It's true: Carlos Echeandia really does walk into the parking lot to greet customers at Carlos' Bistro, somehow finding the time between bartending, serving and playing host extraordinaire to mind the front window.
I'd heard of the gesture, but never actually experienced how special it makes you feel until my first visit to the 81/2-year-old, premier fine-dining spot last week. I'd been beyond curious about Carlos', but what held me back is that which has been widely expressed in online forums and by acquaintances elsewhere: The place is damn expensive.
Carlos' prices eclipse those of Walter's, The Famous, PepperTree — all but the Broadmoor's Penrose Room, making it a "special occasion" place for a lot of us.
But there are those in certain ZIP codes for whom the average Carlos' bill is a trifle, and it's clear that this demographic comprises his bread-and-butter. Especially after I overhear a nearby table warmly introducing their server to a visiting family member. (God bless regulars with money.)
So what I went to find out, clear as Cristal, was this: Is Carlos' worth it?
Let's chew on this as I did on my fantastic, 12-ounce, $45 USDA Prime Peruvian Lomo Saltado ribeye.
First, I should tell you that a lot of those aforementioned online comments also detail just how damn good the food is. I should also mention the 5-to-5:30-p.m. early bird deal that knocks half off smaller portions of most entrées.
And I should share with you Carlos' response to me questioning the prices: "I believe you get what you pay for. I would never open a restaurant thinking about the cost line, like everything should be under 10 percent, and then when you taste it, you're like, 'Oh my, what is this?' When you're coming here I'm giving you an experience — top quality."
Wild-caught seafood arrives daily, and those Prime cuts represent the top 2 percent of graded commercial beef. Gorgeous plate presentations get colorful garnishes like microgreens and paper-thin sweet-potato crisps. Bold flavors fuse South American and European influences, such as the Basque-inspired saffron risotto under my steak and accompanying white-wine-and-vinegar-sautéed tomato-and-onion stew, which harkens back to the popular Peruvian version served over french fries.
Spectacular, almost gooey-centered, garlic-seared jumbo sea scallops ($39) circle a tower of grilled vegetables in a rich, semi-spicy aged white cheddar-chipotle cream sauce over pasta. (A gluten-free rice version, in our case; Carlos also stocks GF bread from La Baguette.) And marvelously fresh Chesapeake Bay oysters on the half shell ($10/half dozen) rest on ice inside a giant leaf-shaped glass alongside cocktail sauce, horseradish, a crowned lemon and mini Tabasco bottle.
And how does Carlos' do a daily-special salad? It lofts lobster tail ($19.99, refreshingly split at no charge) above lively honey-tarragon-vinaigrette spring mix flecked with candied pistachios, toasted piñons and goat cheese crumbles. Grapefruit segments provide an accent, but they don't entirely work when incorporated.
For argument's sake, let's say the prices do hold up for the quality proteins and terrific executions. Done. But I yield no ground when calling the hooch and sweets decidedly overpriced.
After inquiring about a signature drink, I was lured to Carlos' Pisco Sour, without asking its price. Out came a fabulous, texturally tantalizing (from the egg whites) foamy treat, with grape brandy softened by tart lime syrup and Angostura bitters. Carlos' Peruvian version slays the similar Chilean version, and one could easily suck down a few, but not at a punishing $15.
Mixed berries with a divine whiskey-vanilla cream sauce, despite arriving in a Chihuly-esque, starfish-shaped glass plate, shouldn't run $12. Nor should a cheesecake crêpe "cigar" with basic accoutrements, as enjoyable as it is, command $10. (We'd actually ordered a key lime pie; the evening's one flaw.)
Which brings me back to the full cost of this meal, including a $4 tea bag in hot water. Post-tip: $199.82. Yum, but ouch.
What other value can I quantify? Well, there's that "experience" Carlos describes, and as with that dessert cigar, he's not really blowin' smoke. There's the black exposed ceiling and black half-walls, painted a textured copper above, with a commanding bar lit by stringed white lights.
Then there's the man whose charisma — my fiancée called him "magnetic" — suggests his 33 years in restaurants has culminated in this one night just for you. Having recently returned from his annual March vacation (during which Carlos' closes), he glowed, relaxed but expressive with a heavy accent, utterly charming in reminiscing about growing up in Lima, Peru, cooking with his father.
He later describes immigrating to the U.S. in 1980, working his way up from dishwasher to cook, and co-dreaming of Carlos' for 20-plus years with Marcia, after the two met while working at the Antlers Hilton. Say what you will about his prices, but he's a self-made man.
So is it all worth it? Most of it, yes; some, no. Certainly, if you can afford it. It truly is a dining experience unlike any other, rendered nearly theatric by the consummate gentleman.