With four Winnipeg restaurants so far, Carbone has built its reputation on tasty coal-fired thin-crust pizza. This winter the local chain relaunched its St. Mary Avenue location with a sleek, renovated space and an enhanced menu.
The new Carbone Cafe Club still offers pizza, of course, with some intriguing new flavours. But it has also gone downtown and upscale with a selection of small plates, salads and pastas, as well as an expanded wine, beer and cocktail list.
Winnipeg chef Scott Bagshaw developed the menu, and you can see his hand here, in the focus on modern Italian and the use of simple but good ingredients. There isn’t the perfect consistency and finish you get at Bagshaw’s Passero, but there are some lovely dishes, starting with a few very good shareable apps.
The mildness of cauliflower gets deepened by some charred edges and offset by the sharper flavours of capers, orange and balsamic vinegar. Brussels sprouts get boosted with creamy, pungent gorgonzola and the crunch of walnuts and breadcrumbs.
Tender house meatballs are served with a roasted tomato sauce and just the smallest touch of rich sour cream.
Beet salad is fine, with a nicely balanced red wine vinaigrette, but there was also a sense of dashed expectations, since this was more of an "arugula with beets" salad rather than the truly beet-centric dish we hoped for.
The Caesar salad gets a nice hit of garlic in the dressing and some salty crunch from crisped-up prosciutto. Unfortunately, it also proves that croutons can be too hard, the ripped and toasted shards of Red Spring Bakery bread heading toward teeth-cracking levels.
Pizzas, the foundation of the Carbone brand, are good. They start with a thin, hand-stretched crust and end by being baked in a coal-fired oven at over 450 C (850 F). There are some interesting and ambitious toppings: one pizza starting with roast pork loin, caramelized onions and capers; another with chicken sausage, crisp breadcrumbs and basil; another with white prawns, fennel and lemon. We tried charred pineapple — polarizing, I know, but we had a die-hard pro-pineapple-ist at our table — along with speck, ricotta and pepperoncini, for a tasty collision of sweet, salty, creamy and sharp.
The carbonara option is also very good. Playing up the flavours of the traditional pasta dish, this white pizza starts with prosciutto, onion and yellowy egg yolk and is finished with black pepper and loads of Parm. (Incidentally, it makes for outstanding cold breakfast pizza the next day.)
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Of the sampled pastas, rigatoni with a robust meat ragout is a beautifully executed example of an Italian classic, while tagliatelle with mushrooms, thyme and white wine is not quite as successful — the creamy sauce is full of flavour but thickens up too quickly.
The short dessert menu proves that some of the best Italian desserts are the simplest. Berries on a bed of whipped, lightly sweetened mascarpone, served with a little pool of beautifully intense fig and red wine syrup, are perfect. Another dessert, which spreads two flavours of mousse, along with small drizzles of this and scatterings of that, in a thin layer across a plate, doesn’t quite come together.
The space is cool-toned and chic, with some comfortable banquette seating, dimmed lighting and a good playlist (skewing toward old-school soul and R&B on the nights we were there).
There is, as the new name suggests, a clubby feel, especially to the bar area, and the venue is offering "hip-hop brunch" on the weekends between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Along with punning hip-hop names for the dishes ("Eggs Benny from the Block"), you can get a prosecco grapefruit mimosa or even an espresso-based martini, for that quintessential one-two brunch punch of caffeination and day-drinking.
Alison Gillmor Writer
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.