Although Carmel has evolved by leaps and bounds from the uninspired culinary landscape of just a few years ago, it’s an unfortunate truth that, for such an upwardly mobile and prosperous town, it once again lacks a first-rate dining destination. Since the sale and subsequent closing of the Glass Chimney a couple of months ago, the overall balance of quality eateries has tilted once more to the chains, while the independents staunchly hold onto the middle ground of casual dining and, more recently, wine bars.
When I heard that John Perazzo, a longtime fixture on Indy’s Italian dining scene, was opening a new establishment on Meridian Street, I was hopeful that his J. Razzo’s would be situated to partially redress the balance. Based on a couple of recent dinners, however, I think it’s going to be an uphill battle.
Occupying a highly desirable location facing Meridian Street at 126th Street, J. Razzo’s is about as visible as a restaurant can get in Carmel. Behind the upscale strip-mall exterior, the designers have created a cool and relaxing atmosphere featuring lots of deep wood and earth tones. There’s not a checkered tablecloth in sight: tables are crisply set with white linens and elegant silverware; the serving dishes and stemware are similarly stylish. In the back of the ample space there’s a substantial private dining area. And, best of all, there’s no Sinatra on the soundtrack.
Those familiar with the Carmel dining scene over the years will doubtless recognize several of the staff: There’s an abundance of seasoned professionals in the front of house from Fletchers, Panache and the aforementioned Glass Chimney. So it stands to reason that service is professional and calmly efficient. Dishes are well-timed and arrive hot and promptly.
It’s what’s on the plates that can be a touch problematic, though. Over the course of two recent visits, dishes have ranged from somewhat better than good to less than mediocre. It’s easy to blame the inconsistency on the restaurant’s youth, but with the combined years of experience on display here, one would expect more stability in the kitchen. Amongst the more impressive dishes was a solid, if simple, take on Cioppino ($18), a traditional Italian fish stew. Made with salmon, shrimp and clams, it was properly cooked, the tomato sauce fresh and nicely spiced. Even though the ingredients might not have been strictly authentic, the dish still delivered.
Equally good were the risotto balls, a light and savory appetizer for $8, and the Antipasto plate, a generous serving of imported meats, cheeses with roasted red peppers and artichoke hearts. For $14 this was almost a meal in itself. Less than impressive was a Veal Parmigiano ($18): the tomato sauce was pasty and processed-tasting. A dish of gnocchi ($15) was overcooked to a porridge-like consistency. A caprese salad used bland, cardboard-like roma tomatoes; this right in the middle of Indiana tomato season.
With more attention to detail in the kitchen, especially to ingredients, I believe that J Razzo’s can improve with time and live up to the standards to which it so clearly aspires. Carmel’s independent restaurant scene desperately needs a new star.