There’s been a Carne menu folded up on my desk for about a week, since our rather late January iteration on Monday night. It’s an A3 sheet of brown card, printed with three columns of food under exciting Italian headings, and liberally stained with the residue of shared forkfuls travelling across the table because it also serves as your place mat. When I asked the waiter if I could take it home, he tried to give me a fresh one without the stains. (I resisted. We earned those stains). This neatly sums up everything about the Carne experience: its generosity, its eccentricity, its air of relaxed permissiveness. It’s clearly equally serious about its food and about its clients’ experience on a far broader scale.
Carne was Eckhard’s choice, which together with the name tells you that it’s all about the meat. I’ve never before eaten anywhere that proudly displays a giant plate of raw cuts before you order, and explains exactly what they are and how their taste and textures differ; I left feeling not only full and happy, but culinarily educated. The carnivorous focus notwithstanding, you could cheerfully and interestingly feed a vegetarian from their six different vegetarian starters and the side dishes. The Italian feeling is very strong, with both the menu sections and the dishes themselves labelled in Italian (and I have to say, “Il Filetto di Gnu” simply looks odd), but the visual feel and ambience are to the warm side of the “trendy” scale. It is, however, one of those places where an initial impression of “ooh dear, crowded, cramped, those trendy plastic chairs look uncomfortable” is almost immediately dispelled and obliterated by the warmth of the welcome and the quality of the food. It’s clearly very popular and was pretty much full throughout the evening, but we dined in our own happy bubble of relaxed gourmandising amid the cheerful noise.
Quite a lot of the success of the experience, of course, came down to the waiter. If my dodgy memory serves me correctly, his name was Warren; he was not only attentive, knowledgeable and skilled, he also demonstrated that perfect waiterly ability to pick up on the vibe of the table and to join in the flow of nonsense in the appropriate idiom and tone. He won us over utterly by his blithe disregard for the corkage guidelines; they allow one bottle per table, we’d brought two and chosen which one to drink, and about an hour into the evening he cheerfully opened the second one, talking loudly all the while about how this Zinfandel, our first bottle of wine, was an excellent choice. (Although not as good as the Zinfandel on their wine list, could he bring us a tasting sample? which he duly did, and we all tasted it, and yup, it was better. But we didn’t have to buy wine at all). The end of the evening was rendered amusing by watching the other wait-staff at the tables around us holding the portable card readers up at arm’s length to catch the apparently dodgy signal, like so many slightly more commercialised Statues of Liberty. Warren didn’t do this, but processed the card with perfect decorum. When Jo asked him why he didn’t do the holding-it-in-the-air thing, he said, with a touch of Jeevesian austerity, “Because I’m not an idiot, ma’am.”
The food was great. Did I mention that the food was great? They had asparagus on the starter menu, which always makes me happy: this was grilled, with a poached (free-range!) egg, and was crunchy and satisfying, with the rocket and parmesan beautifully complimenting the asparagus (needed just a pinch of salt, though). Eckhard’s veal tongue carpaccio was an amazing amalgam of subtle flavours; Jo’s beef carpaccio was more standard fare, but still excellent. Steve had the tartare “Clap-Clap”, which basically means the raw minced beef patty is very quickly seared on each side, clap-clap. It’s served without the usual raw egg, and in terms of flavour was stupendous, probably the best and most interesting tartare I’ve eaten (although only narrowly edging out the lamb with Indian spices Caveau gave us that one time). It was one of those menus where it was difficult to choose because it all looks so good. I totally have to go back there to try out the lamb ravioli starter. And the goat’s cheese terrine.
Mains, of course, were all about the meat. Jo and Steve had rib-eye and rump, I forget which way round, but they swap at half-time anyway. It was excellent, of course, really at the top end of the pure steak scale in terms both of cut and of cooking, and the salsa verde Jo ordered with it was very good. Especially with my lamb. I had “La Coscia di Agnello Marinata”, marinated leg of Karoo free-range dorper lamb, and it was voted the best dish of the course: brilliantly cooked and insanely tender. Eckhard’s wild black wildebeest fillet was also superlative. The dishes we chose all eschewed major sauces or flavourings in order to allow the meat to have prominence, and it really worked; I find myself, though, wanting to go back to try the slightly more elaborate dishes, rib eye in white wine sauce, or lamb shoulder stuffed with spinach, sultanas and pine nuts. I also have to say that the Carne side dishes and sauces are significantly better than those at the other Mecca of the Pure Steak Experience, Nelson’s Eye; the Carne fried chunky potatoes are wonderful, and the side salads interesting and well prepared.
We even had dessert; the dark chocolate hot fondant (me, of course) was really good, and in the perfect portion size (small!) not to overload after the meal. Jo’s berry salad with mascarpone sorbet was also wonderful, although I wasn’t much into Eckhard’s “Zuppa Inglese”, translated as “Italian trifle”: the custard was lovely, but the rest a bit uninspiring. At that stage, however, stuffed as we were with wonderful food, and near delirious with happiness at the whole experience, I don’t think anyone was quibbling.
We like this place. Really, we do. The patented Jo scale shakes down as follows:
Wine: n/a, tasting one Zinfandel does not constitute an assay of the wine menu, and I have no idea if it was extensive and/or well priced. The beautifully-handled corkage thing comes under Service, I think.