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A time-warp interior gives way to mostly memorable dishes at Carlton's.

Carlton's food shows an originality and creativity belied by its less-than-exciting interior. Pulled-pork spring rolls and Low Country crab maki sushi rolls share a menu with deep-fried green tomatoes and spicy lump crab cakes. Although more standard restaurant fare, such as Atlantic salmon (grilled or blackened), clutters the menu, such dishes as the chili-glazed, braised pork shanks are outstanding — tender, unctuous, and sweet with more than a hint of spiciness. A kind of new Southern cuisine peppers the menu. And let's hope the new chef installed in the kitchen will quickly weed out the duller dishes.

Unevenness still abounds, however, and although the low country crab maki sushi rolls were accompanied by a deliciously tart and spicy green tomato chow chow, the scallion garlic aioli accompanying the very tender and perfectly fried calamari showed no signs of garlic or scallions. Salads were unremarkable, and suffice it to say, there is such a thing as too much goat cheese. Nonetheless, the crab cakes were full of lump crabmeat with no discernible binder and had a spiciness that sneaked up on the palate just as their smoky remoulade seemed about to overwhelm the senses. Both this dish and the Aegean stone soup, a bisque of sun-dried tomatoes, Italian sausage and capers, were a surprising marriage of piquant richness, and each merits a trip back to be enjoyed again.

Unfortunately, both desserts and the wine list are weaknesses at Carlton's. The wine list seems to be composed of whatever the wine distributor had on hand; more careful consideration should be exercised to complement the spicy dishes they do so well. Desserts, too, appear to be an afterthought. Although I'm no fan of variations on crŠme brulée, I'm always willing to give them a try in case they impress as much as the scrumptious banana version at Comfort. Disappointingly, the orange crŠme brulée failed miserably as a worthy update on a classic. Lumpy, bland, and with a too-thick caramelized crust, it violated even the most basic rules of crŠme brulée, and the chocolate raspberry pastry was no better. Dessert should be a guilty pleasure, an indulgence capping off a night out on the town. I think calories should never be wasted lightly, and I'm sure I'm not the only diner who takes dessert seriously.

Creativity mixed with a puzzling predictability seems to be Carlton's hallmark at the moment. The wait staff is thoughtful and well-informed, if a bit beleaguered when the dinner crowd starts to fill up the booths and tables. I hesitated to order a second glass of wine after seeing my waiter toiling up and down the massive staircase to the bar located upstairs, and worriedly wondered if he collapses at the end of his shift every night after such an arduous workout. Although I really wanted to be impressed with the menu at Carlton's, ultimately, I was only impressed with certain dishes.

Missteps abounded (bring your heart monitor if choosing the cheesy, cream-laden seafood lasagna), but for every culinary mistake, the chef knocked the ball out of the park with another outstanding, original creation (can I mention the crab cakes — again?).

A unified culinary theme is crying out for recognition at Carlton's, and let's hope the chef can step up to the challenge. S

Carlton's ($$$)
2526 Floyd Ave.
Lunch: Monday-Friday 11 a.m. -2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Saturday 5p.m.-10 p.m.
Bar: Monday-Thursday 5 p.m.-close; Friday-Saturday 5 p.m.-1 a.m.


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