Summary: Stunning fusion between Japanese and Italian/French cuisines, but vegetarians may be disappointed.
When Kent mentioned that he saw an Italian/Japanese fusion restaurant on Edmonton Trail, I wasn’t quite sure how that would look. Ramen with red sauce? Miso risotto? Sashimi on crostinis? I must admit, I was hesitant – but I should have realized that the Japanese know how to do fusion ;). In fact, Carino manages to meld Japanese and European cuisines in a far more harmonious manner than I had imagined possible, resulting in one of the most unique and refreshing food experiences that I’ve had in a while.
Carino (titled after the “Italianized” form of the owner’s name, Toshi Karino) has taken over the spot where AKA winebar was once located, keeping most of the interior decor, but with clever new logos. With its heavy Italian presence and penchant for ethnic restaurants, Bridgeland is the perfect character match for this little bistro. Hell, Carino even serves brunch ;).
The wine list is pretty varied, with an decent selection of predominantly European wines. I’m not much of a wine person, normally, but being in a “wine bar” I felt almost obligated to imbibe in a glass. The Evening Land pinot that I settled on turned out to be quite interesting, with an almost cinammony finish. For me, though, the food menu merited far more attention than the wine list.
We ordered a helping of gnocchi as an appetizer, as it seemed like an ideal dish to share. The classic stuffed pasta came adorned with shavings of cheese and green onion and pork belly, and was delicately sauced in an Asian-style broth. Normally, the combination of cheese and Asian food make my stomach turn, but Carino manages to make it seem perfectly natural here – the sumptuous combination of pasta and broth evoked memories of pasta soup from my childhood.
The next appetizer was even brothier – which is probably not something that you’d be expecting of a seared foie gras dish. The daikon and asparagus were tender and juicy, though the foie itself wasn’t quite as flavourful as I had hoped, though its crispy exterior and oozy centre made for an interesting texture. There was hardly enough foie to eat with the amount of toast that they provided alongside the dish, though the bread ended up being handy for soaking up the remaining broth.
I went with the mentaiko pasta for my main dish, which was a cleverly crafted concoction of seafood and spaghetti. The dish struck an almost perfect balance between Japanese and Italian flavours – black seaweed, edamame, garlic, and a hint of spiciness (chili-based, not wasabi) – with perfectly prepared shrimp and scallop. It took me a moment to realize that in place of tomato sauce, the noodles were coated in a fine paste of roe. This is the f’in TSAR BOMBA of fusion dishes 😀 Make sure to get a glass of water with this though, as it is quite salty.
Kent and our friend Maria ordered dishes that seemed to be more rooted in a European style, with splashes of Japanese ingredients and preparation – shown below are the “Miso Chicken Supreme” and the uniquely styled Milanese stuffed pork cutlets, both served over risotto. I finished it off with a yuzu sorbet – nicely refreshing with the sprig of mint provided. Yuzu seems to be all the rage these days, possibly because it spans the spectrum of citrus flavours or possibly because it sounds exotic. Kumquats are gonna be jealous.
One thing that I found noticeable across all of the dishes was the astounding fusion of not only taste, but appearance – I was impressed how they were able to make each dish look both Italian/French and Asian simultaneously.
Quite honestly, I was pretty skeptical going in. Ordinarily, I am a big fan of fusion restaurants, but Italian and Japanese? Get outta here! Still, I went in with an empty stomach and empty mind.
First off, the décor. What about it? Nothing much really, except that it’s exactly the same as AKA Winebar, down to the uber-trendy black chalkboard paint where it’s hip to write down your menu. The only thing’s that’s changed is possibly the high chairs in the back of the restaurant were replaced with regular height tables and chairs. In fact, we were seated at the exact same table when we ate at AKA Winebar earlier this year. Perhaps, Karino (the owner) wanted to put in more effort in the food and drinks menu?
Fresh off my return from Singapore/Brunei, I found Kent and Richard to be poor substitutes for my real Asian friends. Looking for the comfort of a drink, I turned my attention to the Drinks menu and was further disappointed to not find any sake. The wine list was short (and sweet) and there was the usual Kirin and Sapporo, as well as a couple of Japanese whiskies that I noticed on the shelf, but nothing more Japanese apart from the latter. I found that extremely strange and bizarre, especially considering Karino was the former Wine Director at Teatro. Nonetheless, I was at a part-Italian restaurant, so I decided to go with a dry German Riesling ($10).
The food menu wasn’t any more uplifting. There were pretty much no vegetarian options on the menu apart from the Mozzarella Agedashi and Caprese Salad. None of the mains were vegetarian, so I ended up having to just get a vegetarian risotto with a side of steamed Japanese veggies (I don’t why steaming or braising veggies is so huge in Eastern Asian cuisines). On the plus side, for the non-vegetarians out there, the menu looks pretty interesting. There were no pure Japanese dishes, but plenty of mash-ups that any culinary DJ would be intrigued by. I would highly encourage you to check-out their menu.
I took a bite of the steamed lotus and gobo root and was instantly hit by how well-steamed (if there is such a thing) it was. The delicate and subtle sweetness of the accompanying sauce married well with the veggies. I was impressed; a good start to the dinner. I eagerly scooped a spoonful of risotto and was…instantly reminded of these chicken-flavoured chips I had had as a kid growing up in Brunei. What the hell? At this point, I came to the realization that even though the dish had no meat, the chef probably used chicken stock to make the risotto. In retrospect, how Asian. It was kinda similar to getting served fish as other Asian restaurants even after expressly mentioning that you are a vegetarian.
Regardless, I finished the dish without much fanfare. Although it was well-prepared, it was nowhere even close to the risotto you can get at Sugo. The latter is light and fluffy and creamy all at the same time without sacrificing any of the richness. A high bar to meet perhaps, but not any different from how your first girlfriend becomes the standard by which all other girlfriends get judged by. Overall, I wasn’t too impressed by the food as the lack of any creative vegetarian options put a dent in my experience.
It’s clear that Carino is making some waves in the Calgary food scene, and for good reason. John Gilchrist rated the Kobe-beef burger amongst the top 10 best burgers he’s had in his life. He also gave it 9 out of 10, which is pretty high praise. Not all of the dishes may live up to such high standards, but I would certainly put the mentaiko pasta and gnocchi up there. Vegetarian options are as limited as any fully Japanese restaurant, however, and the relatively minimalist preparation means that the meat or seafood is often a vital component to each dish, and cannot be easily replaced by a veggie substitute.
Bring a thick wallet if you think you’ll be drinking – the majority of wines-by-the-glass run $10-12, and there are more than a handful of bottles that run into the triple digits. Pricing for the appetizers and mains seem fairly in line with other upper-scale casual restaurants.
All-in-all, the good execution and sheer uniqueness of the cuisine make this a worthwhile visit for the curious epicuriean.
||16.5/25 = 66%
||21.5/25 = 86%