To quote the words of the great Thomas Keller, perfection can never be achieved, and I firmly believe that there is no such thing as a perfect meal. It exists solely in the realms of one’s imagination and dreams. But I do believe that there are dining experiences, near-perfect meals I call them, that inches close to perfection. The food is faultless, the atmosphere jovial, and the service attentive. Perfection costs, but then at the end of the meal, not only would the hefty price tag not offend you, you might feel like you have scored a bargain. As I walked out the wooden furnished dining room of Carbone at the chic Lan Kwai Fong Tower, I was certain I had a near-perfect meal, even though I may have to end up mortgaging all my earthly possessions to the bank.
Yes, Carbone is pretentious and classy (this particular food blogger doesn’t really do pretentious and classy). It is all white table cloths, red wooden interiors and immaculately dressed waiters. You are likely to share a dining room with many of Hong Kong’s suit-clad businessmen, who neck expensive bottles of vino like water and leave behind plates after plates of uneaten food (one particular woman got completely shitfaced, here of all places). But once you focus on the food away from your surroundings, you will realise that you are being served a stunning meal.
Like it’s New York branch, Mario Carbone’s Hong Kong restaurant serves up classic New York – Italian cuisine – simple, rustic food that is generous and heartwarmingly good. My meal began with not one, but two types of bread – garlic buttered baguette chunks and a sesame crusted loaf. It was served with large chunks of Grana Padano cheese and thin slices of salami. Often times, you can judge a restaurant by its bread; and in Carbone’s loaf, still warm from the heat of the oven, was a sign of good things to come. The garlic bread was buttery and rich, while the sesame loaf was fragrant and pillow-soft on the inside.
Carbone’s Carpaccio Piedmontese (HK$228) was truly a showstopper, and quite possibly the best beef carpaccio in Hong Kong at the moment. Paper thin slices of raw wagyu beef were accompanied with slivers of button mushrooms, crushed walnuts, arugula, and a generous drizzle of truffle oil. It was decadent, rich and earthy, but most importantly, the beef still shone brightly despite being matched with strong tasting ingredients. The other starter, the Tricolore Salad (HK$158) was solid. The combination of crisp lettuce, radicchio and bitter endive worked well, and the salad was perfectly seasoned. However, the dressing lacked a little acidity to bring the dish to life.
Common culinary knowledge dictates that thick pastas like rigatoni should accompany heady, hearty sauces, as the wide surface area allows for a better pasta-to-sauce ratio. Normally, I am not a fan of thick pastas (I believe thinner pastas taste lighter and cleaner), but I would happily devour Carbone’s Spicy Rigatoni Vodka (HK$208) any day of the week. The pasta was cooked to a perfect al dente, and the tomato vodka sauce was creamy and luscious. It is a testament that good, simple cooking can just be as good as anything.
Mario’s meatballs (HK$228) were good, but paled in comparison to the stunning Spicy Rigatoni Vodka that was served at the same time. The pork and fennel meatballs tasted nice, where the aniseed kick of the fennel enhances the flavour of the pork. Sadly, they were teetering on the heavy and dry side (I must stress that the Chinese, particularly those from the HuaiYang regions, make tremendous meatballs that melt on your tongue. Their secret? Good old fatty pork). Despite the slight problems with the meatballs, the tomato sauce was vibrant and punchy, and would’ve gone well with some freshly toasted loaves of bread.
The main courses took awhile to arrive, but they were worth the wait. One of my favourite meat experiences was trying Bistecca Alla Fiorentina in an old restaurant right next to one of Florence’s many bridges. The hulking T-bone steak, nearly the size of my torso, was simply perfect. I can still vividly remember the ruby red meat, the charred crust, and the flavour of an animal which has been respectfully reared and expertly cooked. It was smokey, intense and simply divine. Nothing will ever match that steak experience for me, but Carbone gave a pretty good attempt. The NY Bone in Strip (HK$528) was perfectly charred to a medium rare, where the meat was tender and soft like butter. While Carbone does provide an assortment of sauces for the steak, you should know better than to spoil a lovely piece of meat with it. Instead, just eat it as it is, with a touch of salt and pepper for seasoning.
The whole Branzino (European sea bass) was a testament to good honest cooking. It was just simply good fish and good cooking techniques. The fish was expertly grilled, where the flesh is still tender and the flakes fall apart upon the pressure of one’s fork. The skin was also delicious and crispy. Other than a squeeze of lemon, no additional seasoning or sauces are needed for this beautiful fish. However, it was extremely expensive – costing more than the Bone-In strip (HK$628), especially for a rather small fish.
The side dish of Potatoes Sergio (HK$118) was the perfect accompaniment to the two main courses. While I have no clue who Sergio is, he was damn good with the humble spud. These potatoes were crispy and light, and the rosemary sprigs elevated the dish to another level. It reminded me of a refined version of potato chips, which is a good thing I swear, as one can never have enough chips.
Dessert was presented on a trolley, which was fun and fantastically old school. The Banana Flambee was made a la minute and was served as a decadent sundae with a spiced banana cake. However, the entire thing was too rich and heavy, and the cake was a bit stale. The lemon cheesecake on the other hand, was executed well. The base was crumbly and soft, and the bright, zesty filling worked really well with the buttery pastry.
Come to Carbone to celebrate special occasions, or to spend intimate times with loved ones. More importantly, come for perfectly executed plates of food. Yes, perfection (or near-perfection) will cost you, but it will all be worth it. Now if you will excuse me, I have to settle credit scores with my bank.
Carbone, 9/F, Lan Kwai Fong Tower, 33 Wyndham Street, Lan Kwai Fong, Central.