THIS JOINT IS SMOKIN’ HOT
JOANNE KATES BITES INTO DAVID LEE’S GLITZY NEW BBQ SPOT
THE CARBON BAR 99 Queen St. E. $100 Dinner for two
When I want to think I’m cool, and if I’m hungry (which I usually am), I go to one of the (few) trendy restaurants where they understand that their bread is buttered just as well by aging gastronomes like me as it is by skinny young hipsters in four-inch heels.
It’s no accident that The Carbon Bar has some DNA (and investment) from Franco Prevedello, for Franco was the guy who taught several generations of Toronto waitstaff (at Centro et al) to treat every customer like royalty. It’s also brought to us by the owners of Nota Bene. At first glance The Carbon Bar could be just another cool southern BBQ house, with the loud music, the dim light, the brisket, the southern fried and the ribs.
But wait: They take reservations! And honour them! The seats are upholstered, and they have backs! The music isn’t too loud to talk. And OMG, the hot chicks at the podium smile at you. (I wonder who taught them to do that.) And offer to take your coat. The room is triple-height (an old Franco trick) and très glam. In fact drop-dead gorgeous in a casual warehouse retro way. This is all very civilized. Until you inhale the chicken skin app, which is kissin’ cousin to smack. This is a wooden rack of paper-thin chicken skins, which have been cooked till they’re so crisp they shatter in the mouth, into tiny shards of greasy heaven. Dip in the sweet chili vinegar sauce and repent tomorrow. There are other apps, but none this seductive.
This is a meat palace but they show some respect for veg and fish. Big fat scallops come graced with seasonal veg and little dots of brisket foam. Really! Octopus and lobster gumbo is a Creole delight, huge fat octopus tentacles tenderized into submission with sweet lobster flesh, atop spicy sausage and big chewy kernels of hominy corn in tomato-based chili-kicked stew. They sit perfectly cooked halibut in a light leek and clam chowder with potato foam on top a clever deconstruction of clam chowder.
But the real lovin’ here is for the pit. They slow-roast ribs and brisket over wood with no sauce to distract from the meat. The brisket melts like butter and tastes like nirvana, the ribs are meaty and pink with a hint of smoke and char on the outside. Side that with the best southern fried chicken in town and you have their pit master platter, $27 per person for a big fat slice of heaven.
PHO TIEN THANH 57 Ossington Ave. $25 Dinner for two
Stand out front and you know why Susur Lee eats pho here: The scent of star anise! Which permeates the beef pho, whose character is deepened by rare beef, brisket and fatty unctuous tendon punctuated by raw green onions in profusion. Pho fanatics say this place has better broth than Golden Turtle. Maybe so. We brave the appalling pink stucco walls accented with equally ugly baby blue trim, and the lousy service, for pho. Impeccable garnishes — lime, bird-eye chiles, bean sprouts, Thai parsley and basil make the complex broth even better. Medium pho for under $10 is a big dinner. Skip the mealy spring roll.
Clockwise from left: two views of Carbon Bar’s impressive interior, boasting triple-height ceilings (and they actually take reserva
tions); the lavish Carbon platter brimming with fresh seafood; beef pho from Pho Tien Thanh; Carbon’s meaty pit master platter
Joanne Kates trained at the Ecole Cordon Bleu de Cuisine in Paris. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Maclean’s and Chatelaine.