A City If You Can Keep It: Carbonis — Change is in the air

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A Winters Express opinion column

By Richard Casavecchia
Special to the Express

Gordon Ramsey has said that “a restaurant owner’s best investment will always be in the chef. The guy has to be a motivator, a leader, has to make you money, and bring customers back.”

Carbonis is the underappreciated restaurant of Winters. Yes, they’re the new game in town. Yes, there are often out-of-town hotel guests congregated in the bar. But, if you want well-done Italian food, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better option within 100 miles except maybe Osteria Fasulo in Davis.

The menu changes often enough to keep it fresh while maintaining classic staples like Cacio e Pepe, ricotta meatballs, a staple selection of pizzas, and their burger which is just about the only non-Italian option. The Rigatoni Al Forno is also a go-to.

Honestly, aside from making it myself, Carbonis Cacio e Pepe is the best I’ve had outside of Rome. It is a deliciously simple creamy dish, correctly made with Pecorino cheese, pepper and bucatini pasta. Aside from the kitchen’s propensity to put chives on top (order it without for the correct plating), it could be straight out of Rome.

Don’t forget about the pastries and gelato at the coffee bar. The Semifreddo Cioccolato is to Carbonis what the Lemon Bars are to Putah Creek. If you follow the restaurant’s Instagram account, you often get first notification when new desserts are available. I admit I have snuck over late before closing once or twice to try a cake, tarte or cannoli posted shortly before.

I have talked to a number of people who do not like the food. Universally, when asked, they tell me they visited in the first couple months before the pandemic. Honestly, I agree with them on the initial menu. The food was improperly cooked, the meat dish I ordered was barely recognizable as the cut it was supposed to be, and half the menu was unavailable. Chaos and confusion could describe that kitchen.

Chef Dan Nguyen took over the kitchen when Carbonis re-opened after the initial COVID shutdowns in May 2020. The change was night and day. The pasta made in-house, seasonal menus, daily specials, wagyu flat iron. If you’ve ever talked to me about food you know my affinity for a good chef’s pre fix tasting menu. Chef Nguyen creates them at just the right price point for special occasions.

The Valentines Day 2021 menu was $50 for three courses. New Years this year was $145 for five courses with wine pairing. While neither are “budget” priced, both menus are extremely reasonable for the amount of food you get on nights other restaurants often charge much more. And it is good food.

Their weekend brunch is the best kept secret. It is hard to compete for customers with an established staple like Putah Creek Café, so tables are plentiful. But as the weather warms, if you find yourself waiting a long time for a table on the weekend, walk to the other corner of the block and give Carbonis a try.

Mind bogglingly, Carbonis is making a change. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Food at Carbonis is definitely not broken.

March 30 is Chef Nguyen’s last day. I’ve heard from a couple people the reason is allegedly the owners want to change the menu to something else. Why they wouldn’t let their chef create the menu is beyond me, that is a primary job of a Chef. I have heard the new proposed menu described as comfort food, Olive Garden esq, something it is currently not, and the bar staff seems uncertain what it will be. I am not sure what the exact issue is with the way things have been, but change is coming for better or worse.

I have to ask, “why?” The restaurant has been perfectly executed for Winters clientele and it is consistently excellent.

Carbonis fits perfectly into the Winters restaurant market. It’s fresh, elevated, classic Italian food priced as affordable as good food can be, with ever changing yet comfortably stable variety. They even make their own Limoncello in house. They are neither the cheapest nor most expensive restaurant in town (most entrées cost between $18 – $26) but the price to value is just right for a nice night out.

It seems to me Chef Nguyen meets Gordon Ramsey’s requirements for a chef. You can see through the kitchen windows that he motivates his staff, he brings customers back, and based on the fact that the entire kitchen staff save two has quit in protest, it is safe to say he has been a leader others want to work for. I can’t speak to if he makes the owners money, but that seems like the most fixable criteria if he doesn’t.

I am anxious to see what the new menu and chef will bring. I hope Carbonis doesn’t change from a new favorite to, “that place we used to like.” I fear with having to hire a whole new kitchen, the later may be reality in the near term regardless of the menu until they find their groove. Updates to follow.

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