Carmine’s Creole Café Review: Hurricanes in Bryn Mawr

We review Carmine’s on Lancaster Avenue. At Carmine’s Creole Café the gumbo is as dark and thick as

At Carmine’s Creole Café the gumbo is as dark and thick as Mississippi mud — exactly as it should be. The crabcake is an eight-ounce jumbo lump whopper held together with garlic mayonnaise, resting on crème fraîche mashed potatoes. Roast duck comes with bacon gravy and fried oysters and andouille-duck jambalaya. Sticky-bun bread pudding sprawls across a dessert plate, ample enough for four. Hasn’t anyone told proprietor John Mims that tiny tastes on tot-sized plates are the reigning restaurant trend? "I don’t do small," sneers Mims, who moved Carmine’s from Narberth to Bryn Mawr earlier this year.

With that change of address — its third in nine years — Carmine’s went from a spartan 44-seat BYOB with a no-reservations policy to a 75-seat space with a pricey martini list (including a potent take on the classic Hurricane), live blues, and a full reservation book. The menu is much the same, with some successful dishes and others that are out of balance, memorable only for being over-seasoned; with the addition of the bar, the vibe is loud — very loud — and livelier. The look is Big Easy speakeasy, as customers funnel through a dim vestibule into a dining room decorated with metal scrollwork and hurricane lamps suspended from a pressed-tin ceiling. Servers can mar the meal, hovering and clearing plates in a piecemeal fashion that pressures customers to hurry up.

What Mims does, besides oversize portions, is born-on-the-bayou flavors that are most enjoyable when the kitchen goes easy on the cayenne, chili powder and Crystal hot sauce. Mims still does morning prep, but takes the role of host at night and leaves the execution to chef Paul Martin, who came north from Lafayette, Louisiana. Their most subtle savory offerings include a crab bisque lavished with lump crabmeat, and a crab and smoked gouda tart garnished with cocktail crab claws and pureed scallions. Cajun spicing is dialed down to a whisper in the penne pasta piled high with crawfish, crabmeat and shrimp in a restrained cream sauce. Fried Gulf Coast oysters, available at last as a stand-alone appetizer, are coated with just enough seasoned cornmeal to assure a good crunch. Crawfish spring rolls packed with crustacean meat are tasty, but the soy-ginger dipping sauce doesn’t belong here. The best dish of all is the bone-in chicken pan-roasted in butter, with an entourage of especially flattering side dishes-smoked-gouda-enriched grits, sautéed wild mushrooms, and crisp chayote squash slaw.

A few dishes carry sweetness or heat to such extremes that the menu ought to have a warning note. Blackened grouper fillets, flat and dry, are inexplicably paired with mashed sweet potatoes and a syrupy praline sauce best suited to a dessert. An otherwise fine pork chop was nearly smothered by a topping of harsh-tasting crawfish chili, which I scraped off. Deep-fried duck jambalaya croquettes pack a painful hot-pepper punch. A glass of Louisiana-brewed Abita Turbodog brown ale will quench the fire, but that draft beer will go down even better with the more nuanced dishes.