Il Solito regulars will recognise the easy hospitality and suave service immediately but the space is something completely new. The ground floor is all inviting timbers oak floors, bentwood carvers and stools, a broad bench lit by vintage mirror-backed oil lamps, and three stuffed pigeons swinging from the ceiling. Yes, you read that right. Three dead birds.
Co-owner Jay Bessell, general manager and maitre d at ISP for the past decade, calls them his ode to Magritte, the Belgian surrealist. Theyre also a memorial of sorts to the many dead pigeons he discovered in the attic while he and partners Michael Tenace and Connie Cappello were transforming this derelict old lounge bar into a glossy gourmet destination.
The dining room extends into a sunken rear area with an oak chefs table under dramatic lighting by Flos and Tom Dixon. Stairways lead to the cellar, where theres subterranean dining at the 12-seat rosewood table, or up to the mezzanine eating area and, beyond, to a top floor due to open by years end. When its firing on all floors the Carlton Wine Room will seat 150, so getting a table shouldnt be a hassle. Its deceiving because it looks like a cute little wine war, says Bessell. But its a monster in the nicest possible way.
The antipasto special is a wooden board draped with two slices of middle-order jamon, a tumble of sliced pigs ears that have been braised in chicken stock, parmesan-crumbed and fried (snacky rather than sensational) and home-style caciocavallo. This soft, pulled-curd cows cheese comes melted on squares of brioche baked in the kitchen. The cheese is slightly salty, like a creamier, sweeter young provolone, and utterly scrumptious.
Croatian-born chef Matthew Silovic is well qualified to make his own cevapcici, spicing his beef and pork bullets with paprika, toasted fennel and garlic and resting them on a potato butter (more like a roux) that moistens and softens their saltiness. He also does a nice line in beetroot-cured salmon. Its pinkish folds have hints of star anise and citrus and share the plate with pickled beetroot and a light drift of grated horseradish.
Smoked eel and pancetta croquettes are refreshingly different and served on a moat of caramelised swede but the hero dish of the day is easily the tomato salad. It has no need for buzzwords such as heirloom these are simply sweet, plump little love-apples halved or whole in a pool of olive oil jam (a bit like a mayo) with the crunch of toasted almonds and puffed brown rice and the decadence of a slab of creamy burrata. Proof that quality ingredients always outshine kitchen wizardry.
Silovic has all the mod culinary cons in his kitchen and uses them to novel effect to create a walnut and salty meringue crust for the rare-roasted lamb rump. It sounds odd but the crumble adds a pleasantly salty twist to the rosemary- and thyme-scented lamb and is much more interesting than your standard Sunday roast. A side order of sliced kipflers tossed with caramelised onion gets a groan of approval.
We end with what sounds like a prosaic orange and polenta cake until it arrives broken into bite-sized pieces studded with fizzy grapes and splodges of vanilla yoghurt. The grapes have been gassed up with a soda bulb bizarre but fun. The cake is moist and intensely aromatic with orange but Im not convinced it wouldnt have tasted just as nice if it had been served whole with the tricks on the side. Call me old-fashioned.
Still, thats a minor quibble. The soul of Il Solito Posto has arrived northside, and thats got to be a good thing.
Carlton Wine Room
Corner Faraday and Drummond streets, Carlton
Cuisine Modern European
Chef Matthew Silovic
Hip pocket $50-$60 a head for a good feed.
Open Tuesday to Friday 5-11pm, Saturday, Sunday noon-11pm
Highlights The welcome, the wine, the tomatoes
Lowlights Some dishes shine brighter than others
Phone 9347 2626