I was surprised to see a new restaurant pop up in the old AKA Winebar space on Edmonton Trail N.E. — I had no idea the business had been sold. But my surprise turned to delight when I realized the new owner, Toshi Karino, has taken the old spot and transformed it into an entirely new and tasty concept for Calgary diners.
When asked to describe Carino Japanese Bistro & Wine, Karino (a former sushi chef and, up until this year, the wine director at Teatro) likened his venture to a samurai riding the roof a vintage Italian car, or a geisha on a Vespa. In case you haven’t guessed, Carino’s cuisine is a fusion of Japanese and Italian.
Visiting on a Saturday night, we notice that the room has been brightened up. New cognac coverings on the banquettes and shiny chrome ceiling tiles give the place the feel of a restored vintage auto.
The wine menu offers a diverse and unique selection of bottles and wines by the glass. Being in an end-of-summer state of mind, we opt for two glasses of an Italian Pecorino ($9).
To go with our wine we browse through the antipasti. Beyond what’s on the menu, there is an evening feature of tuna carpaccio (which looks fantastic) and a small but well curated charcuterie selection listed on the feature wall.
We decide to start with the calamari fritter ($10) and the mozzarella agedashi ($10).
The calamari is the first to arrive and I’m a tad disappointed. I was expecting a fritter of sorts, but the dish is basically a platter of calamari. Topped with a light sprinkling of yuzu zest and paired with a side of spicy aioli, the calamari is lightly battered with tempura. It’s good, but I wish there was more of the yuzu zest to balance the saltiness of the calamari.
Our next dish, though, is a major highlight. Replacing the traditional tofu in agedashi with fresh mozzarella, the serving consists of four tempura-battered milky mozza balls topped with a tart ume paste and a delicately deep-fried basil leaf. The combination of flavours is delectable.
Making our way through the menu, we decide to try a salad as well. Made with thinly sliced, cooked and chilled beef, the shabu shabu salad ($11) also features mixed greens in a yuzu vinaigrette. Together, the citrusy dressing, fresh greens and chilled beef make for a refreshing and pleasing dish.
As we hem and haw over what to get for our mains, Karino entertains our every question about the menu offerings. He is happy to explain the style of cuisine, and it’s clear that he’s passionate about every detail.
My husband decides to follow Karino’s suggestion of the mentaiko pasta ($21), a dish he tells us is the most popular pasta in Japan. Tossed in a buttery, mild white sauce, linguini-type noodles come topped with mentaiko (chili-spiced, salted pollock roe) and shredded nori, not to mention a generous amount of sautéed prawns and scallops. It’s an interesting taste sensation, a true fusion of Italian and Japanese that manages to convince us it’s a good concept.
I go for the miso chicken supreme ($22), a dish featuring chicken breast with a crispy miso-marinated skin on a bed of carbonara risotto spiked with sweet corn and endamame. It’s every bit as good as it sounds. On the bottom of the dish is a sweet, shallow pool of a soy-based sauce, mimicking a hot pot with a sweet broth. It’s both inventive and delicious — a dish I’d happily order again.
As we decide on dolce (dessert) we are treated to a wine presentation at the next table. The group has ordered a couple of bottles of red and Karino is bringing it out in a tall decanter, swishing and swirling the wine like a mad scientist. He pours. They sip. Smiles all around.
To finish, we order the chocolate cake ($9). Featuring crisp wafer layers and a side of bruléed bananas with vanilla ice cream, this dessert is a great end to a unique meal.
We enjoyed our meal at Carino — it’s not for everyone, but that’s fine. There are plenty of restaurants in town that please crowds. This is a spot for a more discerning, adventurous type of diner — people willing to order dishes without knowing exactly what to expect. For this reason alone, it’s a welcome addition to the city’s dining scene.