Exuberant. Lively. Exciting. Lush. Energetic. Lavish. And very, very tasty.
Tasty? That adjective may not seem to fit in with the rest, unless you know I’m talking about Carnivale. This restaurant tries to capture the passion of Latin culture, and does a pretty darn good job of it.
The space itself is enormous. To fill an enormous space, you need oversized art and fixtures, and Carnivale is chock-full of those. From the towering palm leaves centerpieces in the main dining room, to the colossal drapes that separate the smaller dining rooms from the main floor, to the oversized light-fixtures, it felt like I’d dropped through Alice’s rabbit hole, sipped her shrinking potion, and landed in a South American Wonderland.
The party atmosphere continues through the private dining rooms. They’re named after various Latin dances, i.e. Flamenco, Samba, Lambada, etc, and they have individual bars, which is a really nice feature and limits the wait for drinks. The Flamenco room is two levels, with the lower level featuring a fireplace, and is opened up on busy nights.
Towards the back of the main dining room, next to the guacomole station (you can’t get much fresher than that), is an open staircase leading to balcony seating and the upstairs rooms. My friend and I noticed one lonely table off to the side that had its own landing and was situated a few feet below the balcony. We both thought that looked like the best seat in the house. Chris Wunderlich, Assistant General Manager, told us that you can’t actually make a reservation for that particular table, but if it’s not too busy you can ask for the “rock star” table.
Carnivale’s featured cocktail is, of course, the mojito. My guest ordered the regular, and I had the raspberry. I’m not a fruity-drink kind of gal, but I figured we needed to try both. Fortunately, mine wasn’t cloying and saccharine-sweet. Both were excellent. I plan on going back and trying some of the other cocktails, like the Carnivale Martini. This variation on a margarita uses Sauza Reposado, Cointreau, and Pomegranate juice. I’d also like to try the Horchatatini. They take the traditional beverage made of rice milk and add Captain Morgan with a cinnamon sugar rim.
The cuisine covers many of the Latin American countries with, of course, the chef’s personal twist.
We started off with a ceviche trio. There are five different types, and you can try one, three, or all five. Our server, Andreas, recommended the ahi tuna and the meztiso (hamachi, or yellowtail), and we added the spicy shrimp. All three were excellent. The shrimp was a bit spicy, but I like that.
Next we tried the Ropa Vieja, a dish of Cuban braised beef served with plantains and a spicy mayo. We kinda felt like we had to, since our server and Ramon, another manager, both recommended it. When we asked what we should try they both immediately suggested it, and they were right. We also had fried manchego cheese (can you ever go wrong with fried cheese?) and garlic shrimp.
By this time we were about giggly – and no, the mojitos hadn’t gotten to us. It wasn’t just the decor that was over-the-top good. The service was absolutely impeccable, and the cuisine was fresh and creative. It was complex without being complicated. I felt like kicking my feet up Rita Morena-style from West Side Story.
We still hadn’t selected our entrees. Everything on the menu looked good. I thought about closing my eyes and pointing, but once again we asked Andreas for his recommendation. He suggested Mama Mendez’ Arroz Con Mariscos. Named after Executive Chef Mark Mendez’ mother, it’s his version of paella, with shrimp, mussels, squid, fish, chorizo, and chicken. Done poorly it could be a mess. Done well and it’s a perfect blend of individual flavors. It was done well.
We also ordered the lamb, which was served with peruvian potatoes over a condiment of olives and avocado. On it’s own, the lamb seemed like it needed salt. Trusting the chef and combining it with the condiment, the seasoning was perfect.
Our side dishes were grilled asparagus (another dish you can’t go wrong with) and yucca. As a child I hated the plant. We had a couple in our yard and they would attack me ruthlessly whenever I mowed the lawn. As a culinary option…oh, starchy, garlicky goodness.
Since we knew we could trust Andreas, we let him choose our wine. He brought us each two half glasses: a malbec rose with the appetizers and an Argentinian merlot with the entrees. Once again, he was spot on.
The only aspect of the whole dinner that didn’t have us acting like a couple of kids entering Disneyland was dessert. Part of dessert, anyway. The Venezuelan chocolate cake was warm and gooey and had me moaning with delight. The raspberry ice cream? Not so much. There were ice crystals throughout and the seeds were distracting. My recommendation? Get the cake with the marcona almond ice cream. Now THAT sounds like heaven on a plate.
702 W Fulton Market
Wednesdays: Live latin music, 7:30 to 11pm
Fridays: DJs in the Lounge, 9pm to 1am
If you’ve ever headed towards O’Hare on the Kennedy you can’t miss it. It’s right over the interstate one block north of Lake Street.