Carmen restaurant was atop a very short list of places I absolutely had to experience during my 2012 visit to Medellin.
It’d been recommended to me the year before, and at the time I left, it was ranked the #1 restaurant in the city on TripAdvisor.
As luck would have it, my first apartment rental was a few blocks away. One afternoon, though not ready to sit down and eat, I took a peek inside.
The friendly hostess, who spoke fluent English, lead me a brief tour of the restaurant.
The main level features a dining room and bar, with a small outdoor patio.
Walking down a spiral staircase brings you to a more formal dining room, the kitchen, restrooms, and access to additional outdoor seating.
I promised her I’d be back to enjoy the food at a future date.
Fast forward to the following Saturday evening. I returned to Carmen with a reservation, and was seated at a table for two at the far end of the main level.
The first thing I noticed on the menu was the footnote that prices were listed in thousands of pesos. Somehow I missed that when I checked glanced through the menu on the Carmen website.
For example, a Tres Cordilleras beer appears as “$6” which is very easy for an American to mistake as being priced in US Dollars. In reality, it’s only $3.29.
Once I realized the prices weren’t as steep as I expected, I fully indulged myself, ordering a Belvedere and tonic, and the chef’s 5-course tasting menu (98,000 pesos, or $54).
I mentioned to the waitress that I was interested in trying more than one dessert, and after checking, she came back and offered me the chance to taste all six of them!
The food service began with a complimentary starter, which included bruschetta, a taste of soup, and palm heart.
I love little surprises like this from the kitchen. It shows sophistication, an attention to detail, and does a good job of keeping me occupied until the 1st course arrived.
Surprise! Octopus served with a green sauce of soy, butter, and citric juices, alongside two gnocchi and a dash of sal de chorizo (chorizo salt).
Normally, this leggy little mollusc would be the last thing I’d order. In the past, whenever I’ve tried octopus, it has been tasteless and rubbery, like chewing on a bike tire.
But surprises are part of the experience when you opt for a tasting menu, and on this occasion, the octopus was soft, easy to chew, and flavorful.
It was around this time that Carmen, the chef/owner, stopped by my table to say hi. During my visit the week before, I’d left my business card with the hostess, and I was happy to see she passed it along.
Carmen was born and raised in California, however when her Colombian father suggested they open a restaurant in Medellin together, she packed up her chef’s knives and headed to South America.
That was over four years ago, so it’s safe to say things have been going well for her and the restaurant.
I mentioned the octopus, and she explained how it is cooked for hours to ensure a softer consistency.
This first dish wasn’t all about the seafood. The gnocchi practically melted in my mouth.
In the mood to try new things, I ordered my first Ciroc and tonic around this time.
The 2nd course was the cheek of a fish, with sweet fried rice, and a spicy kimchi salad.
A small pitcher of ponzu, a citric-based sauce, was also provided.
The fish was tender and juicy, and I liked the way it was presented against the round bowl of rice.
The 3rd course, pork two ways, is a signature dish at Carmen, and one I would go back for in a heartbeat.
“Pork tenderloin cooked in milk and 12 hour belly glazed with tamarind and palm sugar, sweet potato puree, spiced pork reduction, and garlic green beans.”
Or in layman’s terms, heaven on a plate! This dish was easily my favorite of the four entrees.
Not only was the pork cooked perfectly, it was beautifully presented. As you can see in the photos, colorful sauces play an important role in how each dish is presented.
The 4th course was beef tenderloin with potato puree and pistachios.
It was presented with a cilantro gel (green), a citric gel (yellow), and a pepper gel (red).
The tenderloin was my second favorite dish of the night, and another I would go back to have again.
Carmen stopped by a second time, and explained the entire dish, but I could barely keep up with all the details and ingredients.
I took the chance to ask her about the interior design, which judging from the old vaulted ceiling and red brick walls, had been around for a while before it was re-purposed as a restaurant.
She said the building was designed by a famous local architect, Juan Manuel Peláez Freidel. Before it was used as a restaurant, it was used both as a clothing store, and a pet store.
The 5th and final course was the dessert course. By this point, I was feeling full, but I had to give my all to tasting these six samples.
As you can see in the photo above, the ice cream had already begun to melt, so I had no time to waste.
The upper left dessert was my favorite. It’s called “Cinammon Toast” and includes ice cream, sour cream cake, and green apple sorbet.
My second favorite was the one just below it (lower left corner), called Maui.
The cake is made of macadamia nut, and covered in a 70% cacao chocolate ganache. A small white dollop of “coconut cloud” was added on top. Accompanying it is rum caramelized pineapple, honey and lavender ice cream. Yum!
And my third favorite was the square dish in the upper right corner, named “Mani Man.”
“House-made peanut butter ice cream, cocoa cake, chocolate whisky sauce, peanut crumbs, and whiskey bubbles.”
For the non-chocoholics, try the strawberries and cream option (lower right corner).
The final check came to $77, including the 5-course dinner, two cocktails, tax, and tip. In Miami or New York City, a dinner like this would easily be double the cost.
The service was excellent, along the lines of what you’d expect from a top restaurant in the USA, and the setting at night is intimate and romantic, whether you choose to sit indoors or out.
I’m already looking forward to my next visit.
Have you been to Carmen? Share your experience in the Comments below.
Disclosure: The desert tasting was provided at no extra cost, for the purpose of this review.
Whats up with El Cielo?
El Cielo, although I spent more than my entire month’s rent there in one sitting, is a fantastic culinary experience that I highly recommend everyone save up for before arriving in Medellín. It is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
What about El Cielo? It’s still one of my favorite restaurants in the city. I’ve been twice.
Dave, I love your recommendations for upscale dining in Medellín and so far Tomasa and I have been impressed by the food and ambiance of the places you’ve recommended with the exception of Bijao which we felt that the food was too simple and unsophisticated for the price tag. At the expense of your wallet we greatly appreciate your recommendations and will give this place a try in the future.
Thanks Kevin, glad you’re willing to splurge on a fancy meal from time to time. I know you’ll both enjoy Carmen!
With all the money I save on rent I’m able to splurge from time to time. You’ve seen our apartment and can see why we can’t wait to get out of it everyday 😉
They also have one in Cartagena. WhichI i think is nicer. Given the restaurant is in a beautiful renovated Boutique hotel.
I’ve eaten at the Cartagena location twice. I think the design and ambience is similar. Both locations have indoor and outdoor seating, and are in historic buildings.
The entrance to the Cartagena location is a bit more grand as you’re walking into a larger, older building which houses the hotel, as well as the restaurant.
Carmen P.S. Oct 2014: Whoa! Chef’s Tasting Menu is now $160 mil!
Carmen lives up to the comments! Superb foods, lovely atmosphere, and polite service. Dinner for 2 amounted to $120 equivalent USD, with Rebecca having the chicken over the rice, and me with ‘pan cooked beef’ on a bed of very thinly sliced potato. Both excellent, with a nice Malbec for me, and bubbly for Rebecca.
Young kid ‘Jackson’ was very bright, and polite as server.
Highly recommend. We’ll go back for Thanksgiving dinner, just to blow away the rest of what was there.
Bill, I’d recommend going to Humo, which is owned and run by the same people as Carmen. We’ll be having a Medellín Living reader meetup there and they’ll be cooking a special Thanksgiving dinner that night!
You can see the full menu and RSVP at https://www.facebook.com/events/522491191221038/