Carlyle reminds me of a clubby little spot on New York City’s tony Upper East Side. Its beautiful dark wood, white tablecloths and dazzling mirrored bar reflecting the rainbow of liquors would take in Type-As who spent a taxing day telling the nanny or junior partners what to do.
We’re not in New York, but Carlyle has the makings of a taut, chic sanctuary, though the noisy Fremont Bridge is only a few blocks above and beyond, and Carlyle operates in a semi-industrial neighborhood. Small and compact, the restaurant’s dining room seats about 45. A cozier bar has room for about 20 quaffers.
To get right down to it, I like the food at Carlyle. You can live off the “small tastes,” or the bar menu. Several starters are on the main dinner menu as well.
The Westcott Bay Mussels ($11), which arrive in an urn-like bowl, are chubby and juicy, simmered in a charred tomato broth with thin rounds of spicy chorizo. As the neighboring mussel-lover confirmed before I finished mine, the shellfish were the best ever.
Another absolutely delicious small taste is the Crab Risotto. Prepared with a lobster broth, mushrooms and hunky bites of fresh crab, the dish is finished off with goat cheese “butter” and a sprinkling of herbs. I refused to share this $13 starter, which hearty eaters might warm up with. It was plenty for me, and plenty rich.
This is the point when the waiter changed the drama of our meal.
“Don’t order that!” he said about the risotto. “It takes 20 minutes. Order this,” which were a half-dozen Olympic Peninsula oysters on the half shell ($14 for six, $20 for 12). They were perfectly fresh and slid straight down. I tried the risotto on my second visit.
Then like a foodie’s abracadabra dream, the Crispy Calamari Fritto Misto ($12) appeared. The calamari was tossed with asparagus pieces, parsley, preserved lemons and a sweet Thai barbecue sauce spiked with star anise. Not that we ordered it, but our server told us it was ours once he set it on the table. It was his mistake, he said.
When we tried to order the Carlyle Winter Salad ($8), he said, “No. Boring.”
The salad is a melange of greens, roasted pears, Satsumas, pomegranate, spiced pecans and fromage blanc, spiffed up with a citrus vinaigrette. I know because I ordered it on another visit, and I loved it.
Instead of the Carlyle Winter Salad, he brought us the $14 Duck Confit Salad, with arugula, frisee and mizuna greens, topped by crisp duck confit and shaved Asian pears. It was dressed with a vinaigrette of Roquefort cheese, sherry and shallots.
Sure, it was fine, but we didn’t ask for it. To his credit, the server didn’t charge us for it.
As the evening progressed it became clear that we were under the server’s somewhat goofy thumb. When we reached our entree decisions, he destroyed any thought of the Hawaiian Ahi Tuna with Foie Gras, served with spinach whipped potatoes.
The salmon was a better bet, he insisted, and we’d like the Grilled Loin of Cattail Creek Farmed Lamb ($27) served with root vegetables more than the smaller Grilled Saddle of Cattail Creek Lamb ($11). He was pushing the meat’s cut rather than the higher price. I’m hoping.
The Tasmanian Salmon ($26), grilled with a Dungeness crab gnocchi, vegetable “noodles,” fennel and arugula salad was very good, though the gnocchi, muddled up with the crab, proved elusive. It was the hidden treasure under the fish.
Carlyle’s dishes do sound marvelous on the menu, but we thought the descriptions delivered a bit more than the food.
And because the server was playing loose with us, we figured we could do the same with him and persuade him to bring us some of those spinach whipped potatoes as a side dish. (They are part of the ahi presentation.) He said sure, then forgot. By this time, we were firing questions at him, prompting him to inquire if we were “a bunch of lawyers.” No, I wanted to say, only restaurant critics.
But onward. We were up for dessert, each priced at $8.50.
Pastry chef Steven Smith is an artist with sweets. We settled on the Baked-to-Order Apple and Quince Soufflé. It came to the table fresh out of the oven, though it suffered consistency problems (maybe it needed more flour?). The Caramelized Banana and Coconut Cream Tart arrived on cue. Before those two desserts made their appearances, guess what?
Our server decided we should have the Lemon and Candied Pistachio Cannoli Tower, which turned out to be a collection of three cylinderlike structures, or as he explained, “very phallic.” Perhaps the waiter anticipated the soufflé wait would make us impatient and cranky.
At the end of the three-hour meal, our server, seemingly exhausted, crouched down next us and put his head on our table and his hand on one of my fellow diner’s shoulders. “He must think we like him a lot,” she said.
When he brought us the check, he didn’t charge us for any dishes we didn’t order. His addition was correct. If we’d been stuffy, we would have stiffed him on the tip for his cheekiness, but we aren’t stuffy.
On another visit, a different server didn’t order for us, but he incorrectly added up the bill. He brought us an $8 martini on $1 Martini Monday. He forgot to mention that a $1 cocktail must be made with house booze, rather than with a more expensive gin or vodka. He apologized for “not making that clear,” but he didn’t offer to change the bill or make amends.
Thumbs up for the sophisticated food and setting, but be ready for some tipsy service.