The marketing team at Carrabba’s found out that He Geek She Geek are not just geeks for comics, movies, and TV, but also for food. We are suckers for a good meal, so when we were invited to our local Carrabba’s restaurant for their First Tastes event, we found it impossible to turn them down. After all, what’s better than Italian food but free Italian food!
We were running late to dinner (the thankful problem of being blessed with a job) so another long table was already being served and appeared to be into their second course. That didn’t matter because the fantastically perky manager, Grace, found us and another couple of late arrivals a booth. Our waiter explained that we would be sampling the new Fire-Finished menu which means that when the dish is nearly complete, it is put into the wood-burning pizza oven to, well, finish in the fire. I do love me some woody flavors in my food so I was ready to check it out.
Our first taste was an appetizer of hummus with fire-roasted red pepper. The presentation was nice with the hummus served in a glass jar with a hinged top surrounded by six crustinis. I’m a fan of hummus as a general rule, but I wasn’t particularly impressed with this one. It was fine, don’t get me wrong, but nothing really popped for me and She Geek agreed that it needed more seasoning. I probably wouldn’t be ordering this one in the future. The other appetizer offered by the majority of Carrabba’s restaurants is stuffed fire-roasted mushrooms. That would definitely have been my first choice for an appetizer, but alas, it was not to be.
Next came our first dinner sampling, Rigatoni Al Forno, rigatoni tossed with marinara, romano and mozzarella, and topped with fresh fennel sausage and ricotta cheese. Again, this dish was good, but it didn’t seem like anything I couldn’t order in any other Italian restaurant. To me, the high points of the rigatoni were the fresh made sausage, which is apparently an old Carrabba’s family recipe, and the addition of the ricotta cheese, an oft underused cheese, while She Geek was also a fan of the bright flavor with chunks of tomato that burst in her mouth.
Then we went from red sauce to white with Nonna Testa’s Baked Pasta, penne with chicken, pesto cream, spinach, and zucchini, topped with mozzarella. I started off thinking this dish was like the previous one, nothing special that I couldn’t find elsewhere. But something weird happened: every bite tasted better than the one before. The more I ate, the more flavors showed up in my mouth. Each of the ingredients is only “meh” on its own, but taken all together, they combined into a nice little taste explosion. She Geek likened the penne dish to a Florentine flavor with the creamy pesto and abundance of spinach, and was impressed with the chef’s ability to keep the zucchini firm to allow for a good bite. We made sure that none of this went to waste.
Now we got into the meat of the matter with Cedar Plank-Fired Salmon, pan-seared salmon topped with a lump crab cake which is then fire-roasted on a cedar plank and topped with lemon butter. Oh man, from the very description, I knew I was going to love this. After all, I love salmon and crab on their own, but I found out that if you combine the two, the enjoyment expands exponentially! Ok, math was never my strong suit so I don’t know if that’s actually possible, but suffice it to say, this course was amazing. Flaky, meaty salmon and big chunks of sweet tender crab, light on the breading—it’s the chocolate and peanut butter of seafood! Both Geeks chose this as our top taste of the evening.
Bistecca Ardente is a sirloin or filet (customer’s choosing) topped with blue cheese, tomatoes, and basil. This one I had the most trepidation about tasting. Blue cheese is the most blech of all the cheeses. It’s dry, bitter, and leaves a taste in your mouth for hours. However, I steeled my nerves and took my first bite. Who knew an Italian place would have such a great steak? Even though this sample cut was much smaller than the 6-8 ounce you’d normally get, it was still cooked to a perfect medium rare while the outside had a nice seasoned crust. That takes some talent in the kitchen. Unfortunately, the next few bites didn’t live up to the first due to increasing amounts of blue cheese in each mouthful. Overall, this was a very good steak in spite of the presence of the blue cheese and I might still consider ordering it if I could order it with maybe half the amount of cheese as normal. She Geek, on the other hand, was not sold being an even bigger opponent of blue cheese than I, although she did agree that the steak itself was fantastic but suggested they substitute feta for the cheese topper which would still keep the Mediterranean taste.
We finished our dinner with a sample of the new Crème Brûlée. I always consider crème brûlée a special treat and tend to order it whenever I see it on the menu. Short version: this is the best I’ve had. Made with Madagascar vanilla beans and topped with crunchy torched sugar, fresh whipped cream and strawberries, Carrabba’s crème brûlée is the perfect sweetness, even with the sugar in each bite. Our sample came in a tall shot glass so the texture was an inaccurate representation of the real deal, but the rich vanilla flavor of this creamy custard was the great way to top off our dinner.
Until this week, I couldn’t tell you the last time I had been to a Carrabba’s restaurant, but this new menu may just have us coming back. A meal of stuffed mushrooms, crab-topped salmon, and crème brûlée all flavored with a hint of flame sounds to me like a good start to the evening! Thanks to Grace and your staff for having us in for First Tastes and we hope to see you again soon!