Thursday, September 11, 2014

Date Night at the Classy Carbone

I was a bit surprised (or even skeptical) when the maitre d' at Carbone told me the earliest time she could seat us on a Monday evening was 9pm when I called to make a reservation a couple weeks ago. I thought it should be a relatively slow night for western restaurants with most locals opt for Chinese family meal in celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Recently I got an earful of complaints at home, that only I got to try all the new restaurants in town and we haven't had a proper date for a while blah blah blah... so I thought I should at least attempt to do something to make it up. Of the many new restaurants opened in Hong Kong recently, I was most curious about Carbone because it came highly recommended by several friends of ours plus decent Italian-American restaurants were hard to come by in town, not to mention its original New York branch at Greenwich Village got quite a good reputation since its opening last year.

We arrived earlier than our booking time not totally convinced they were literally that full only to find out that they were packed, including the bar area where a few customers were already there having a drink before meal. Anyway, they were able to seat us about half a drink later at a table in the front area - I need that Old Fashioned to help cure my Monday blues anyway. My first impression of the restaurant decor was its reminiscence to movie scenes from the Godfather (sans the cigar) - through the closed door next to the reception as we walked out the elevator was the dimly-lit dining room and a well-stocked bar, with additional tables in the back room. The red-drapes on the wall, black-and-white tiled floor, the white tablecloth, loud, cheesy music of the 80's and the sleekly dressed waitstaff (with their heavy Brooklyn accent) completed this New York Little Italy restaurant look. It looked a bit uptight but everything's tastefully done. The tables were set up close to one another but not to the extent of making us overly uncomfortable - be wary of people at the next table overhearing your conversations though.

Garlic Toast
The menu - even though it's presented on a larger-than-life piece of paper - was compact and straight-forward, with a few choices of antipasti, soup and salad, pasta, mains and sides. Apparently the selections at the raw station change regularly so our waiter was around to explain what the daily options were. We were also told that the food here was served family style so we were encouraged to order a few dishes to share. While we were studying the menu, the waiter brought us small dishes of garlic toast, chunks of aged Parmesan and cold cuts (salami?) to munch on. They were all lovely, especially the toast which was crispy and flavorful (with generous smears of garlic and butter). In retrospect I should have asked for a refill.

Insalata Caesar alla ZZ
The first course to arrive was the Insalata Caesar alla ZZ, which was fancily prepared by the table-side. The icy-crisp baby romaine lettuce was tossed with dressing made on the spot in a large wooden bowl, with cured anchovies, croutons and generous grating of ricotta cheese on top. I liked the perfectly-toasted, buttery croutons and the cheese-laden dressing both with rich flavors, though I could definitely live with a bit more anchovies. I agree that's probably one of the best Caesar salads I have tried, but I still wasn't too sure whether it justified the price tag this commands ($168 for a bowl that could be shared by up to 3-4 people - arguably the most expensive Caesar salad in town)

Octopus Pizzaiolo
The salad was quickly followed by Octopus Pizzaiolo. The octopus tentacles were tender and well-charred, and served with a rich warm salad of roast bell peppers, aubergines, onions, tomatoes and potato wedges. We ordered this on the recommendation of our waiter who called this his favorite - that was my favorite dish of the evening too as it turned out.

Spicy Rigatoni Vodka

Mario's Meatballs
We ordered 2 more appetizer dishes to share - the spicy rigatoni vodka looked like a simple dish with nothing but the rigatoni pasta coated in red sauce, but it was wonderfully done with just the right kick of spiciness. At first my half portion seems a bit small but given the number of dishes we ordered it's of just the right size. The meatball - named after restaurant owner Mario Carbone himself - was another seemingly simple dish yet impressively presented. The meatballs - three of them in tennis ball size served on a cast iron deep pan - were mixed and braised to just the right doneness - just cooked through inside with soft texture yet firm enough that it wouldn't easily fall into crumbles, and finished with a chunky marinara sauce and dried oregano on top.

Veal Parmesan

Funghi Trifolati
The Veal Parmesan - our main dish - wasn't the same one we used to have in college cafeteria or cheap joints in Little Italy with heavily pounded veal chop coated with batter twice its thickness and deep-fried in stale oil. Carbone's portion was enormous - it almost filled the whole plate and turn out we only managed to finish half of them and have to doggie bag the rest - and it's cooked to perfection. The tender veal chop was coated with a richly-seasoned batter (with breadcrumbs and herbs and cheese), deep-fried with its bone on and finished with a generous layer of melted mozzarella cheese and just the right amount of red sauce. We ordered a side dish of Funghi Trifolati to go with the Veal Parmesan - it's rich like the rest of the dishes we had, but I think it's cooked with a tad too much salt. Nonetheless it was quite decent - what is it not to like about sauteed mushrooms?

The wine list was on the pricey side but still with a good selection in a wide price range. We picked out a casual Tuscan wine Rosso de Montepulciano which was as we expected, somewhat simple and accessible with a cheerful red fruit character and a bit of herbaceous on the nose (mint perhaps) but nothing much other than that to write home about.

Banana Flambé
There's no dessert "menu" but it came in the form of a dessert cart appearing right in front of you, as the waiter cleaned up our table, with the choices shown in full size. With timeless options like carrot cake, cheesecake and tiramisu, we were so tempted to order them all. We finally came to terms that we were 10 times overstuffed by then, so instead we opted for the banana flambé which was prepared by the table, with chunks of banana coated with caramel, was theatrically set on fire with rum splashed on, then spooned on top of a generous portion of icecream and rum-soaked banana bread in a big bowl. Some may find it a bit too sweet but to me it's heavenly delicious. Our dessert was served with a two little glass of housemade limoncello which probably pushed our alcohol consumption to the limit but in a good way - thank God it's a holiday the next day in celebration of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival.

Overall the service was attentive even on a busy evening like this, and the staff - from maitre d' to the bartender to sommelier to the waiter serving at our section - paid attention to details.

This is no everyday Italian-American place that one might be used to in the familiar Italian immigrant neighborhood, whether that means North Beach or North End or Little Italy to you, but instead, think of this as a refined, fancy version for time-honored classic red sauce Italian dishes, and a place you would pick for special occasions, power lunches/dinners or to bring someone you wanna impress. The nostalgic yet classy dining experience did come with a hefty price tag which stopped us from coming here more regularly, but to us it was an enjoyable evening; we loved all the food we had, and I would say Carbone is a perfect date night venue if you are ready to splurge a little.

When? September 8 2014
Where? Carbone, 9/F LKF Tower, 33 Wydnham Street, Central
Menu Highlights? Octopus Pizzaiolo, Veal Parmesan, Banana Flambé
Drinks? Avignonesi DOC Rosso di Montepulciano 2011

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