The next time I'm back at Carmen, I'd angle for the last seat in the corner of the stylish tiled bar. That's a lovely vantage point to glance at the street and take in the bustle of the tiny casual dining room that seats about 20.
That same corner is also a great spot to survey the antipasti bar menu. Like the opera of the same name, the language of Carmen is Italian, with a nod to the Spanish in the small plate format of the bar menu that go for $3-5. (Of course cicchetti lovers from Venice might insist that's it's wholly Italian, and I have no quarrel with that assertion.)
I started with good, honest button mushrooms from the bar menu. Sherry lends a sweet glibness to the mushrooms, while tiny bits of bacon, almost jerky-like in texture, add to the savory flavor.
Octopus does well in the appetizer, cooked to a delicious soft succulence. The light sauce/vinaigrette brought tang to the palate, a classic flavor combination with seafood, but the chickpeas didn't seem to do much for the octopus, at least to me. But the best thing about this dish were the two slices of croutons at the bottom, a delightful reward at the end that soaked up all the juices. Their flavor-filled crunch, wet and blunt, is a rare simple and visceral pleasure.
The main dish of seared tuna was very well composed, with no loose ends on the palate. The few drops of balsamic vinaigrette and the thin stripes of satueeds red peppers bring the pink meaty fish to pleasurable heights; if only there was more of it. The fish itself is pink and firm, with only a few distracting sinews and given depth by a crust of black pepper (and maybe coriander?). Mashed potatoes are simple but great; creamy, yet not too much butter, so one could taste the potato. Another surprise beneath the potato: a fillet of portabella mushroom, a dark contrast to the lightness of the potato.
The restaurant conveys a remarkable level of energy for a small dusky place; it was comfortably packed when I ate there last Thursday. Fortunately, the waitstaff are welcoming, competent and friendly; they show admirable grace under pressure.
Prices are fairly good for the food: small plates for $3-5, appetizers around $7-9ish and the entrees are in the high teens.