Update: We attended this venue in March 2018 and some details may have altered since then.
We’ve waited a long time for this in Melbourne. The new generation of restaurateurs is rising. They’re the experienced, fiercely educated alums of the juggernauts of the previous era. Andrew Joy (who worked under Andrew McConnell: Cumulus Inc, Cutler and Co, Marion) and Travis Howe (who worked under Mykal and Kate Bartholomew: Coda, Tonka) have taken over the flailing Carlton Wine Room and enlisted McConnell’s longtime right-hand man, John-Paul Twomey, to head the kitchen. Essentially, they’re the dream team.
After a quick refurb, the venue feels dusted off, opened up and less stuffy. They’ve made use of the abundant natural light and licensed footpath, which shakes off the austerity of the past. A lick of white paint and classic Thonet furniture, and they’re laughing. It seems the neighbourhood has taken to the facelift, as the venue is packed every single night, inside and out, rain, hail or shine since it opened. The good news is it takes bookings.
It’s important to note the beverage offerings; this is first and foremost a wine room. When you’re seated, the crew hands you a one-pager of aperitif and cocktails before you even see the food menu. This is an old-school dining sensibility that has been lost in the casual dining culture of today. Needless to say, we are glad to welcome it back. One does have to whet one’s appetite, after all.
The full wine list contains 100 bottles. This isn’t particularly large, but this is one of the most approachable, decipherable and balanced wine lists we have come across. Balance means having something for everyone: the traditionalist, the new-wave drinker, the newbie drinker, the flashy drinker. The tidy number of bottles means the list has a chance to evolve quickly, or flow with the seasons. There is also a handy little drinks code that can point you in the right direction: a wine glass for sparklings CWR recommends you drink out of larger stemware; a tree hugger for biodynamic wines; and an orange for skin-contact numbers. It’s not the be all and end all of codes, but that’s why Howe is on the floor, recommending and dispensing his knowledge with eloquence and efficiency. He never missteps.
The food is classic Twomey: uncomplicated and not overworked, but highly delicious. Starting on oysters makes sense when you’re clutching a Martini or glass of sparkling, but if you prefer a cooked starter, the garfish is the way to go. A single piece of Conservas Emilia garfish arrives on fresh, squishy ciabatta, next to a wedge of tart, green tomato under a rain of aioli. This makes for a messy-to-eat open sandwich that’s well worth the clean up. Duck and pork croquettes are lifted with vinegared prunes, and they come in hefty fried bricks. It’s no wonder the staff are quite vocal about offering half serves.
The potato focaccia might sound like an unnecessary order, especially when there is bread service, but Twomey has perfected his recipe to contain both a strong, exterior crunch and light, interior airiness. This comes served in four fingers with a pool of the soft, creamy and super lactic cheese stracciatella, plus shaved zucchini and a dose of bright chive oil. It’s bread and dip, but not as you know it. Just as exciting is the whole snapper cooked on the bone, served in buttery tomato sauce under a salad of sweet, raw fennel and olives. The grilled broccolini is tossed with batons of fried smoked pork under cured, grated egg yolk and a parmesan cream. This is when Howe slides to the table and offers a half-glass pairing of Domaine Macle Côtes du Jura chardonnay, and the oxidative wine picks up the umami from the cheese and yolk. It is evident that the food has been designed around the wine and not the other way around. It shouldn’t feel as ground breaking as this, but sadly, it isn’t a wide enough practice.
With the recent closure of the Town Mouse, the Carlton Wine Room couldn’t have opened at a better time. And like its predecessor, it feels like a breath of fresh air on a dining scene gone stale. Joy, Howe and Twomey are institutionalised hospitality professionals who have turned the cog in large restaurant groups and have come out the other end equipped with the skills of running their own exciting venue. The Carlton Wine Room has seen many incarnations, but we’re tipping this one will be here to stay.