If you're going to take my wallet, you'd better impress me. Whenever I go out into the world of big-city fine dining, I always have to make a mental adjustment to the menu prices. Generally, if you allow a famous name to seduce you through its door, the kitchen will deliver. A visit to one of the quickly multiplying Nobu restaurants left me hungry (the portions were insanely small), destitute (the prices were insanely high), but happy -- because I'd just had the best two bites of fish I'd ever put in my mouth.
I'm a sucker for a pretty place too. I like to see some sincere thought behind the design and those nice little details, like well-planned lighting or a subtle glaze over an ordinary paint finish. I'm the customer who notices. And yet, as beautiful as the setting might be, I'll never come back if the food doesn't at least equal its setting.
Karsen's in Carytown was built from scratch in a space previously used for retail, enabling Chef Mac McCrowell and fellow owners Laura Foster and Jeanne Strong, formerly of Zeus Gallery Café, to realize their vision down to very last nail. A patio out front leads you into an understated room with a long, smooth concrete-topped bar on the left. Off to the right is a low-ceilinged, cozy length of tables. Up the stairs, past the large, black-and-white family photos, are different small dining rooms, all in cool, silvery greens, with gleaming wood and striking light fixtures that look like upside-down horns from a herd of black and white Holsteins if dairy cows had enormous horns. It's a comfortable place wherever you end up seated, and the thick cushions on the booths upstairs alone encourage lingering.
Then you get the menu and you mentally calculate your bank balance. I did a little unscientific perusal of local menu prices to see if my initial shock was justified, checking the offerings at Acacia, Pomegranate and Millie's (all similar to Karsen's in design and ambition). Both Acacia and Millie's veer into the $30-plus range with a few of their offerings, while Pomegranate stands firm in the mid- to upper $20s. Beef, it seems, will always be the most expensive item on a menu, with lamb a close second. Only Millie's charges more than $26 for a piece of fish, and the best deal on any menu seems to be the pasta or the salmon.
But Karsen's has the highest average entrée price in my unofficial survey. And the appetizer prices are mind-blowing. A very basic caprese salad for $13 comes with just four pieces of buffalo mozzarella and five slices of ripe tomatoes in a pool of balsamic vinegar and olive oil. A smallish piece of moist salmon with asparagus tops out at $19, and it makes me wonder why, with the addition of a side, it isn't an entrée. The tostada, thin, crisp and freshly deep-fried, is heaped with a mound of pulled pork and slathered with a spicy chili sauce reminiscent of the old Border Café salsa, with a pile of Manchego on top and crème fraŒche on the side. The choices the chef makes are interesting, but I'd rather have the foie gras I saw on other menus if I'm going to fork over $16.
But it's not all about the money, is it? Intensity of flavor, daring choices and inventiveness are all worth something, aren't they?
Karsen's organic beef filet is perfectly cooked to order, and I like the contrast of flavors in the sweet-on-the-tongue, hot-in-the-nose horseradish-beet puree. The scallops and calamari have tender pillows of gnocchi floating in saffron and fennel, but unfortunately, the chunks of chorizo swamp the delicately briny flavors. I want that kind of flavor slap, though, when I order the duck, which was lovely and sweet in itself, but muffled by a flavorless cushion of entirely unseasoned rice noodles that no scattering of cashews and orange slices could rescue.
A dish to go back for, the tuna is enormous and deeply flavored with a porcini and garlic crust that matches well, bite for bite, the accompanying wasabi-spiked mashed potatoes. The lobster risotto is good too, but ultimately, I wondered why I was seeing so much that I've seen on menus for years. I'll pay for a lot of things, and I think ambition should be rewarded. A little more risk, and Karsen's could easily lure me back to its cool and comfortable tables. S
3411 W. Cary St.
Dinner and bar:
Monday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-closing.
Sunday brunch: 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Smoking at the bar only and on patio after 10 p.m.