A truly exceptional dining experience begins well before you take your first bite of food, and remains with you well after you’ve left the building, in the telling and re-telling about the meal. And while Aria’s new Italian spot Carbone fails to fully deliver on two of its most hyped features, it nonetheless wowed me as one of the most memorable dining experiences in town.
Passing the formal hostess stand, the first room you enter is a busy and festive lounge with the inviting feel of a crowded New York City bar—indeed, Carbone comes to us by way of Manhattan, so this is somewhat by design. Entering, you quickly forget you’re on the second floor of a resort-casino—quite a feat in this town. But it’s in the main dining room that your jaw will finally drop. The room’s walls are lined with cozy, two-seater booths designed to resemble the private boxes of an opera house, draped in red curtains and illuminated by crystal light fixtures. In the center of the room, a ring of larger gold booths sits beneath the restaurant’s centerpiece: a flowing chandelier salvaged from a 1960s Ferrari dealership in Philadelphia. In a city packed with stunning dining rooms designed by the world’s finest architects, this room still manages to dazzle.
Since the announcement of its impending arrival, Carbone reps have promised the restaurant will set itself apart from the herd by offering captain service, and recent billboards have sensationalized the tableside preparations. In an interview earlier this year, partner Mario Carbone described a captain as, among other things, someone who “can take control of your dining experience and can curate your experience after just a small conversation.” That’s something that’s much needed here, since the menu consists exclusively of dish titles, and is lacking in descriptions. Unfortunately, despite knowing I was a member of the media, my otherwise cheerful captain took little time to walk me through some of the more original and surprising offerings until I asked about them. Similarly, tableside preparation was basically limited to tableside presentations: a bit of mixing of ingredients or slicing a cut of meat. Hopefully, as the new staff gets more familiar with the product and the process, both of these will improve.
The menu at Carbone is classic Italian American—a bit more upscale than many places, but not nearly so much as the décor would suggest. The baked clam appetizer, for example, consists of nine baby clams in a trio of preparations: classic oreganata and “Casino” topped with bacon, Italian long hot peppers and thinly sliced lardo, as well as a more sophisticated “Fantasia” variety topped with ginger-scallion vinaigrette and Santa Barbara uni. And the sizzling pancetta features very lightly cured pork belly tossed in an escarole, tomato and red onion salad with steak sauce vinaigrette. Both are wonderful dishes. I found the tortellini al ragu just a little bland. But that can be easily remedied for the next few weeks by a topping of white truffles shaved tableside (assuming you want to spring for the market-priced supplement, currently $30 per gram in 5 gram portions).
Another selection from the pasta section is one that truly deserves a better introduction than the two-word title on the menu lends it: “Spaghetti Julian.” First, it has a fantastic backstory. It was created by and named after artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, a regular at Carbone’s Manhattan location, and whose works grace the walls at the Las Vegas location. But you won’t find this dish on the menu in Greenwich Village. Consisting of spaghetti topped with tomato, sage, oregano, garlic and more of those delicious Santa Barbara uni, this may be the most interesting take on spaghetti I’ve ever had. I’m just glad I asked my server about it, since he failed to include this gem in his preliminary menu run-through.
But don’t worry that Carbone is too avant garde. The kitchen tackles plenty of classics in a very straightforward manner. The veal Parmesan, for example, is a large, lightly breaded and gently seasoned piece of melt-in-your-mouth veal that I’d feel comfortable presenting to my octogenarian aunt. The off-the-menu meatballs were also very traditional, although I wasn’t crazy about the way they were spiced. (I think the disagreeable taste may have been anise.)
Carbone offers a full dessert menu. But even if you pass, they want to make sure you end your evening on a sweet note with complimentary red, white and green cookies and a few shots of limoncello. And nobody is in a rush to get you out the door. In fact, while the closing time is listed as 10:30, I’m told guests frequently socialize at their tables past midnight. That’s exactly the kind of relaxing end to an evening that helps create an exceptional dining experience.
Al’s Menu Picks
- Baked clams ($23),
- sizzling pancetta ($25)
- and Spaghetti Julian ($34)
Aria, 702-590-2663, Aria.com. Open for dinner 5-10:30 p.m. Mon-Sat. Dinner for two, $100-$250.
Meet the designer of Carbone right here.