A samurai stomping a Fiat. A geisha riding a Vespa. Let’s toast the brilliant mind that devised these two simple images to epitomize a Japanese-Italian wine bar that defies logic in the most wonderful ways.
That would be Toshi Karino, long-time sommelier at Calgary’s top Italian restaurant. Karino left Teatro with one of its chefs, Kazu Kawashima, to take over AKA Winebar, a 35-seater with mod black chandeliers on the north side of Calgary that did a stiff brunch trade. One Sunday, they felt ready to enact their true plan. By Wednesday, they’d reopened as Carino, the namesake owner’s Italian-driven wine list from AKA still intact, the menu transmuted into an utterly original Japanese-Italian fusion kissed by a whisper of French. Think pungent mentaiko pollock roe from Japan, spread over ciabatta rounds and topped with a single leaf of roquette.
Crispy prawn-stuffed fried black olives with basil-cayenne mayonnaise arrive via a lithe and bare-bones staff, which means that you get a healthy tableside dose of the Japanese-born Karino. This is good news. He’s a whimsical and animated little man with a big pewter belt buckle (the classic eagle fighting a tiger). He’s also a master of pairing wines to this tough-to-decipher cuisine. When he arrives bearing a Spanish old-vine garnacha from Calatayud, just trust the man.
The partner dish to this wine is one so good, I’ll fantasize about it on my deathbed: Duck! Duck!! Duck!!! That’s seared foie gras stacked on top of a dashi-braised daikon radish, swimming in a duck consommé and accompanied by a plated confit duck leg. The dish’s shouty name is a play on an obscure Italian wine region, Est! Est!! Est!!! (Latin for It is, it is, it is). Karino and Kawashima are too weird for Japan by miles. They might be too weird for Calgary. No matter. Is Carino extraordinary? It is, it is, it is.
- BUTTER PLUS: Adding fat to butter? Whether duck fat (Supply and Demand) or barbecue drippings (Electric Mud BBQ), we say the more, the merrier.
- FOOD-FRIENDLY REDS: Versatile, high-acid, low-tannin red grapes, like zweigelt, lacrima, frappato and gamay, have moved to the top of the sommelier’s speed-dial list. Don’t call us, cab sauv, we’ll call you.
- LAMB BELLY: The new pork belly.
- SMALL PLATES, SMALLER TABLES: If you’re going to ask us to order four dishes per person to share, you’d better have a plan for where to put them. Yes, we are still working on all of these.
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FIRST SIP: How Carino Japanese Bistro’s Toshi Karino fell in love with wine.
“I was 20 and waiting tables at a wine bar in Sapporo, the beer town in Japan where I grew up. It was the beginning of the wine boom in Japan – still no sommeliers at that time, for sure – and we had a few random expensive bottles on the list, like Romanée-Conti. Mostly, though, we poured pretty bad stuff, like sweet Black Tower from Germany – wines to get drunk on. And that’s what I drank too.
One night, a well-dressed man came in alone and ordered our oldest, most expensive bottle of German wine, an auslese riesling from the Mosel Valley. He said he was waiting for a lady and asked me to bring two glasses. After I opened the bottle, I kept my distance, but by the time he was halfway through, the man stood up and asked me politely for the bill. His date wasn’t coming. I felt sorry for him. But he told me I should drink what was left. It was a nice bottle, he said.
After we closed for the night, I shared it with some of the staff. I took a sip, and it was a totally new experience for me; the wine had depth and complexity. That bottle changed how I felt about wine forever. It was no longer just something to make you drunk. The wine actually made me feel something.”