Rainbow-colored signs and a lamp-lit marquee drape Jerry Kleiner's Nuevo-Latino Carnivale with sort of a Moulin Rouge excitement, and the feeling carries into the restaurant's equally mesmerizing interior. A kaleidoscope of color bathes the dining hall in a festive atmosphere so intense it's almost an entree unto itself. Velvet-draped private rooms, impossibly positioned palm leaves and an unflinchingly stark staircase support the surreal dining experience.
Reservations are a must, as this place packs 'em until the wee hours. Still, if one must wait, Carnivale's lobby-cum-bar is large enough to grab a table and quick drink without bumping into any of the impeccably dressed patrons dancing to the wild Spanish music grinding through the speakers. The main dining hall seats 420, but tables are distant enough to allow for intimate conversation despite the crowd.
Gorgeous appetizers like the Cuban-inspired ropa vieja make for an excellent first step into the culinary masterpieces of chef Mark Mendez (formerly of Spiagia, Gioco and New York's Patria). The guacamole is so fresh you can practically hear the avocados being plucked, and empanadas are only lightly fried, eliminating any weighed-down sagging feeling. Most appetizers hover around the $10 mark but there are few that inch toward $15, so if you're not sharing you may want to stick to chips and salsa.
Entrees are soundly, if superciliously done, most tasty enough to warrant a return. Carnivale serves a brilliant short-rib delicately touched with a thin, almost nutty, glaze; the salmon is flaky and bold; and the half-chicken comes stewing in a sea of zesty cream sauce flanked by a consortium of potatoes and spinach, all in the $20-$30 range. Carnivale boasts a fully stocked bar with some of the best mojitos in town, but for a real treat try the horchata martini: sweet and tart and unbelievably dry all at once.
Centerstage Reviewer: Adam White