After losing its way a little in its latter years, the Carlton Wine Room was rebooted in early 2018 by somewhat of a hospitality dream team: Andrew Joy (former manager of Marion and Cumulus Up) , Travis Howe (Coda and Tonka sommelier and co-owner) and chef John Paul Twomey (who opened Cutler & Co. as head chef with Andrew McConnell and then spent a decade as his development chef and second in command). So, one of the best, and most decorated, front of house managers around, one of the top sommeliers and one of the country’s best chefs – three big ticks right there.
And while a trio like that could easily be pushing the boat out into rarefied dining territory, that’s not really where they’re at. There’s a calm affability to Joy and Howe, without any pretensions to coolness, that informs the tone. Like Marion, Joy’s last gig, there’s a blurring of the lines here, a friendly tussle between wine and food for primacy of identity. That they interlock so gracefully is testament to its success. Call it a wine bar, a bistro, a ‘barstaurant’– if you must. Call it what you will.
Twomey’s food is wine friendly, creative bistro fare with seasonality and produce the cornerstones. Small bites, like oysters, anchovy toast, duck and pork croquettes and tostadas with raw scallop, kick things off, followed by vegetable-leaning medium plates and generous mains that can be eaten solo or shared, such as Sher wagyu rump cap, a Western Plains pork cassoulet or whole fish with café de Paris butter. Cheese and the now legendary rum baba sign off the menu.
And if choosing it too tricky. “With our daily menu,” says Howe, “all you need to do is just tell us what you don’t eat rather than what you do eat, and from there you’ll leave the menu entirely to JP and the kitchen team.”
This is not the home of a vast leather-bound list, with the standard offering running to about 100 lines, although there are around 300 hundred or so other bottlings in the cellar and the sleek gold-standard EuroCave wine cabinets that are nestled into less usable spaces. The main list a carefully curated offer, taking in an extraordinary amount of territory, both geographically and stylistically, though there is a gentle Italian lean, while the “reserve list” runs deeper on all fronts, with Howe and his wine-savvy crew ever present with advice and explanations. And if you’re in on a Monday, you can even bring a bottle, or two.
The glass offer runs to 16, and unlike many venues, Howe shuns the Coravin, although this doesn’t preclude the opening of serious bottles, quite the opposite. He encourages his staff to open almost anything, and then to sell it all in a session. He sees it as a less lazy option. Open the wine for good reason, for a purpose, and back yourself to sell it. It’s a foundation that runs deep here, with a real sense of connection, of ownership, suffusing the service.
COVID-19 conditions: The Carlton Wine Room is closed during Melbourne’s current lockdown, but they’re ready to spring out of the blocks when restrictions ease.