Catching Up With New Kids: Casa Carmen

First the news: Casa Carmen, which opened on Franklin a year ago, is set to launch its second restaurant in the city in the Flatiron this month — at 5 West 21st — so if you are up that way, put it on your list. Because while we have had some great new additions to the neighborhood in the past year, Casa Carmen is one of my favorites for its authenticity (yes, I know, I know, but for real here), its charm and its hospitality. And the food is special.

I’ve been a couple times — I want to get in there for brunch but have not made it happen yet — and there is just something about the place. I love the decor for its warmth — the walls are skim-coated in an adobe color and textural, the details are all wood, leather and stone — and that communal table in the front is prime. On my last visit my pal and I took the corner by the window, and it may be one of my favorite seats in the neighborhood. (I am ridiculously picky about where I sit — much more so than what I eat.)

My friend has travelled a lot in Mexico, so I wanted to take advantage of her culinary experience there. And she said this was the best Mexican she had had in a while. As you’ll recall, the owners are the grandsons (Santiago and Sebastian) of Carmen “Titita” Ramírez Degollado, who was dubbed the “matriarch of Mexican flavors” by the New York Times more than once. Her 50-year-old restaurant, El Bajío, has now expanded to have 19 locations in Mexico City; her son helps run that empire with her son-in-law as the executive chef.

Sebastian trained at the École Hôtelière de Lausanne and is the general manager of Casa Carmen; he and his wife have settled in Battery Park City. (He also worked at for El Bajío for three years.) Santiago came to the city two years ago to work in finance; he’s keeping his day job but will be in charge of the beverage program and administration.

The original restaurant in Mexico City was opened in 1972 by Carmen’s husband, Raul Ramírez Degollado. When the senior Raul died just a few years later, Carmen — or Titita, since she is the third generation of Carmens in her family — became the chef and owner and started adding her own recipes from Veracruz and Oaxaca. For years, her family tried to persuade her to expand, but she refused.

In 2007, when Mark Bittman named Carmen one of two matriarchs of Mexican flavors, her son found a team of investors that convinced her to open a second restaurant with Raul at the helm. Seven years later they had 19 restaurants. The family has often thought to open an outpost in New York City, but it wasn’t until Santiago moved here that the idea started to gel. He scouted 70 spaces across the city, settling on this one on Franklin because of its high ceilings and classic New York look from the curb.

So to the food: we were content to let the maitre d’, Luis Garcia, do the ordering for us and he chose perfectly, though it was a LOT of food. The pulled pork appetizer (Panuchos Yucatecos) — or more accurately, cochinita pibil, which is marinated in citrus — came with black beans and pickled onions, and if you were there for drinks, that plus the ceviche (with avocado, olives, jalapenos and lime juice) would be perfect. The quesadillas are less exciting but still satisfying — they come as a trio and we fought over the mushroom. The cheese in that case is panela, which is tastier and thicker than mozzarella.

The Pescado a la veracruzana is a catch of the day situation — we had branzino and split one order — and it was light, with green tomatoes, olives, capers but somehow not acidic (“definitely Mexican but not Mexican,” is how my friend put it) and it was cooked perfectly with a crispy skin.

The flan was superb, but we were excited about the pastel de elote, a warm corn cake served with hazelnut ice cream, because we had never had anything like it. You will love it or hate it — it’s not sweet, and it’s all about the texture.

Since neither of us were drinking, Luis brought us the margarita with cilantro and pineapple with a dusting of chipotle. Breath in deep as it’s going down — the smell is almost better than the taste.

I was expecting to love it, so no surprises there. But the bill was a surprise, especially for these times in Tribeca fine dining: the total was $138. NB no alcohol, but still, that’s as good as it gets around here these days.

Casa Carmen
114 Franklin | Church & Broadway
Monday 5 to 10p
Tuesday to Friday 5 to 11p
Saturday 11a to 11p
Sunday 11a to 10p