I normally avoid the intersection of State and Rush streets, as if it carried with it a viral plague. However the Viagra Triangle, as we affectionately call it, still has some surprises. Sure, there are the women whose dog's hairdos match their own and, of course, there are old men in just-as-old-school silk Versace shirts and wearing Aramis cologne, just hoping that there is a desperate divorcee lurking about. However, in that Gold Coast cultural milieu is also Carmine's.
First, hands down, it's one of the best patios on Rush from which to watch the dogs in boots and toddlers in tiaras on parade. The winemaker at Frog's Leap Winery in Napa Valley once told me that 75 percent of wine's flavor comes from the environment in which you drink it. A hobo in an alley guzzling Gallo from a jug probably is going to have a less savory experience than say one in a hammock in the hills of Napa. Carmine's is like that. You could eat at some horrific place without the ambiance, but why on earth would you want to?
Second, you can actually afford to eat here. Sure, if you order lamb chops and a bottle of Dom Perignon you'll need a little extra padding in your wallet. But their pasta entrees range from $14 through $20; add a salad or soup and a glass of quality vino and you're still spending less than $25 a person to see what truly is the greatest show on Earth traipse along the street in front of you. Who needs le carnivale when you have Rush Street on any warm evening?
As for the food at Carmine's, I would not say there was anything groundbreaking about the menu. You will not find exotic meats mixed with unpronounceable spices. Frankly, most nights, that's probably what you're looking for. Its quality food served simply and that makes all the difference in the world. I will say this: SHARE AN APPETIZERthey're huge. I ordered the steamed mussels and thought, "a small bucket would hit the spot!" Instead, my server brought nearly two pounds of them. Being a fat girl, I ate almost every one of those little buggers. I thought the best mussels I had ever had were at Café Bruxelle in New York, but I was mistaken. These were really quite the best mussels I have ever had. My dining companion had the stuffed baby bellas and thoroughly enjoyed them. But if you like butter, why wouldn't you enjoy butter, Italian bread crumbs and garlic?
I ordered the filet and was truly blown away. I ordered it rare and it came to me rare. C'est un miracle, n'est ce pas? Why does every other restaurant just cook the hell out of their beef? If I wanted charcoal, I'd eat some Kingsford. The steak was topped with a portabella mushroom and glazed with a peppery marsala wine sauce that brought out the meat's flavor. It was served with something green but I'm a meatasaurus; broccolini is nifty but give me cow!
After I ordered the steak, our fabulous server Dominika ( "It's with a 'k'. I'm Polish, darlings!" ) informed us that Carmine's has a full range of gluten-free pasta dishes made with quinoa. So for those who, like me, cannot eat wheat, or those who just want a lower-calorie, higher protein pasta alternative can get that at Carmine's. My faithful dining companion ordered oricchette pasta with broccolini and sausage tossed in olive oil. He liked it but added that it was "slightly underseasoned." Pasta can be a bit on the mild side if the water is not properly salted so maybe it was a fluke. He still said he enjoyed it and still ordered dessert.
Speaking of, I never order signature desserts. It's like ordering a drink with an umbrella in itwholly unnecessary. No, I always get the staples and see if the chef can handle those. If a chef cannot even tackle crème brulee, why would I want to even eat his Oreo-crusted cheesecake cupcake tower? So I ordered crème brulee, and it was quite good. My only dissatisfaction with the dish was with the dish itself. I like a slightly deeper ramekin but this was shallower. So if you love to crack your crème brulee, then you'd like this one for sure.
Carmine's is not ( insert new trendy restaurant name here ) . It's a staple and an old stand-by in the Gold Coast for more than 15 years. If a restaurant has that kind of staying power, it's certainly worth another visit. If you do nothing else, order a drink or three, eat some mussels and sit and watch the summer of a thousand matching dog hairdos parade on by, for this is Chicago's elite, and it's better than the Real Housewives of ANY county.
See more about Carmine's at www.rosebudrestaurants.com/rest2.php.