I like to eat out. A lot. I’m not a food critic, but I do know that there are a few things that make a restaurant stand out for me.
- It goes without saying that the food and drink has to taste good. Obviously, I want a satisfactory product when I spend money and it’s no different when I eat out.
- On a superficial level, I think the plating of the food adds intrigue. It’s like a preview to the meal that can make me even more excited to eat it.
- I also take into account the restaurant’s decor. This may sound shallow but it’s more than just looks. The interior adds to the atmosphere and can say a lot about the restaurant itself. I can appreciate when it complements the eatery’s offerings whether it’s familial and cozy, modern, or upscale and fancy.
- Finally, the one thing that makes or breaks an experience for me is the service. Now, I’ll preface this by saying I have never served in a restaurant before and I can’t even begin to know how servers are trained. But I do know that my favourite servers are the ones who are friendly and familiar, attentive (but aware enough to know when to keep a distance), and knowledgeable. This is a must for me. Bad service experiences have kept me from returning to places even when the food was good.
Of course, the absence of any of these traits doesn’t mean I dislike a restaurant (except for good service!). However, the presence of all four pretty much guarantees the restaurant a spot on my list of favourites and, more importantly, means I leave with great memories.
A Hintonburg gem
One local restaurant that perfects all four traits is Carben.
Although Carben opened its doors in 2015, my boyfriend and I made my first visit last fall. Our first impressions were good: right when we walked in, we were greeted by two employees and brought to our table. The modern interior is gorgeous in its simplicity; a perfect balance of moody greys and pops of warmth with its yellow and wood (it reminded me of a darker version of our own home so, obviously, I liked it!).
Our server offered us the drink menu and I promptly ordered a “Walk in the Woods,” pictured above. I’m not usually one for strong cocktails so this was a slow sipper for me, but it went down smoothly.
But what about the food?
We didn’t ask for much help with the menu (typically we’ll just pick what sounds the best – very scientific, I know). But when our server presented us with our starters and entrées, he gave us a poetic description for each and went on his way once he confirmed we were all set to devour our food.
I’ll let the photos speak for themselves but the plating for everything we ordered was beautiful.
The colourful dishes were presented on cool-toned ceramics – almost mirroring the interior décor of the restaurant itself. How thoughtful (though I’m probably reading way too much into it)!
For starters, we ordered the cured salmon and beef carpaccio. Both were excellent and left us wanting more. We cleaned our dishes right off.
For our mains, we ordered the striploin and duck breast. Again, I was left scraping the fennel purée and parsley gel from my duck plate because it was so delicious. Two appetizers and two mains after, we were both stuffed!
I really have to commend our server/bartender. He checked in on us intermittently even as more guests flowed in, but it never felt invasive nor distant. He gave us a few laughs throughout the night and made us feel comfortable the whole time. It isn’t the fanciest service one can receive in this city, but it certainly tops my list in terms of one of the best service experiences overall. We left in such a great mood that we had a little walk outside and went for dessert later on in the (week!)night.
All in all, everything at Carben just seemed to harmonize so well. The fresh ingredients, the gorgeous presentation, the amazing service – it felt special but, at the same time, familiar. It ticked all four boxes on my amateur “restaurant critique” guide and I cannot wait until my next visit to explore more from their menu!