A reader emailed me recently about finding "a terrific new restaurant." That was almost certainly a young reader, since an entire generation has known about Cafe Carlo, and patronized it often enough to keep it flourishing for 25 years.
Longevity isn't necessarily proof of quality, but in this case it is.
Back when Little Italy really was almost totally Italian, the non-Italian Duncan Grant broke new ground with Pasta Presto -- a takeout-only store selling fresh pastas and made-from-scratch sauces. Eventually he went further, and in l989 transformed that little store into a 50-seat restaurant, which has been going strong ever since, the first in a mini-empire that now includes Bonfire Bistro and two Burrito del Rio locations.
It's a charming, understated room, done in pale shades of grey with rotating exhibitions of local art. The space has been divided lengthwise by a three-quarters-high wall, topped by a delicately decorated, lit-from-within plastic panel. Bucking the trend of the current, almost painfully high noise levels, Cafe Carlo offers a blissful respite with acoustic panelling on the walls and baffles hanging from the ceiling to absorb much of the sound. All you hear is the muted buzz of happy diners.
There are some terrific temptations among the starters -- or small plates as they are also labelled these days ($13 to $15). The mussels, for example -- just the right size, plump, juicy and plenty of them in a luscious Pernod cream sauce (a diablo tomato sauce is an alternative), with excellent crusty bread for dipping. Or the sauté of dense portobello mushrooms and flavourful beef tenderloin tips with blue cheese and a peppery sabayon.
I loved both of the above, but what won my heart even more were the fabulous fish tacos of house-made flour tortillas filled with panko-breaded and crisply fried pieces of tilapia, lettuce and tomatoes, and served with a chipotle tartar sauce. Soup is another possibility, and the New England-style seafood chowder is a cream-rich glory of shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams and potatoes ($10 a large bowl, $6 a cup). Other tempting starters include scallops with bacon jam, crispy prawns, risotto croquettes, calamari and spring rolls.
There are only five main courses, with more emphasis still placed on the pastas -- nine to be precise, and only a few of them classically Italian ($20 each, $19 at lunch). The signature dish and biggest seller is the Fett Chile, an intriguing concoction of fettuccine with chicken, chorizo, roasted peppers and cashews in a chili cream sauce (not all that spicy, despite its name). Equally satisfying are two baked dishes of penne -- one with shrimp, little crab claws and scallops in a citrusy cream sauce and gratinéed with Parmesan; the other with hot (but not very) Italian sausage and slices of bacon in a bolognese sauce, with a topping of four cheeses.
The veal and ricotta-stuffed canneloni was in the good-but-could-have-been-better category. The pasta and filling were tasty, but they were drowned under a bland fusion of tomato and béchamel sauces. Other pasta possibilities are pappardelle curry, ravioli with butternut squash and ricotta, Szechuan linguine, and gnocchi in pesto cream sauce or alla bolognese.
A simple grilled veal chop is one of my acid tests (a few seconds too long and it's leather), but Carlo's passed with flying colours -- tender and juicy, moistened by a lemon caper sauce, paired with deliciously chewy noodle-like spaetzle ($30). Pan-fried pickerel fillets with warm brown butter vinaigrette were perfection -- crisp on the outside, moist within -- but the accompanying powerfully cheesy mac and cheese, although excellent, was a mismatch. The la carte side of asparagus -- half of it grilled, the other half under gooey cheese -- would have been a more appropriate garnish ($6 as a side).
Other main courses are lemon pesto chicken, beef tenderloin with fries, salmon fillet with asparagus two ways, and there's also a four-course Fantasy Dinner for $33, which comprises spring rolls, caesar salad, Fett Chile and crème brªlée. Another worthwhile add-on is the big, beautiful garlic prawns ($8). Also listed among those extras are spicy vegetable pesto with fontina, spinach and naked oat pilaf and chorizo sausage ($6 to $8).
Desserts ($7.50 to $8.50) are few, among them creme brªlée, creme caramel (neither tested) and a far too stodgy apple blueberry crisp. The chocolate oblivion, though -- a flourless chocolate cake with crème anglaise and raspberry sauce -- was absolutely glorious. A must, even for the gluten tolerant.
The wine list is well selected, although there aren't enough by the glass. Service is attentive, helpful, knowledgeable and perfectly trained.
To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below or click here.
Restaurants marked with a red flag were rated between 0.5 to 2.5 stars; yellow flags mark those rated between 2.5 to 4 stars; and green flags mark those rated rated 4.5 to 5 stars. Locations marked with a yellow dot were not assigned a star rating.