As Major Food Group’s first foray into Hong Kong, Carbone doesn’t stray far from its sister restaurant in NYC, the object of massive media hype (both good and bad) and foodie obsession when it first opened in early 2013. The Hong Kong establishment features the same brass chandeliers, tables covered in starchy white linens, old-school maroon tuxedos for the wait staff (designed by Zac Posen) and modern artwork from renowned dealer Vito Schnabel.
As you settle into the leather banquet seating, a carefully curated playlist featuring Frank Sinatra, The Temptations and The Supremes plays in the background and waiters come around for a quick banter before offering you a signature cocktail (favourites include the Daiquiri and Whiskey Sour) – all while you peruse the overly large menu and try to imagine you’re a private eye in a 1950s mob movie.
Yes, a restaurant with this type of over-the-top atmosphere in the middle of Central is pure pageantry (especially unsettling when you’re trying to reconcile a glasses-bearing, local Cantonese waiter with a 1950s Italian immigrant), yet, for those who’ve had the pleasure of sitting down to a homey meal at one of the old-school red-sauce joints in Little Italy (or those who come from a big Italian family and enjoy this type of feast on a regular basis!), it’s definitely a welcome addition to Hong Kong’s growing international food scene, and you just have to embrace it – and maybe loosen up the belt buckle a bit.
The food is exactly what you’d expect from New York-Italian cuisine done right: flavour-packed, family-sized platters of Italian classics, loaded with tomato sauce and melty mozzarella. It’s not for the carb-conscious, which I for one was thankful for – you can only have so much quinoa, kale and wheatgrass before you start craving a giant pizza or pasta. Ok – who am I kidding? I’ve never actually had wheatgrass, but hats off to the other Sassy girls who stick hard to those diet regimes!
Back to the menu, the lunch offerings at Carbone are a condensed version of the dinner menu, with the same signature favourites. First to arrive were complimentary baskets of garlic bread, hunks of Parmesan and spicy salami. If you’re one of those diners who tries to avoid the bread basket, I dare you to avoid this one! The garlic bread was crunchy on the outside and soggy inside with garlicky-buttery goodness, a perfect marriage with the sharp salami and Parm. Seriously, I would’ve been happy with these three items alone and a glass of red wine (who wouldn’t?!), but that was just the beginning of this epic feast…
An absolute must-try is the Carpaccio Piemontese ($168), paper-thin beef topped with equally thin mushroom slices, arugula and a generous drizzle of truffle oil. Simply gorgeous.
We also tried the Tuna Calabrese ($288) with toro tuna, pickled & charred eggplant and mint. This was a nuanced presentation of textures and flavours, and I appreciated the relative lightness before the parade of carb-heavy dishes to follow!
Another signature dish that you cannot miss is the Caesar Salad ($168), served table-side with a dose of presentation and flair! The salad itself is spectacular, with crisp leaves, a warm and tangy dressing with plenty of anchovy flavour (the more the better, in my opinion), notes of citrus and generous shavings of ricotta salata – a softer, milder alternative to Parmesan that added texture and contrast without detracting from the already sharp dressing. And let’s not forget about the croutons – be warned, these oil-soaked bread sticks are highly addictive…
An Italian meal can’t be had without pasta, and the options at Carbone are robust and flavour-packed. My favourite without a doubt was the Spicy Rigatoni Vodka (yes, it’s as good as everyone says it is!) – elbow rigatoni drenched in a slippery smooth, buttery cream and tomato sauce, infused with melted onions and spiked with Calabrian chillis ($198). Disclaimer: this is a massive attack on your waistline, but let’s just say, if I was having a post break-up pity party, I’d be stuffing my face with a giant platter of this…
Following the rigatoni, the Fettucine con Funghi ($198) that followed was a tad underwhelming, and could have benefited from more robust herbs and a meatier mushroom selection (which incidentally, can be found in the Funghi Trifolati ($88) roasted mushrooms side dish that came later!).
With the third pasta dish, we were back on track: a beautiful platter of Tortellini al Ragu ($198) – sheep’s milk-filled pasta in a meaty bolognese sauce. Covered in melted parm, the deep nooks of the tortellini were perfect for scooping up the flavourful meat sauce and the filling was light and tasty. My only complaint was that the tortellini itself was a tiny bit undercooked.
Of the Pesci selections, we were presented with a beautiful grilled Whole Branzino, dressed up with just a dash of lemon juice and a side of salsa verde, along with the Scallop Livornese (perfectly cooked and lightly accompanied with tomato, olive and green onion, $398). Also, these flavour-packed meaty roast mushrooms I mentioned earlier that I would definitely order again:
To top it off, we couldn’t resist trying the delectable Veal Parm, one of Carbone’s infamous dishes. Veal Parm and fine dining don’t exactly go hand-in-hand, but it’s been executed to perfection at Carbone, almost warranting its whopping $548 price tag. The bone-in veal chop is encased in an ultra-crispy crust and topped with melted mozzarella and a bright, just-cooked tomato sauce – a platter easily shared between 2-3 people.
At this point, the whole production reached a climactic finale, as the “Captain” rolled over the notorious dessert cart, featuring an elegant display of Carrot Cake, Lemon Cheesecake, Black Forest Cake and Tiramisu.
I have pretty high standards when it comes to my sweets, and I had zero complaints here. All the desserts we tried (five in total, including a tableside Banana Flambé!) were rich, satisfying and delicious, with standouts being the ultra creamy New York-style Lemon Cheesecake and the moist Carrot Cake, lined with lick-your-lips frosting and accompanied by a scoop of ginger ice cream.
Service was spot-on, with waiters grinning from ear to ear and happy to take part in the overall production, whether it was whipping up the fresh Caesar salad (our waiter looked like he had done this about 89 times) or flambéing bananas for the grand finale.
Aside from the fact that I rolled (yes, rolled) out of the restaurant like a giant stuffed potato, I would say Black Sheep has definitely hit a winner by introducing the Carbone concept – theatrics and all – to the Hong Kong dining scene. It’s going to be a wave of nostalgia for some and a brand new dining experience for others, but no matter whether you buy into the atmosphere or not, you’ll appreciate the New York-Italian classics served up with premium ingredients and festive flair. As for me, I’ll definitely be back the next time I want to splash out on a taste of New York – that is, until I can book my next HKG-JFK fanfare flight!
Carbone is now open for lunch from Mon-Sat from 12-2:30pm, and for dinner from 6pm to late. Closed Sundays. Call 2593 2593 or email [email protected]carbone.com.hk to book a table.