Ok, in the interest of full disclosure, I must state this at the beginning. I was contacted by someone who works on behalf of Carrabba's and offered a gift certificate to try Carrabba's and write this review (cool huh?). But I wanted to state that up front. And the fact that I told that person that I would happy to try it but that my review would be nothing but honest, which it is.
First of all, I would like to thank Carrabba's for giving me the certificate as we had a very enjoyable overall experience. And second, since one of my goals in life is to eat out as much as possible and not pay for it, I would like to invite any other restaurants to follow suit! :)
Ok, now normally chain restaurants are not really my thing, unless I am with my kids, in which case we sometimes must break such rules, especially in this town where you can't spit without hitting one. But I am willing to eat anything (just about) once, and especially if it is free, so I happily accepted their invitation.
One of the first positive things I noticed was how friendly all the people working there were. The host and hostess, as well as the servers and even several managers who visited our table seemed genuinely happy. We had a trainee server who was with a more experienced one, and while obviously the service was not super polished under those circumstances, it was very friendly.
The second positive thing I noticed was the bread. It was simply delicious, some of the best I have had in this city. It is flaky and warm and soft in the middle and tastes great with the dipping sauce made up of olive oil and various spices and dried herbs. So, so far we are off to a good start, even with my initial doubts about chain restaurants, and even more so, chain Italian restaurants. I should say I generally find Italian restaurants, in the Midwest particularly, overwhelming in their richness and overuse of butter and Alfredo sauce and lack of originality.
We decided to try several items to give a fair review and started with the bruschette and the mussels with Pernod, white wine, lemon butter, and basil. I was happy to find I really really liked both of these. The bruschette was toasted bread (more of that yummy bread just cooked differently) with a mix of tomatoes, red onions, kalamata olives, basil and a healthy flavor of vinegar and oil. It was refreshing and bright and even the tomatoes were good (and it isn't exactly tomato season, now is it?) The flavor of the mussels was quite good as well. And I appreciated the server informing me that the serving size was quite large and since we were having 2 appetizers (something you don't need to do due to the size of them) maybe we would like a 1/2 order. THAT was superb. If only more restaurants (Hey, you, Oceanaire!) did this or just offered them that way on the menu. My only knock on the mussels were that they were a little big for my taste (as in, each mussel was quite large) and I prefer smaller ones (to be fair, I asked this question before ordering and was told they were pretty big.) Again, so far so good.
The salads were where things started to go south a bit. I had the Italian salad which had a decent vinaigrette, but was way too heavily dressed and all I could really taste was the vinegar in the dressing. I was puckering by my 3rd or 4th bite. The salad was romaine with carrots, celery, olives and croutons. Hubby had the Caesar which I also tried and could have been good, but had the opposite problem, it was under dressed. Not sure if this was just a kitchen issue on the night or if this is just the way they're served. On the whole though, I would definitely skip the salad next time.
Hubby had veal (which I don't eat) and he stated it was good, but didn't eat it all which always tells me he didn't REALLY like it as if he REALLY likes something he will almost always finish it. The garlic mashed potatoes served with were tasty and you could really taste the roasted garlic (which is how it should be) but really the portion of them was obscene (2 big ice cream scoops). I tried one of their wood-fired pizzas just to get a well rounded idea of the food. The bread part (i.e. crust) was outstanding. The rest of it, just ok. Here, because I ordered the Margherita pizza, it suffered with the tomatoes not being so good. It was ok because of the crust, but the rest just sort of bland.
We did try the "chocolate dream" dessert, which is a brownie coated with Kahlua, chocolate mousse and whipped cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce and sitting in more chocolate sauce. I actually really liked this, although by this time I was pretty full. Mostly from the bread I think! :)
So I want to say also that the woman who contacted me initially told me that Carrabbas are all individually owned and operated and that the food is all made fresh daily. In a lot of cases that seemed true. However, when I asked the server about the bread and if they sold it, she told me yes, they do, and in fact you can buy the frozen loaves and cook them at home. So I guess not everything is made fresh on premises, but I will let that slide since the bread was so good. I came home with two frozen loaves.
All in all, I might go back to Carrabba's, and if I do, I will stick to only bread, wine and antipasti, as that is where they excel. Next time I would like to try the shrimp scampi appetizer too, it sounded good. And it came with grilled bread. (Did I mention I liked the bread??) :)
Again, the people were very friendly, and I liked the way they tried to incorporate things from Italy that you don't always see around here. Like pitchers of house wines and olive oil on the table. I told hubby, clearly someone has actually been to Italy and is trying to incorporate things that are authentic.
Carrabba's Italian Grill
1235 Keystone Ave
Carmel, IN 46032