99 Queen St. E. | 416.947.7000 | thecarbonbar.ca
Carbon Bar, the funkier, rowdier little brother of staid Nota Bene, has just opened, and it’s spectacular. Located on the edge of the downtown core in the building that housed CityTV’s first studio, it has been renovated into a two-storey space showcasing exposed brick and massive girders. On one wall there’s a glowing Baby Blue sign, a tribute to the Baby Blue Movies, CityTV’s softcore porn movies that aired after midnight in the ‘70s and scandalized Toronto. If you want to impress clients with good food and bit of Toronto history, Carbon is your place.
The menu is best described as blend of Southern, Latin American and Texan contemporary cuisine. The star of the menu is wood-fired meat, but Carbon also has a more-than-adequate selection of interesting vegetarian/pescatarian options (for instance, octopus and lobster gumbo ($22), wild mushroom n’ grits ($19))
The wine list is solid but not extensive, and wines are grouped into three categories to keep it simple: $39, $59 and $79. Cocktails tend to be bourbon- or tequila-based, as per the current fashion, and are kept interesting by an adventurous bar staff with access to unusual ingredients.
My dining companion and I sit at the bar, and some of Carbon’s start-up pangs are apparent. While the proprietors have sensibly hired experienced staff, they haven’t yet settled into their routines. For instance, things don’t yet have “a place” and we were amused as a bartender would reach for garnishes only to find that another bartender felt they should live elsewhere.
We start with appetizers, ordering cheese croquettes with apple-chipotle sauce ($9). Our server warns us no fewer than six times that the croquettes are hot. (“Hot. I mean really hot. Like cheese lava.”) My dining companion raves about them, but I’m not sure I’d order them again. I would have no such reservations about the pulled pork sliders, however ($5 each). Chef David Lee’s preoccupation with all things barbecue has paid off, and the pork is succulent and smoky beyond description.
I learn quickly and so I concentrate on the meat and order the Pit Master Platter featuring ribs, beef brisket, jalapeño sausage, pulled pork, and turkey (minimum 2 people, $29 per person; goat ribs are available on Fridays). The platter is the showcase dish for Lee’s talents, and the campfire taste is all throughout the meats, which are tender and pink and, frankly, glorious. I do, however, feel sorry for the sausage, which, while good, is simply outshone by the rest of the meats.
Carbon offers a short dessert list including banana toffee cream pie for two ($16), cheddar cheese ice cream sandwich ($9) and a variety of ice creams and sorbets, but I’m too full for dessert. However, sitting by itself under the heading “Just a Taste” is the Carbon chocolate bar, a two-bite offering of bitter chocolate, pecan ganache, and bourbon caramel ($3). It’s a perfect end to the meal – satisfyingly sweet, but not cloyingly so.
Comparisons to Nota Bene are inevitable. If they were lawyers, Nota Bene would have the tax practice; Carbon would be criminal defence. Staff at Nota Bene are clothed in muted colours and are tidy and tucked; Carbon’s staff are no less professional but the guys running the place are in velvet blazers. I also appreciate the mix of clientele – most of the watering holes in the core are dominated by men in suits. Carbon, however, achieves gender parity and draws financial folks, artistically-inclined Toronto Lifers, and regular folks out for a good time.
Nota Bene is a destination because of its food; Carbon is a destination because of the experience, of which the food is a part.
Judge Foodie’s Verdict
Highs: décor, food
Lows: a bit off the beaten track and somewhat isolated