The Carlton Wine Room encapsulates so many current Melbourne dining themes that it can, on paper, come across as annoyingly on-song. A side-street location (now hotter than a laneway one), the blurring of bar and restaurant boundaries, a dexterously flexible menu, the monochrome quasi-industrial feel of the room, the Italian-leaning wine list, even the taxidermy birds hovering near the main bar all speak of a place that's right here, right now. And yet despite all the studious box-ticking, the Carlton Wine Room doesn't feel at all prefabricated. It comes across as endearingly familiar rather than rehashed, smart rather than smug, and is the sort of place that can quickly find the unnoticed gap in your eating repertoire and lodge itself there.
The Carlton Wine Room joins the small gaggle of food businesses (Embrasse, Markov Place, DOC, venerable Italian stalwart Masani) that have formed an off-Lygon Street splinter group; it's slipped easily into the mix by referencing history and yet refusing to be bound by it. There's certainly a feel of old Carlton to the place, particularly in the whitewashed walls and bare timber tables that seem to channel nearby Jimmy Watson's Wine Bar - which, approaching 80 years in the trade, is arguably the original Carlton wine room. Add the split-level, multi-storey, slightly rabbit-warren-ish nature of the place and you can certainly see the ghosts of Carlton's bohemian past.
But when the food starts arriving, it's soon apparent that the Carlton Wine Room has eschewed the neighbourhood's reputation as a theme park strewn with red gingham tablecloths for a more modern approach that ranges widely in technique and geography.
The best illustrations of the approach are the regularly changing antipasti, which distance themselves so far from the traditional understanding of what antipasti are that they should probably come with their own inverted commas. The selection arrives on a long-handled board on which the closest link to tradition - slices of deep pink bresaola - sits in the centre. The air-cured meat is teamed with a scattering of translucent, nicely textured (chewy, a little sticky) twigs of cured egg yolk and smoked red grapes. It's a thoroughly attractive collection of textures and surprising bursts of flavours. Its tasty neighbour comes by way of small rectangular blocks of opaque white salt-cod jelly sitting on a white almond gazpacho paste and topped with a blood-orange and fennel salad. The jelly is superb, with a tofu-like texture and a subtle cod flavour that is particularly well matched to the slightly grainy gazpacho with its toasted almond and sherry vinegar notes.
Rounding out the trio might be steamed and pan-fried Jerusalem artichokes and broccolini teamed with a tarragon custard, or perhaps a superb octopus carpaccio, the octopus bashed and slow-cooked in a water bath before being sliced and served with pickled cucumber, a cucumber and olive oil broth and fennel and freekah salad. Or it might be slivers of an equally sparky rolled pig's head terrine, salty, texture-rich and well matched with baby radishes and horseradish.
Chef Matthew Silovic was formerly the sous at Verge, so it's not at all surprising that he's enamoured of sous vide and Pacojets, soda siphons and iota carrageenan. Refreshingly, the menu doesn't bang on about molecular techniques (there's no dust or foam or air to be seen) and Silovic seems as interested in putting some of his Croatian heritage on the plate as he is in demonstrating his molecular prowess.
One of the great menu moments comes with his beef and pork cevapcici, flavoured with fennel seeds, garlic, paprika and thyme, from a recipe Silovic has borrowed from his grandparents. They're great, these little sausages, juicy and aromatic with just the right amount of aniseed hum and salty kick. The cevapcici are teamed with charred spring onions and sit in a pool of rich, slightly unattractive "potato butter" made from chicken stock, butter, potato starch and mashed potato. On the side you get a couple of crisped-up pieces of caraway-flavoured pogacha, a traditional Eastern European bread made from a sour-cream dough.
It's this mix of cuisines, the blend of traditional and modern cooking and the gentle defiance of expectations (surely a place that looks like this, with a name like this, in this neighbourhood would be Italian) that gives the Carlton Wine Room its charm. The expectations of an all-Italian affair are probably fuelled further by the lineage of its three owners, all of whom are connected with - and in the case of Michael Tenace, owner of - long-time CBD Italian restaurant Il Solito Posto.
The most hands-on of these partners, the personable, Jack Sparrow-esque Jay Bessell, was sommelier and manager at Il Solito, and his particular style of broadly knowledgeable enthusiasm and genuine hospitality plays well in the flexible environs he's created at the Carlton Wine Room. It's one of those places where you feel as comfortable dining alone at one of the window benches as you do grabbing a quick glass of wine and a snack with friends before catching a movie at the Nova.
The venue has a range of seating options and areas - the main split-level bar with its mix of bench and table seating, the more traditional mezzanine dining area complete with group-friendly booths, and the impressive basement private room. Similarly, the menu offers most dishes (including desserts) in two sizes so that the line between bar snacks and main courses,shared plates and traditional three-course dining never becomes an issue. It creates that most hospitable of vibes: that there's a little something for everybody.
It comes as no surprise that Bessell's wine list reflects this flexibility, with a generous number of wines available by both the glass and the half glass alongside an ever-expanding selection of half bottles. The wine list is the closest the Carlton Wine Room comes to waving the Italian flag. It doesn't stick exclusively to Italian labels, making the occasional foray into Germany for riesling and France for Burgundy, Chablis and Champagne, but the compact 160-plus list mostly favours Italian labels and home-grown versions of Italian varietals. The mix of known and smaller boutique labels is impressive on such a tight list and chances are, with Bessell on the floor expounding his enthusiasm for a Sicilian nero d'avola or a verdicchio from Le Marche, you'll find yourself swept along, drinking something you haven't tried before.
The menu is less of a mystery in terms of new, untried flavours, but, as with his constantly changing antipasti selections, Silovic demonstrates a flair for seamlessly adding new elements to traditional ideas.
His tomato salad, for example, is a lively take on a traditional Caprese. Puffed brown rice and toasted almonds add texture, while luxuriously creamy, runny burrata from nearby "mozzarella laboratory" La Latteria adds the cheese element. Dollops of sweet, sticky olive oil jam are the finishing touches that make this a thoroughly satisfying and interesting version of a classic.
Smoked eel and pancetta croquettes (croquettes being another must-have on Melbourne menus of the moment, it seems) come with a swede purée that's been slightly sweetened with caramel to eliminate any bitterness. They're well worth a try, as are the excellent agnolotti stuffed with house-made ricotta and silverbeet, tossed in a sauce made with the whey of the ricotta flavoured with vegetable stock and lemon thyme.
Mostly the cooking is sharp, as with the little cubes of confit pork belly that are subjected to half a day in sous-vide land to break the fat down before being pan-fried skin-side down so that there is some crunch and crackle alongside the clockwork tenderness expected of meat slow-cooked this way. The pork is teamed with one small salad of classic apple and cabbage and another brilliantly textured one of soft and puffed barley.
Occasionally, things can slip. Cannelloni filled with duck are bland, dry and decidedly average, more like a dish you'd expect to find in an over-reaching café, and the desserts can be lacklustre at times.
A sweet offering that does put in the effort is an orange polenta cake, a lovely pale-yellow jumble of oversized crumbs, crunchy with desiccated coconut and topped with "fizzy grapes" that have been charged in a soda siphon for several hours so that they do, in fact, fizz pleasantly when bitten into. A scoop of caramelised white chocolate ice-cream is a rich and creamy winner, adding a commendably smooth layer to the mix.
The Carlton Wine Room is obviously something of a poster child for a type of restaurant prevalent in Melbourne right now. But even if it does display many of the tropes of current dining, it still manages to feel like an original. It has the fundamentals in place, feels at home in its neighbourhood and, most importantly, is unerringly hospitable. And that's something that always stays fresh.