If you had to bet on a city chef most likely to open a hit restaurant, you could do far worse than to bet it all on David Lee.
Mr. Lee has spent his career at hit restaurants: Mosimann's in London, Toronto's Centro near the height of its popularity, Splendido, which he helmed for eight deliciously opulent years in the 2000s, and Nota Bene, the upmarket Queen West it-spot that he and front-of-house partner Yannick Bigourdan opened in 2008 to near instant acclaim. He's never had a dud, as far as I can tell.
Yet Mr. Lee and Mr. Bigourdan's newest venture, a smartly designed and lively restaurant and bar on Queen Street East, pulls the chef far from his fancified Italian, bistro and pan-Asian comfort zone and into something more casual. The Carbon Bar is a barbecue restaurant, with the pork and beans, collard greens and colon-busting "Pit Master" platter to prove it.
That should be fun for a fine dining pedigreed chef, right? A chance to let loose? Not if you judge by the look of late on Mr. Lee's face.
When I saw the chef walking through the room one Friday night recently, he had his head down and a frown on his lips and hadn't bothered to remove the green, CSI: Miami –style kitchen gloves from his hands. He walked like this past a booth of cheering, hooting, bub-swilling party girls, past the neon "Electric" sign, past tables of society wives and power brokers and paunchy, dignified rib-hounds in their pressed Friday casuals, toward the bar up front, which was rammed, as always, with prowling local fauna.
He's looked just as consternated working out front of the open kitchen, which he does a lot of these days. I don't know Mr. Lee, so maybe I'm projecting – maybe he's just not that smiley. But if I were in the position he's in, serving the food he's serving, I'd be looking consternated too. It is mediocre in too many cases, shockingly so considering the chef's erstwhile winning streak.
The misses include a $19 grits plate that didn't taste even remotely of corn grits either time I tried it. (The predominant flavour: beige). There was a seafood gumbo so meekly spiced that it could have passed for jarred spaghetti sauce. The desserts are, with only a few exceptions, oddly chaste (the sad, $16 take on banana toffee cream pie for two that tasted mostly of under-sweetened whipped cream) or way overthought (the manically over-garnished pumpkin pie ice cream.)
And The Carbon Bar's biggest disappointment is with its supposed reason for being: the barbecue meat.
To begin, the good: Mr. Lee's beef brisket was a work of genius the first time I had it. That brisket was as moist as pot roast, jiggly tender and running with juice, but also suffused to its core with beefy, savoury tough-cut flavour and the smoke from smouldering oak logs. Brisket is the most difficult meat in the southern barbecue canon, hard to season and prone to dryness. Here it was a testament to the chef's abilities.
If only he could do that consistently. The next time I tried it, that brisket didn't taste much like smoke or of beef; it was barbecue without the assertiveness training.
The pork ribs were pork ribs for nihilists: they consistently tasted like nothing.
Mr. Lee uses just salt and pepper as his go-to dry rub. This restraint, though noble, is an enormous part of the problem. Pork ribs just don't have much flavour on their own – that's why traditional barbecue dry rubs often include more than a dozen ingredients, from mustard and paprika to garlic salt and sugar.
Barbecue is about excess, not restraint: about beef and pork and poultry so hugely flavourful that you eat until it hurts, and then you eat through the hurt because you can't imagine otherwise. At The Carbon Bar, my tablemates and I left piles of unfinished meat behind.
Many a chef has stumbled over southern barbecue. From what I've read, Mr. Lee's small-batch smoked pork and brisket, perfected over the last decade, is out-of-this-world. Yet small-batch barbecue quality is notoriously difficult to maintain at restaurant volumes; there's a reason St. Clair West's The Stockyards, which produces its smoked chicken and ribs just three days a week in very limited quantities, remains the city's gold standard. (Mr. Lee acknowledged on the phone that consistency is a work in progress.)
Meanwhile, the barbecue market has become hugely competitive. Where once there was only Phil's Original BBQ, today the region's rib, shoulder and brisket hounds can choose between Barque, Paul & Sandy's, Buster Rhino's, Hogtown Smoke, Electric Mud, the vegan-friendly Greenwood Smokehouse, The 420 Smokehouse, Big Bone BBQ, two locations of Lou Dawgs, The Stockyards, at least five barbecue food trucks, and countless other grease-stained smoke shacks of varying repute. I can think of half a dozen better rib platters around the GTA than Carbon Bar's, and when you account for serving size, in every case they are significantly cheaper, too.
So what can David Lee bring to the party? Just enough, as it happens, that I haven't entirely given up hope.
What he brings is some very good non-barbecue dishes. There are the ridiculously light, crunchy and creamy cheese croquettes from the appetizers page. There's the homey, heart-quickening "queso de cabeza" that tops sweet baked pork and beans, a whole fried egg, pickled beets and brioche toast with a slab of head cheese that's been cooked to wobbly succulence and then pan fried on its outside to a bacon-like crisp.
There's a very good kale Caesar salad topped with buttery fried beef tongue, excellent slaw tossed with beer nuts, good pupusas, and a superb crab cake served, like the diet salad of your dreams, with avocado, lime, black beans and some of the most exquisitely tender wild shrimp I've tried.
To his great credit, Mr. Lee sources the best groceries possible – the fish is from Hooked and the meat in that barbecue comes from Cumbrae's. Many barbecue shops use the cheapest stuff they can find.
The room is nice, too: the elegant, open design feels reminiscent of a dance club (it was once Electric Circus), but the high walls and ceiling have been amply sound-damped, so you can have a normal conversation.
And the service is everything you'd expect in a restaurant run by Yannick Bigourdan: it is quick, friendly, sophisticated and professional. It's Nota Bene, light.
Still, atmosphere can only do so much. In this city, it is no longer too much to expect that the barbecue at a barbecue restaurant be tasty barbecue.
If Mr. Lee and his kitchen can't get their game together, quickly, all bets are off.
- No stars: Not recommended.
- * Good, but won’t blow a lot of people’s minds.
- ** Very good, with some standout qualities.
- *** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
- **** Extraordinary, memorable, original with near-perfect execution.