Dining Out: Beautiful plates at Carben Food + Drink taste as good as they look
Carben Food + Drink
1100 Wellington St. W., 613-792-4000, carbenrestaurant.com
Open: daily for dinner from 5:30 to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday brunches 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Prices: $15 to $28 for savoury dishes, desserts in the $10 range
Access: Fully accessible
At Carben Food + Drink on Wellington Street West, the chef-owners’ culinary ambitions are as clear as the three dozen or so high-end cookbooks on the dining room’s bookshelves.
There are gorgeous tomes by some of the world’s most revered and trendsetting chefs, from Ferran Adria to Daniel Boulud to Heston Blumenthal to Magnus Nilsson. And yet, their temples of gastronomy in Spain, New York, London and northern Sweden are a long way from Hintonburg.
Happily, it turns out that Carben, which opened in June, serves striking, component-rich, delicious dishes that are not only dazzling visually but also filled with the kinds of contemporary flourishes and transformations that should draw foodies from far and wide.
Chef Kevin Benes and his wife, pastry chef Caroline Ngo, seem to have extracted good value from their book collection, and from stints at restaurants in Ottawa and elsewhere, including the Holland Avenue mainstay Allium, where Benes previously worked under chef Arup Jana.
The couple behind Carben also get an extra gold star because not only are they stretching out imaginatively and successfully pushing molecular gastronomy techniques about as hard as any other Ottawa kitchen, especially at a similar price point, but they also have a five-month-old baby to raise at the moment.
Carben’s commendably short menu, which generally sees a new addition and subtraction each week, consists of about a dozen items ranging from $15 to $28. Desserts are on the pricier side at $10 and $11, but they should not be omitted, they’re so artful.
Over two dinners in the last two months, I’ve tried four smaller plates that were nothing but wows.
Tomatillo gazpacho ($16) was a marvelous, deluxe cold soup that had us swooning with its balance of flavours, its smooth texture, and its array of garnishes — ribbons of cucumber, watermelon that had been compressed with vodka, house-cured arctic char and balanced on top of a long almond cracker.
Benez had reconfigured beef cheeks ($18) into a sleek, sumptuous bar of meat and paired it with a splashy salad of sorts that included pickled cauliflower, pea tendrils, a carrot puree and wasabi “gnocchi,” meaning that the Japanese mustard came in a thinned, dialed-down sauce encased in a breakable membrane.
A novel mushroom plate ($16) splendidly combined Asian influences and esoteric ingredients — wood-ear fungus, Eryngii mushrooms, edamame, shiso leaf, sea beans and the potent flavourings of a miso glaze and turmeric aioli. Somehow, there was an intriguing but not overpowering barbecued note to this vegetarian dish.
A pork belly and scallops combo ($16) paired the proteins with apple that had been compressed with tequila, a slick of chimichurri sauce, and mango and jicama for tropical brightness.
Among the larger dishes, tender slices of duck breast ($25) at Carben were dressed up and served in fine company, with quinoa, roasted onion, hazelnuts, rainbow chard and splashes of pastel-coloured pineapple gel that added sweetened acidity.
Juicy striploin steak ($28) was the star of a generous plate well-loaded with a starchy square of turnip pavé that riffed on scalloped potatoes, a bright parsley puree, pickled chanterelles, a cremini mushroom puree and porcini dust and crispy shallots.
Arctic char ($24) with crisp skin and tender flesh came with a “black congee,” (loose, not-quite soupy rice, coloured and flavoured by squid ink), a slow-poached egg, smoked almonds and even a hardened crisp that tasted of orange and ginger.
For all of these last three feats at a dinner last month, the conception and execution were bang-on. As busy as these courses were, they made us want to scrape the bowls and plates clean.
They also eradicated the qualms caused by some mains that were served at an August dinner but are no longer the menu, including a big mound of brined, slow-cooked beef tongue ($24) that aimed for transcendence but fell short.
Carben’s themes of inventiveness and colourfulness extended to Ngo’s desserts, including a refreshing composition built around cucumber ice cream and vanilla-green tea sponge cake, a Southeast Asian-themed dish centred on light, vibrantly green pandan cake and lychee, and a more traditional chocolate and cherry ice cream dessert that was both complex and kid-friendly.
The ambience here is simply what it should be. This narrow 40-seater designed, like many an attractive Ottawa restaurant, by Shannon Smithers-Gay of one80 Design, is cool and minimalist but not severe — dishes make big splashes upon arrival. Service has been friendly and personable. Guests are invited to peruse Carben’s cookbooks if the topic comes up. Most importantly, servers have been very well-informed and able to demystify dishes without pretension. That’s a must with dishes that are inevitably topics of conversation.
The only thing that I wanted to change about Carben during my visits, which have admittedly been on off-nights, is that I wish it had been more crowded with happy diners generating a nice buzz.
On my last visit, I did overhear a server say that a weekend night had been packed, with walk-in customers being turned away. I hope Carben can repeatedly generate that kind of interest.
Quieter nights at Carben, and memories of recently shuttered eateries, make me wonder if Ottawa only gets the restaurants it deserves. Let’s hope it deserves Carben.