Nobody's been clamouring for a broccolini-based spin on the Caesar salad. Tuck into John Paul Twomey's rejig of the classic though and you'll wonder why not. Warm broccolini at the base, diced, fried smoked pork belly, aïoli heftily flavoured with Grana Padano, chopped hard-boiled egg and a generous shower of black pepper over the top. It looks great, tastes better and will have you signing on for a return visit before the plate is scraped clean. Welcome to the Carlton Wine Room rebooted.
Twomey is a third of a new CWR team that's like a hospitality version of fantasy football. He was Andrew McConnell's right-hand man for years and is joined here by Andrew Joy, another McConnell alumnus who won the GT Maître d' of the Year gong when he ran the floor at Marion. Travis Howe, former Coda and Tonka sommelier, is the third member of the squad.
Add the prime location that CWR has always enjoyed in Carlton's Italian heartland and it was always going to be a safe bet that its latest incarnation wouldn't suck. There's always a possibility of hopes being dashed when a line-up looks this solid, but here they're paid with interest.
It starts with the space that's had all its good bones emphasised by designer Samantha Eades' deft makeover. The upstairs dining room's striped horseshoe booths, textured white-tiled walls and timber floors and tables are cosseting and sophisticated.
But if it's buzz you're after, stay downstairs. Here, the bar has been given a new white marble top, and a covetable oversized poster by Croatian artist Boris Bucan hangs on the wall as a backdrop. White tiles, dark stained timber, clean lines, street views through multiple windows: a classic Carlton aesthetic given modern-day context.
The same could be said for the menu. There's a distinct Italian lean here, most obviously realised in the daily pasta. This might be a straightforward Bolognese-style pork and veal sauce with spaghetti, or a casarecce with a deep-flavoured tomato, cuttlefish and tripe ragù that's worthy of a standing ovation.
There's more Italian with snacks such as anchovies on fried bread topped with fresh ricotta, pickled red onion and fennel tips. And with the stracciatella, the beautifully textured stuff from Melbourne producer That's Amore, teamed with a jumble of mushrooms pickled in red wine vinegar and soy, finished with crisp fried rosemary leaves and a splash of chive oil and served with a brilliant, crisp-edged square of airy potato focaccia. The rum babà is also a credit to the kitchen, steamed to order then drenched in a rum syrup with just the right amount of boozy burn and accompanied by a thick, sweet crème diplomat.
Italy is the core of the menu, but it's a broad church. Steamed Portarlington mussels are matched with wonderfully creamy Spanish chickpeas, mint and cucumbers, tossed in a sprightly sweet and sour dressing and dolloped with aïoli. Grilled slivers of ox tongue mixed with a mustard leaf salad and pickled shallots is equally impressive, as is the kohlrabi rémoulade, rich with mayo and cornichons, that comes with it.
It's a menu full of stuff you want to eat right now, and then return to eat again. Travis Howe does the same thing with wine, limiting his edit to 100 wines and changing the mix weekly. The list is annotated with cute symbols designating organic and biodynamic wines (a person hugging a tree), skin-contact wines (an orange) and sparkling wines that will be served in a regular wine glass rather than a flute because they'll taste better that way (a wine glass).
It's a light-hearted way to explore a modish collection of labels that sticks mostly to small producers from Italy, France and Australia. There's plenty of stuff for fans of the pungent natural (2015 Dinavola "Dinavolino" malvasia blend from Emilia-Romagna) and the gorgeously balanced classic (2010 Mount Mary "Quintet" Cabernet blend from the Yarra Valley) with a democratic range of prices. Ideal for a corner local.
The service is ideal too, the kind that appears effortless and unrushed but doesn't miss a trick. It's grace and charm all the way.
The Carlton Wine Room has experienced peaks in previous incarnations but this version is something special. There's no flash or dazzle, just the right team in the right place at the right time.