At the same time we were walking into it, an elderly couple was leaving the restaurant named after, and co-owned by, Carmen Aurand. "This is definitely the best restaurant in Woodland Park," one said to the other in the doorway. They sounded like they'd found a find.
And Carmen is certainly an interesting option in the City Above the Clouds, adding a color of its own to a food scene that continues to show flashes of promise. But ultimately the new tapas bar next to Domino's wound up proving difficult for us to recommend to anybody not already local to Midland Avenue.
It wasn't the cozily decorated dining room, done up in dark colors and wine trappings and split between two ends with the kitchen in the middle. It was everything else.
For instance, the value-conscious wine list is small but solid, offering one selection each of individual varieties from vineyards in the Americas and Europe.
But it was no pleasure to drink a going-sour $6 glass of Pinot Noir from Lost Angel Wines that our server originally forgot to bring. And while a bananas Foster martini ($7.50) could have been the perfect liquid dessert, the hot breath of alcohol ripping through every unbalanced sip wouldn't let it.
That misplaced bit of heat aside, it was almost all cold, all the time. Our half of the dining room was so chilly — coolness pouring off of the many windows perfectly placed for views of Pikes Peak — we did as our fellow diners had done and donned coats until, thankfully and with our gratitude for her care, the server noticed and cranked the heat.
All that just left the food from chef Carlos Macis. Four lukewarm bacon-wrapped dates ($6) were probably the highlight of our dinner, though they were overmatched by the spicy orange sauce drizzled below, not to mention the hardly complementary side of pungent, marinated olives. A tepid, stuffed Anaheim chili ($6.50) was packed with gray, stringy crab meat that tasted like canned tuna. (Points for the zingin' side of pico, though.) And the Basque flatbread ($6.50) of sausage, tomatoes, olives and onions came off more like pieces piled on bread than something whole.
We appreciated that our server thought to split a moderately overcooked but pretty good filet of ahi tuna ($15) with grilled vegetables and saffron rice between two plates. But it was all butter and no spice with the yellow rice, and no crunch to the yellow squash and zucchini.
Full satisfaction finally came at dessert, with the house-made, Gouda-stuffed empanada ($5) topped with a syrupy fruit-compote and white chocolate.
And we did enjoy another standout at lunch. Though the room was again cold enough for coats, four succulent meatballs of chorizo, lamb and beef, called albondigas ($6), dripped juices while singing a harmonious song of fennel and anise, with a gorgeously bright sofrito interlude. It was like being broke and finding 50 bucks.
That unexpected bit of mastery reverted, though, with a not-unredeemable bison burger ($9), which was cooked well past our requested medium-rare and whose split-roll bun fell into chunks after just a few bites. Finally, a pair of overcooked lamb chops ($16) brought stiff, gristly parts and thick, salty brown gravy, to say nothing of its side of high-sodium soup laden with mushy vegetables. They did, however, manage some appeal — at least they were hot.