When this Lilac Street eatery opened in 1989, showcasing bistro fare with European, Asian, Latin American and Californian influences, fusion cooking was a new and different trend on the Winnipeg scene.
Throwback Thursday: Café Carlo
243 Lilac St.
Throwback Thursday: Café Carlo
243 Lilac St.
Go for: fusion bistro fare and a relaxed neighbourhood vibe
Best bet: the classic fett chile
★★★★ stars out of five
DETAILS FOR DINERS
Prices: Entrees: $29-36; small plates: $9-18
Hours: Monday-Saturday: 11:30 a.m.-2:00 p.m., 5:00-10:00 p.m.; Sunday: 5:00-9:00 p.m.
Noise level: medium
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Licensed: yes, full bar
Reservations: yes, and recommended for weekend nights
Delivery: yes, through Skip the Dishes
If Café Carlo no longer offers novelty, it more than compensates with reliability. Expect creative but unpretentious cooking, a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere and maybe a bit of nostalgia. (Full disclosure: My husband and I went on our first big date to Café Carlo many years ago and reprised that night for the purposes of this review, so all our food basically came with a side order of memory and feeling.)
In 2019, the modestly sized venue looks more grown-up and polished than I remember, the original decor having been "rummage sale chic," as the restaurant’s website describes it. The space between the small tables remains tight, though, and whether you find this charmingly intimate or just cramped might depend on your point of view.
I got into a throwback-Thursday mood by ordering a Cosmopolitan, the ruby-red cranberry-spiked drink that got a 1990s boost from Sex and the City. Going by the Café Carlo version, the cocktail has aged better than those SATC movie sequels, being deftly balanced between tart and sweet with a sneaky alcoholic kick.
The meal starts with bread, which is practically a retro feature in these carb-averse times and a welcome one here. Warm house-made baguette slices are served with compound butters that change night to night, from an intriguing version with chili and lime on one evening to sundried tomato and garlic on another.
Fett chile was the Café Carlo signature dish back in the day and has held up very well. Fettuccine noodles are tossed with a finely calibrated mix of chicken, chorizo, roasted red peppers and cashews, and finished with a little spicy heat to cut the creaminess of the sauce.
A more classical Italian dish is the cannelloni. Café Carlo’s refined version is made with tender pasta and a rich and mild veal filling, and properly sauced with tomato and bechamel.
The Caesar salad was uneven. Replacing croutons with spicy anchovy breadcrumbs — all golden crisp and packed with salty umami flavour — is absolutely brilliant, but the dressing, though good, was applied too heavily. A salad of mixed greens with beets, goat cheese and pine nuts — a bistro favourite and dinner party go-to dish back in the 1990s — manages a better balance.
Ambitious entrees include rack of lamb, Arctic char and beef tenderloin with blue cheese (all unsampled), but diners can also opt for a combo of shared small plates. The variety is tempting — from P.E.I. mussels to fried chicken with potato waffle — but can be logistically tricky with the restaurant’s tiny tables. (Our dishes had to come out in planned stages.)
The fish tacos are tasty, with Manitoba pickerel fried up crunchy and tucked into light, crisped little house-made tortillas. Sautéed broccoli, General Tso-style, gets some oomph with jalapeno and peanuts, though a few of the small florets seemed a bit laden down with sauce. Scallops are served up with bacon jam on a bed of earthy, satisfying succotash.
Posted: 04/07/2019 3:00 AM
● Kristen Chemerika-Lew and Kyle Lew, of the popular Chew and The Store Next Door are putting the finishing touches on a new Exchange District café, bakery and market. ● Verde Juice Bar has expanded into the space next door, increasing the number of seats from 10 to 30. ● A pair of forthcoming pop-up dinners will be of interest to those who enjoy Filipino food and/or B.C. wine.
The desserts change daily, but include old-school favourites such as a flourless chocolate cake with a cute name (here dubbed Chocolate Oblivion) and a classic crème brûlée with a nicely understated vanilla bean custard.
Clearly, Café Carlo has lasted three decades by offering a smart mix of the old and the new, standing by the familiar dishes that made its name in the 1990s while also bringing in some well-considered culinary updates. You can get a four-course dinner of spring rolls, fett chile, Caesar salad and crème brûlée — basically the bistro’s greatest hits — for $39, for example. Or you can try something from the small plates menu or the daily board of seasonal specials.
Service is warm and professional, though the pace slowed as the place filled up. With friendly, unassuming ambiance, Café Carlo feels like a neighbourhood joint, and there seem to be a lot of regulars.
Some of them, like those menu favourites, probably go back a few years.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.