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Divvy: Small plates, arranged by food groups 

click to enlarge Tempura Tofu at Divvy. - MARK LEE

The new Carmel is a town of contrasts and controversy. Much as I might harbor strong feelings about the direction the town is going, I’m going to leave those discussions to the politicians. Amidst all the hue and cry about the buildings where our tax dollars are being spent, one gem has risen to stand head and shoulders above its competition: Divvy in Carmel provides a dining experience that is unique north of 96th Street.

The last time I remember such an adventurous and technically accomplished establishment in downtown Carmel was Café de la Place in 1988. It was a gorgeous French restaurant full of promise, but which died from an absence of local interest. I’m convinced that Divvy will fare much better.

Occupying a prime space in the Residences Building in the Arts & Design District, Divvy combines an austere, but unexpectedly comfortable, sense of design. The furniture could come out of Alice in Wonderland, only in black, white and shades of gray. It’s a place where you can quite happily spend hours enjoying the food and not worrying about your bum falling asleep in the ergonomically-designed chairs and booths.

The menu here is different from any that I’ve seen, frankly, anywhere else. Divided roughly into food groups — for example “Tidbits,” “Sea” and “Pork” — the menu offers dozens of small plate dishes which can happily be shared by two or, on occasion, four. Although the number of offerings was overwhelming on a first visit and the portion sizes not clearly defined, our outstanding server, Lola, was of tremendous assistance when it came to making our selections.

The two of us ended up picking 11 dishes. Of these, four were outstanding, four were very good and three were good. This is a high average. We were really pleasantly surprised by the promptness, quality and freshness, not to mention the originality of the dishes. Although space precludes mentioning all of them, I would like to highlight the unusual and delicious Bacon Jam with Horseradish Mustard and Pretzel Buns ($7), a dish which combined sweet, savory and heat into an almost-perfect appetizer. The Duckadillas ($11), a portion far bigger than we had expected, was succulent, mildly fatty and perfectly balanced and went down altogether too easily. A dish of pork belly (Bacon Bites - $9), poached and seared, was tender and as melting as imaginable.

Much to my surprise, as an avowed carnivore, the real star of the evening was the Tempura Tofu ($9). Almost passed over with a snide remark, my wife convinced me to try it. Set atop blood orange glass noodles, the tofu was fried in tempura batter and slathered in a savory Teriyaki glaze. It literally had us fighting over the last bite. I can hardly believe I’m writing this, but this dish is a must-try.

Maybe slightly less successful was a modified French Onion Soup ($5) which, in a quirky way, attempted to pay homage to a French classic by inverting and re-inventing it. With a bit more essence of beef and onion stock, it probably would have succeeded.

The beer and wine list is well thought out with selections which complement the incredibly diverse nature of the food. In spite of all the dishes we sampled, there were at least a couple dozen more worth trying on subsequent trips. This place is definitely worth the journey, but be sure to make reservations as Divvy can get packed at peak hours (and that makes me very happy).

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