Happy Sunday or Monday depending on where you are in the world! Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues. Today’s blog post is all about different Latin flavors coming together under one roof at Carnivale in Chicago.
While I had heard my parents raving about how wonderful the food was at this establishment, I had to try it for myself. They told me that it was mostly Latin food which meant the name was more of a reference to the cultural practice of Carnival before Lent, not the one with clowns and little bears driving cars (or is that ballet?). The origin of the word “Carnival” is disputed, but I will champion the Latin camp who states that it comes from “Carne vale” or “putting away meat”. This reflects the following Lenten period where Catholics typically eliminate meat from their diet on Fridays along with other lustful and sinful pleasures. However, Carnivals serve as the final hurrah before entering the solemn Lenten period, and boy, do people get crazy all over the world from Brazil to Germany to the USA. So, I could only hope that Carnivale could synthesize the party atmosphere into an enjoyable dining experience. While the outside of the restaurant looked quite average, upon walking in I could see that the interior decorator certainly had eclectic tastes. From the zebra skin chairs to the many random pictures that covered the walls (the men’s bathroom walls look like a tasteful version of Playboy), it really captured the carnal and almost animalistic nature of the holiday. However, it maintained its sense of class with the elegant, wrap-around bar and dark wood accents.
I was at the restaurant as part of a work party for a few of my mom’s coworkers, so I was privileged to sample a wider variety of food than I would have if I just went there by myself. While it was a parade of different foods, the bill was astronomic since this is not a cheap restaurant. The cheapest items, the sides, start at $7 and it goes up from there with the entrees averaging $30. Thankfully, I was in the presence of doctors, so the only thing I really had to pay for was my drink. Since we were in a Latin restaurant, I thought I should get a caipirinha ($10)to really celebrate. While I have never really had good luck finding an adequate version of this Brazilian drink, Carnivale finally fulfilled that need. A caipirinha (meaning “a person from the countryside” in Portuguese) consists of cachaca (distilled sugar cane liquor), sugar, and lime. What you end up with is a sweet, strong drink that still has a potent kick but an ephemeral lime background that cuts through the alcohol. It provided a perfect prologue to the culinary madness that quickly ensued.
Upon sitting down, our table was quickly covered with all sorts of appetizers. First, there was the ceviche tasting platter ($24). Ceviche is a cold seafood dish common to Ecuador, but Carnivale really took some creative liberties with the ingredients and presentation. The Ecuadorian shrimp ($12 on its own) mini-plate was my favorite of the bunch. Not only did I like it because I love my shrimp but also due to the semi-spicy pepper sauce and cool cucumber sorbet atop the crustaceans. The salmon ($12 on its own) was ok with its coconut milk sauce and lemon grass garnishes, but it was a bit too bland for my liking. As for the mixto ceviche, ($12 on its own) it caught my attention after the bland salmon due to its lemon zest and semi-chewy texture. All of the ceviche was wrapped up with a tuna tiradito ($12) that reminded me of a sushi roll minus the rice. It was probably my second favorite because of the julienned jicama that provided a crispy contrast to the tender slabs of tuna and the citrus zing compliments of the Japanese yuzu fruit. After sampling these fruits de mer, I had to try the tortilla chips and guacamole ($8/$15 depending on size). Both were wonderful. The chips were light in composition and salt content, and the guacamole was chunky and slightly spicy. Then there were the ropa vieja tacos ($12). This Cuban/Mexican fusion was tan sabroso since the braised skirt steak had plantains gently integrated into the savory mixture. The meaty mixture within the corn shell was topped off with some crumbly queso fresco and red onions to give a temperature contrast. I’d highly recommend this appetizer. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, these ox tail empanadas ($13) scampered onto my plate. I’ve been around the block when it comes to eating doughy pockets of meat from around the world, but these empanadas were something special. While all the other empanadas or equivalents I’ve tried consisted of baked, chewy and/or flaky flour based dough, these empanadas had a crunchy, fried corn husk that reminded me of a little armadillo. The interior wasn’t as innovative as the exterior, but the truffle chimichurri added a savory and aromatic element to a very unique dish. After polishing off the little morsel, my attention turned to the combination platter of charcuterie and artisan cheeses ($25). They spared no expense as this smorgasbord of salt and fat contained hard pecorino cheese slices, pungent blue cheese, gossamer-thin pieces of pata negra jamon, Catalan fuet sausage, a few garlic stuffed olives, grapes, and a horseradish-infused,brown mustard seed sauce on the side. After establishing myself as chairman of the cutting board, there was a lighter appetizer placed in front of me in the form of the wild mushroom coca ($11). The coca is a plate of Catalan origin but the word came from the Dutch word for “cake”. Ergo, Carnivale’s version of a coca was pushing it in terms of being a “cake”, but it was a perfect follow-up from the heavier charcuterie. I greatly enjoyed the goat cheese mixing with the fresh arugula while the mushrooms were pan-roasted that added a semi-beefy flavor. All of which atop the sourdough flatbread made it seem more like a healthy flatbread pizza than a cake. If you think that I’m going down the healthy route with this appetizer, think again. The calamari ($12), albeit fried, was not as greasy as you’d find in your typical Italian restaurant. Plus, each ringlet was coated in a super sweet and sour adobo sauce that harmonized with the more earthy elements like the smoked hazelnuts, carrots, and green papaya slivers. Surprisingly, this was the end of the appetizers, and I still had room in my stomach to take on the big bad entrees.
The second act in this gastronomic epic opened with the churrasco from Argentina ($32). It was a relatively simple plate consisting of succulent slices of prime sirloin sandwiched between a garlic green chimichurri sauce and a yuca puree below that tasted almost tasted like a liquefied mozzarella. Each bit was like heaven, and the excellent asparagus spears were a mere afterthought to this symphony of masterful meat. I followed the beef up with a little seafood in the form of paella ($32). While this Spanish rice dish didn’t seem to contain saffron, the essential but extremely expensive spice in a traditional paella, it didn’t take away from the overall quality of the plate. Each forkful contained pieces of shrimp, mussel, and squid along with a moist, tomato based rice that wasn’t exactly like what you would find in the homeland of paella: Valencia, Spain. It wasn’t a strong entry out of everything I tried. Luckily, I ended the entree round on a high note with the arrachera ($26). There was a lot happening on one plate. While there were similar juicy skirt steak pieces topped with chimichurri sauce, the meat morsels were atop a mound of arroz moros. While this Cuban side dish of rice and black beans cooked together is quite dry by itself, it was made more palatable when consumed with the steak. I also enjoyed the bacon sofrito (sauce) on the sides which served a salty and savory springboard for all of the other flavors to really jump out at me. Finally, there was the dessert.
While I was struggling with my food baby that was about 2 hours old and almost due, I managed to try one more item off of Carnivale’s menu: carmelized sweet plantains ($7). Lord, were these little nuggets the bomb diggity. I have to make up words to describe what was going through my mind when I ate them. I wasn’t sure if it was the meat sweats or the hormones from the food baby, but I was having a moment. From the thin crust to the gooey sweet interiors, these Caribbean specialties were Jamaican me crazy.
In the end, I was lying back in the booth and enjoying the Latin beats bumping over the sound system while I digested my food. If you’re looking for some of the best Latin fusion food around and are willing to drop some cash, then check out Carnivale!