Turning the Leawood outpost of Carmen's Café — the garlic-scented Brookside bistro serving Italian and Spanish dishes — into a similar restaurant called Carma involved more than a spelling change.
There was the dropping of two brothers (Juan and Francisco Bautista, owners of the original Carmen's Café). There was the addition of people related to the restaurant's major investor, Don Sanders. And, as an exclamation point, there was the hiring of larger-than-life Beena Brandsgard, former owner of the jazz club Jardine's, as the general manager.
If you believe in the metaphysics of karma, you know that positive intent and deeds lead to future happiness, while bad intent and deeds lead to a future of suffering and misery. Carma's karma has yet to play out, but the three-month-old restaurant gives signs of being on an upward trajectory. That promising vibe owes a great deal to Brandsgard's charisma. She's something of an endangered species: a restaurant personality who truly enjoys interacting with patrons. And, as she'll tell you herself, the best idea at the new Carma was hers: adding live music.
Carma's long, narrow dining room isn't an obvious performance space, but Brandsgard (who has worked for years with most of the entertainers she's booking here) makes the most of it. She sets the musicians, primarily duos, at the front of the house near a large window, making smart use of the room's surprisingly fine acoustics.
It takes talent and guts for artists to take supporting roles in a place where most ears are tuned elsewhere. These performers — including Rod Fleeman, Dan Bliss, Danny Embry and Everette DeVan — have both, and they know exactly how to play where an audience is more focused on dining than on listening. The music is soft and unobtrusive, yet very much present and as soothing as good scotch. Count me among the grateful that there's still a restaurant putting live music ahead of satellite radio or a bartender's iPod. The music here improves the ambience enough that even the food tastes somehow more sophisticated.
But to rip the needle rudely off the record, it must be said that, without that music, Carma is actually just another expensive Park Place restaurant with inconsistent food and a menu that already needs an overhaul.
Sanders has kept most of the Bautistas' dishes, and a few still work. For all its novelty, a new kale salad (tossed with a champagne vinaigrette) can't compete with the Bautista family's house salad: cold romaine and iceberg lettuce jumbled with chopped artichoke hearts, pimientos, red onions and lots of grated parmesan, with a slightly sweet red-wine vinaigrette. A couple of the starters so beloved by fans of Carmen's Café linger here, too, but they need to go. The gorgonzola cream sauce blanketing the pillowy, round ravioli (stuffed with pesto ricotta) came out thicker than wallpaper paste on one of my visits to Carma. And the seared scallops on a different appetizer were unforgivably chewy.
The biggest change is at least a very positive one: So far, Carma's kitchen is using fresh, homemade pasta instead of the dry, packaged product. The fluffy gnocchi is very worthwhile — and considerably better than another holdover from the Carmen's repertoire, the veal piccata, which was disappointingly tough when I tried it. When veal borders on jerky, it's time to rethink the preparation.
There's better meat to be had. One of longtime chef Leo Santana's newer dishes is an excellent, sumptuously tender filet mignon, topped with a mahogany-colored tangle of onions caramelized in a hearty balsamic vinegar and sided with a clump of good gratin potatoes. That dish, steak Santana, is a costly cut of beef, but it's delicious.
Other dishes don't live up to their price points — fettuccine carbonara runs $23, scandalous even in Leawood — while there's a discordant cheapness in some of the ideas at work. The restaurant has mercifully ceased serving honey butter with its bread (that spread goes with cornbread and cornbread alone), but no topping could have helped the flavorless pretzel bread I was served one night. That's another culinary trend that should have vanished when fast-food joints picked it up, and this one was further hurt by the teaspoon-size portion of "butter" it came with: something that had been whipped with whole-grain mustard. No! Now that bread service has become almost a luxury in modern restaurants, the stuff should not be presented with something not immediately recognizable as good, plain butter. (Flatbreads are served now, too, including a rich and enticing marsala-chicken version that might have been a winner if the crust I sampled hadn't been so ridiculously soggy.)
So, yes, there are a few sour notes played at Carma (another being its staccato, not quite lyrical service). The desserts I tasted were certainly theatrical, but the Napoleon construction — made with phyllo pastry and white chocolate — was difficult to eat, let alone share, and a creamy flan might have been divine had it been made with some subtlety. Instead, a dousing in Grand Marnier meant that eating it was like being pelted with a bag of Valencias.
Still, when the music is on, even these annoyances can feel petty. If Brandsgard's decision to have talented performers playing at this restaurant is her way of paying it forward, well, there's at least good karma happening at Carma.