“A Closer Look” is a new series in which Broadsheet editor and noted food writer Max Veenhuyzen examines the city’s restaurants with a more critical eye.

“A neighbourhood bistro and bar, serving food that works with wine.”

If you were scratching around for a campaign slogan to launch a venue, you could do worse than this elevator pitch. Local. Casual. A subtle nod to the new-wave wine bar movement where eating (small plates, usually), drinking (organically farmed, “natural” wines, mostly) and informality rule. These 11 words flirt with some on-trend notions.

They’re also the mission statement – and homepage text – of Carlton Wine Room, the three-storey bar-slash-diner at the intersection of Faraday and Drummond streets. The venue was originally opened in 2011 by Jay Bessell, Michael Tenace and Connie Capello, but since February 2018 it’s been under the command of seasoned hospitality duo Andrew Joy and Travis Howe.

Howe – a sommelier – arrived in Carlton after eight years keeping guests at Coda and Tonka well watered. Joy, meanwhile, spent 13 years managing various outposts of Andrew McConnell’s empire, including Cumulus Inc and Gertrude Street’s endlessly brilliant wine bar, Marion. On paper and in practice, this combination of wine and service experience equals a formidable front-of-house partnership. Then along comes veteran chef John Paul Twomey – another McConnell alum whose decade with the group included five years as head development chef – to really round off the package.

In the process of writing this piece, I took Carlton Wine Room for multiple test drives. A Friday night table for two in the lively upstairs dining room. Solo lunches and dinners at the bar. Dropping in with a late-night posse to split bottles of wine and bowls of pasta in the lively ground-floor bar area complete with communal table, whitewashed walls and stained timber. One of the reasons for this thoroughness is journalistic rigour. Another is that I wanted to eat as much of chef Twomey’s cooking as possible.

As one might reasonably expect from a graduate of the McConnell school, luxe comfort is the name of the game and his menu demonstrates plenty of his mentor’s influence. Take the glorious tripe and cuttlefish gratin, a dish that came to Carlton from London’s Hibiscus restaurant via Cutler & Co. A comforting braise of precision-cut offal and cephaloid, it’s a compelling argument for eating more offal as well as ransacking op shops for attractive tableware. Then there’s the rum baba, a dainty, syrup-soaked brick of cake and cream Diplomat – a tweaked souvenir from McConnell’s inner-city canteen, Cumulus Inc.

Twomey’s aspirations, though, go beyond cover-band cooking. Diners seeking maximum comfort-per-mouthful should look to the bottom half of the menu. The carte is structured like a class photo, with items lined up from smallest to largest. At that latter end you’ll find great roast chicken (golden-skinned and juicy!) and plate-sized flounder, which is somewhat let down by an oddly sweet beurre noisette (butter sauce). And although dishes such as “Western Plains pork chop, gentleman’s relish, kohlrabi salad” have a dinner-for-one vibe, I’d want to have skipped lunch or smashed out a personal best at the gym if I were to eat one of these solo. (The daily pastas such as rigatoni with pork and beef ragu, or smoked eggplant, though, are fair game day or night, early or late, solo or many). But enjoying these main course-ier items in company and preceded by other smaller plates? That’s the way.

This is big-flavoured food, but regular flashes of acidity keep palate fatigue at fork’s length. Bonito vinegar and bright mint lend Asian sharpness to a “salad” of pickled mussels and finely cut herbs, and pickled mushrooms (and exceptionally crunchy potato focaccia) play nice with creamy straciatella. Another fond memory is tiny paintbrushes of grilled broccolini with chopped egg and pork lardons: the sort of lunchbox salad I imagine high-calibre chefs send their kids and partners to school and work with.

In the neighbourhood spirit of the place, there’s always at least one $10 glass of something on the wine list – Adelaide Hills gruner veltliner on a recent visit – but the middle ground and beyond is where Carlton Wine Room shines, especially if your tastes run to big-ticket burgundy and wine made according to organic principles. Factor in Howe’s platinum chat and knack for playing matchmaker between cellar and customer (“What’s the most drinking I can do for the least money?” I asked on one visit. His answer: a superbly saline and crunchy Sicilian white of grillo and catarratto that left me with plenty of change out of a hundred). And grapey good times are assured.

Generally speaking, Howe is in charge of the upstairs dining room while Joy’s jurisdiction is downstairs. Service from both is as polished and seamless as you’d expect from two career hospitality types, although not all the staff nail the brief like the owners. I’d describe service as efficient, rather than warm. That’s definitely been the case when I’ve sat at the bar as a solo diner: arguably the time when one most wants a friendly ear. I’d also have liked to be told that much of the menu is available as half-portions, an important detail I only found out later in that meal.

But the patchy service is really the only bump on an otherwise very smooth, very enjoyable ride. Along with more recent openings such as Capitano, Leonardo’s Pizza Palace and Kazuki’s, it also signals a return to form for the neighbourhood. And while that relaxed “food that works with wine” brief has made Carlton Wine Room the kind of place every eater and drinker would love to have around the corner, it’s also worth travelling for.

Carlton Wine Room
172–174 Faraday Street, Carlton
(03) 9347 2626

Hours
Tue & Wed 4pm–11pm
Thu to Mon 12–11pm

thecarltonwineroom.com.au

Get the recipe for Carlton Wine Room’s potato focaccia in The Broadsheet Italian Cookbook, plus 79 other dishes from Australia’s best restaurants, cafes and bars. Available now at shop.broadsheet.com.au.

This story originally appeared in Melbourne Print Issue 25.