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A Tale of Two Carbones

10.21.2014


Step into Carbone in Greenwich Village today and you are immediately transported back to New York in the 1950s. At the time, the city was flooded with Italian-American immigrants fleeing the atrocities of World War II a decade earlier. Prosperous times were coming, remarks chef and co-creator Mario Carbone - "you’re seeing more protein at the table now, because they can afford it."

Carbone is both a throwback and a celebration to that particular time and place; an unashamedly over the top revival of a red sauce neighbourhood restaurant that is hearty and warm. There are no half measures at this joint: the floors are tiled black and white as a homage to a pivotal moment at a Bronx restaurant in The Godfather; the wait staff wear burgundy tuxedos topped with wide grins; the soundtrack comprises songs you know but haven't heard in a while; the menu is literally larger than life; and the portions are generous to the point of ostentation. In the wrong hands, this combination could have overwhelmed diners and descended into a caricature of what it set out to be. However, the inspired concept, coupled with the execution of familiar dishes such as jumbo Italian meatballs, lobster fra diavolo and lemon cheesecake to an elevated standard, led to a Michelin star and being named one of 2013's top 10 restaurants in its first year of operation.


A few months after opening in New York, a chance meeting between Major Food Group - comprising chefs Carbone and Rich Torrisi plus business partner Jeff Zalaznick - and Black Sheep Restaurants - Asim Hussain and Christopher Mark - in Hong Kong set the wheels in motion for a second Carbone, which opened a couple of months ago on the 9th floor of LKF Tower. The essential components that made Carbone New York a success have been replicated here, from the the tiled floors and exuberant burgundy waiters (some of whom have been flown in from the original Carbone to oversee the opening months) to the retro music and several signature menu items, including the meatballs, rigatoni vodka, whole branzino and that remarkably creamy cheesecake. While not every dish is as strong as those just listed - the linguine vongole is comparatively unremarkable, for instance - the overall experience of chowing out at Carbone Hong Kong was every bit as satisfying as it was in NYC, and I don't doubt that it will soon gain the same critical and popular recognition.


Being me, I couldn't resist delving further into the story of how Carbone Hong Kong came about. Asim Hussain, whom I have interviewed previously, shares his take on both restaurants, from why Black Sheep Restaurants chose the concept to how they adapted it to suit Hong Kong...

What attracted you to the Carbone concept?

Black Sheep Restaurants are all about niche restaurant concepts that tell a story about a time, place, culture and cuisine. Carbone represents a special moment in Italian-American history - 1958 in New York City - along with a rich dining culture that we thought Hong Kong diners would enjoy. My business partner Chris[topher Mark] and I had also been talking about opening a red sauce concept for some time, so Carbone seemed like a natural fit after meeting with the Major Food Group guys.

Talk me through the process of adapting Carbone to Hong Kong.

We never wanted to open Carbone New York in Hong Kong - we wanted to open Carbone Hong Kong. While the restaurants are very similar, we have adapted much of the guest experience specifically with Hong Kong diners in mind.

First off, Carbone New York is on the ground floor, while in Hong Kong we are located on the 9th floor. This allows us to have that special moment when guests exit the lift and feel instantly transported to New York in 1958. Another example would be the back waiter uniforms - the Shanghainese jackets have Mandarin collars inspired by traditional Chinese garb, and represent the similarities that Carbone’s style of service has with those of Cantonese fine dining establishments.

When it comes to the food, chef Mario is committed to working with ingredients available locally, spending the entire summer prior to opening shopping the local wet markets. Many of the dishes in Hong Kong include chillies that are only found in Asia, and we use local fish and this excellent Australian Wagyu for the Ribeye Diana that they can’t get in New York.


How do you see Carbone fitting into Hong Kong's crowded dining scene? 
 
We opened Carbone because we knew that the guest experience would be at once familiar and entirely new to Hong Kong diners. The menu is not intimidating - dishes like rigatoni, Caesar salad and veal parm are not new, but are crafted with premium ingredients and modern cooking techniques. Like Cantonese cuisine, a meal at Carbone is enjoyed family style, and the quality of service is also comparable to that of high end Cantonese establishments like Lung King Heen and China Tang.

But despite these familiarities, the experience at Carbone is unprecedented in Hong Kong as it represents a specific era in New York-Italian culture that has, until now, not been represented in the local dining scene. The food, music, d├ęcor, service style and overall atmosphere come together to recreate 1958 New York in the heart of Lan Kwai Fong, and this is what makes Carbone unique.


And tell me, what is your favourite dish and drink at Carbone?

The steaks and the lamb chops are by far my favourite indulgences, and they are absolutely worth saving room for.* As for drinks, I’d recommend kicking off the meal with a cocktail before moving on to wine. I’ve been drinking a lot of Americanos lately, but I am also a big fan of the Whiskey Sour.

*He fails to mention the incredible cheesecake, which by now, I'm sure you've ascertained that I am a fangirl of. This is an absolute must-try when you visit either Carbone!

Carbone 181 Thompson Street, New York / 212 254 3000 / carbonenewyork.com 
Carbone 9/F LKF Tower, 33 Wyndham Street, Hong Kong / 2593 2593 / carbone.com.hk

Images 3, 4 and 5 are courtesy of Black Sheep Restaurants. Valerie was a guest of Black Sheep at Carbone Hong Kong and a paying customer at Carbone NY; all views are independent.

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