic, mint and raspberries in the mix.
A generous portion of salmon is moist through and through, with a claret centre and a well-seasoned crust. It rests on a bed of black sticky Thai rice and comes with a small perky slaw of carrots, daikon, fennel, and green chillies.
Cardamom features headily in the roast chicken. And what a bird! Wing bone attached, the breast meat is moist, the skin crisp, the juicy flesh infused through and through with the aromatic spice. It comes on a bed of brown basmati rice studded with currants, crowned with fried onion and perfumed with more of that heady cardamom.
Both the lemon tart and the créme brulée with blueberries are delicious treats. I like Carmen’s short, no-nonsense wine list, and the fact that all wines have one price tag and each is available by the glass, half litre or bottle. There is one “dream wine” displayed at the bar with a higher price tag.