Being a conscientious imbiber when driving can be a challenge at most restaurants. All too often you are kept to a couple of glasses of wine at the most even over a lengthy meal to be safe. It goes without saying that safety comes well and truly first over another glass.
While tonight is a big night, it is also a Monday and the balance between the inconvenience of getting a couple of taxis (and having an extra glass or two), and being responsible, is skewed to the latter. That leads me to the first reason I love the Carlton Wine Room. Several diverse wines are offered not only by the glass, but by the half glass, providing an opportunity to have a Champagne toast, and three other half glasses over a three course meal without any worry about getting home safely.
What adds to the diversity of the wines on offer is the skill of the Sommelier in matching the wines available to different dishes, and being able to describe in intricate detail the reason they should pair well. All this without any pomp; just a great deal of passion. The Champagne toast was with non-vintage Phillipponat Brut Royale Reserve. The first time we’ve tried this house from Mareuil-sur-Ay, we were taken with the elegance, it reminding Catherine of Billecart.
The choice between the entrees, and the mains, is really difficult with several enticing options leading to amiable negotiation. After two years of marriage it was nice to see we could achieve agreement with Catherine ending up with the pork belly and dory, and I with the scallops and duck. Once we’d decided we were presented with an amuse of kingfish that was a texturally balanced and subtle introduction to the finesse of the next three courses.
The minute my grilled scallops arrived I thought Catherine might be envious but it turns out her pork belly was so perfectly cooked that there was complete and uniform satisfaction. The pork belly’s crackling was beautiful, elevated by the tenderness of the belly meat, and accentuated by the gorgeous apple puree. My scallops were nicely cooked with good caramelisation, but the chorizo, whilst starring with its flavour, probably needed to be slightly more thinly cut to promote the delicate flavour of the scallop. It was a great dish though, and with six scallops, is one of the better value entrees I’ve recently eaten.
Having raved about Tahbilk Marsanne, luckily the Sommelier agreed (and knew a great deal more about Tahbilk’s old vines than I did), and gave us a taster each of the 2007. As expected it is a tremendous wine, almost waxy in mouthfeel, but still with plentiful fruit, showing it could age for many more years (and does). However, we were directed to the Dexter Chardonnary from Mornington for Catherine’s pork belly and to a wine from the Loire Valley by Pierre de La Grange for my scallops. They were both great, but particularly the chardonnay with Catherine having another for her main.
My roasted duck breast was impeccable. When combined with the turnip puree, port jus, and grilled peaches, it was even more amazing. As if the dish wasn’t good enough, the 2005 Powells Cabernet Franc (Macedon Ranges) had just enough body and fruit for the duck, with softened tannins from its age, and an elegance that is so rarely available by the (half) glass. Catherine’s dory, while nicely cooked, was not as exciting as the duck, but was beautifully presented and showed technique with the elements combining well, especially the smoked avocado.
Agreement was going to be close to impossible for dessert. It is not like we were still hungry, having also shared some expertly baked bread containing herbs including thyme, and a side of fresh and sweet sugar snap peas. However, we both ordered the chocolate sponge, coffee, vanilla bean ice cream, and honeycomb. It was the right move, with all elements of the dessert absolutely beautiful and even better when combined with the coffee sauce bringing it all together. If sharing, it is a must to get an extra scoop of the ice cream because the sponge while not dense like a brownie, is still rich. Best of all, there was enough honeycomb to have a little with each bite.
The restaurant would have been a house in a previous life and has a comfort and feel of those times. There is an intimacy on the one hand from the candlelight and some of the finer elements in the decor, and on the other hand an atmosphere that only bistro style dining can bring. The service is skilled, but equally relaxed and quietly confident. It is these elements, the incredible wine options, and the number of great dishes competing for airtime that puts the Carlton Wine Room on my list of restaurants to repeat quickly.