Address 172-174 Faraday Street, Carlton, 03 9347 2626, thecarltonwineroom.com.au
Open Mon-Wed 4pm-late; Thu-Sat noon-late
Cost Small plates $4-$9; main dishes $24-$38
Vegetarian Two main dishes plus sides, but dietaries catered
Drinks They shake a sturdy classic cocktails and the wine list champions Australian producers
Before we start, a quick word on truffles: if you’re paying $15 to have them randomly grated over anything from a salad to a shoe, stop it. Truffles are not actual balls of magic, but they can be. And the good news is, 2017 has been a bumper year, in terms of harvest and for chefs doing sensible things to them.
They’re all over parmesan-buttered tortellini at Osteria Ilaria. They’re perfuming Paul Wilson’s polenta and egg. They’re stinking up Ramlr, grated over a bubbling layer of mozzarella. And at Carlton Wine Room, Tasmania’s finest are making a stracciatella-topped risotto do a crazily fragrant dance.
Things have changed at this Drummond Street stayer. It was bought last year by Domenic Zanellini and Fiona Sheeran, who recently hired chef Chris Haydon from Saint Crispin. But it’s still the comfortable sweater of Carlton eateries, delivering smart wines in sweet rooms with comfort dishes you’d happily hit on either a Saturday night or after tight-arse Tuesday at Cinema Nova.
That might be classic bone marrow and pickled onion, only instead of being roasted down to a pool of oil and jelly, the creamy marrow has been removed, still firm, sliced and gently steamed so it keeps a texture similar to butter as you smash into your toast. That turns out to be an excellent thing.
White anchovies arrive looking like they’ve been decoupaged to the bowl by translucent ribbons of lardo. It’s a pretty, sharp and succinct way to luge into dinner.
It’s often a sense of familiarity that makes places like this get in your head. Haydon’s cooking is a little less hinged on bells and whistles than at Saint Crispin. Often it’s based on simple pairs of ingredients that are natural friends, which makes as much of an impression.
Case in point: that risotto. The grains are just loose enough and the play of the cool sweet cream from the macerated cheese and the duvet of truffle is reason to come here alone. I wouldn’t say the same for tortellini. The crab filling is sweet but overwhelmed by thick skins, and slightly incongruous with crisp greens and a buttery foam.
On the flipside, what sounds straight from the school of weird ideas, steak and snails (turf and turf?) transpires to be a smart idea. To be fair, a snail is essentially just a textural vehicle for garlic, but its porcini-like chew is nice against rosy slices of burnished Cape Grim rib eye, served sliced and fanned out over its bone with a flutter of charred onions.
The warren of rooms has seen the addition of fencing wire rolls as light shades, a felt pinboard menu, and a couple of bright pieces of art, but it does little to change the fundamental cosiness of the corner terrace. Also lightly altered: a dedication to getting interesting Victorian winemakers in your glass. The delivery is slightly less electric than when sommelier Jay Bessell roamed the floors but it’s still friendly and informed.
When it comes to dessert, a collection of pecans, date cake rubble and caramelised pear with an intense miso ice-cream works only if you get exactly the right amount of each bit. Maybe keep it simple with a platter of cheese or a marmalade cake instead. Simple is the sell point here. Embrace it.
Go-to dish: Bone marrow and pickled onion on toast, or truffle risotto.
Pro tip: It’s your best friend for mid-week eats – bookend a movie at the Nova.