My wife Jun and I recently visited Cartagena in Colombia for a short Memorial Day weekend trip. I have always wanted to visit this city known for its colorful colonial buildings in the walled Old Town. While the weather during our stay wasn’t quite ideal (facing the Caribbean, it was a little too humid for my taste and there were some times when it rained rather heavily), Jun and I still very much enjoyed walking around the storied Old Town for food, drinks, shopping and more. Of course I did some rather extensive research before we arrived to find some noteworthy restaurants we should visit. Cartagena has a good mix of upscale restaurants with modern bent and more modest restaurants focusing on traditional Caribbean fare. Our first stop was at Carmen, considered one of the leading restaurants in the city known for its fresh take on Caribbean food. Overall, it was a satisfying dining experience where we had a couple of favorites.
Carmen has five-course and seven-course tasting options, but we were not too hungry and therefore opted for a la carte options. Jun is always partial to good octopus dishes, and she was very impressed with the pulpo dish that we ordered, accompanied by pistachio puree, roasted garlic and brown butter ponzu. The texture of the octopus, which was neither too chewy nor mushy, was just about right, and despite the colorful presentation of the plating which suggested a lot of different ingredients went into it, the flavor was surprisingly very well-balanced. Compared to the octopus starter, the main dishes were slightly less impressive but still delicious. I ordered a dish called “Caribe,” consisting of fried sea bass, green plantain crust and coconut rice risotto. Jun and I both wished the sea bass came out without being fried, but the texture of the fish inside was very good, and I liked that the risotto was not overly creamy. Jun’s dish that we shared, called “No Me Llames Cazuela (or in English “Do Not Call Me Casserole”), was an assortment of various seafoods (citrus butter prawns, rock shrimp chorizo and local mussels) accompanied by cassava (a type of root vegetable in South America) noodles and Caribbean vindaloo sauce. Initially we weren’t sure what to make of this peculiar plate as the ingredients seemed to be all over the place on their own, until we realized that it became immensely more delicious once we mixed the vindaloo sauce all over the dish. For dessert, I highly recommend a dish called “Tropical”, consisting of Brazil nut “crumble” and Mandarin orange and lemongrass sorbet. I was looking for something refreshing to end the night, and it turned out to be exactly what I needed.
Carmen is one of the more popular restaurants in the city so I recommend booking in advance for prime dinner time. The restaurant consists of an indoor space (where mostly foreigners probably tired from the humid weather of the city were hanging out) and an outdoor space (where the local Colombians more or less immune to such humidity were seated). We were seated indoors but I certainly would’ve preferred the charming outdoor dining space if the weather hadn’t already got to my body at that point. For a restaurant in Cartagena, Carmen is certainly not cheap (a la carte food we shared plus a few cocktails ended up costing slightly over $100 in USD) so be prepared if you were expecting a bargain meal (I’ll certainly introduce some of them in my later reviews). Would I call Carmen the game changer in a way I would call some of the best restaurants in New York City? Probably not, but it was still worth a trip to see how Colombians use the modern technique to reinterpret the rich culinary traditions of the Caribbean.
KenScale: 8.0/10 (Jun’s Score: 7.75/10)
- Creativity: 8.5/10
- Execution: 8.0/10
- Ingredients: 8.5/10
- Flavor: 8.0/10
- Texture: 8.0/10
- Value: 7.5/10
Address: Calle 38 # 8-19, Calle del Santísimo, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
Telephone: +57-5 664-5116