297 Lygon St Carlton, VIC 3053
|Opening hours||Daily noon-10pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Licensed|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9347 1619|
The spaghettini is very good. Things that have a little time and patience put into them often are. And this one, at Agostino, the wine bar attached to King and Godfree, has taken about four years to get on your fork, if you count the construction it took for you to be eating it surrounded by the buffed marble, beautiful glassware, and soft leather banquettes.
As the plate lands on a sleek wooden table, in the hands of a waiter dressed neck to ankle in crisp white linens, you can almost feel Carlton exhale. Not just because of the wait, or the fact the spaghetti is good (although the sparkle of that sweet blue swimmer crab and prawns, slick with garlicky oil, fresh tomatoes and a splash of soave for kick is a potent pre-Nova cinema power move). But for the fact that it is just pasta, and when placed alongside some ruffles of culatello, or luxurious Olasagasti anchovies (king of salty fish), it represents the northern-Italian A-game that King and Godfree's epic cellar needs, and deserves.
No one could be more relieved at Agostino's arrival than the Valmorbida family, which has owned the imposing corner building since 1955, and been transforming it into an Italian dining emporium since 2015. Up top is Johnny's Green Room, a rooftop bar for polpetti and Aperol spritz. The original deli, now greatly expanded, serves panini stuffed with the same smallgoods you can take home, hot porchetta rolls and salads to drag into a corner with an espresso, Peroni and a book from Readings down the street. Agostino is the premium booze-soaked cherry on this torte.
Where to stick it, though, on your overflowing Italian bucket list? Can you compare it with the revving Ferrari that is Di Stasio Citta? True, both offer the opportunity to rip out your own heart and leave it beating on a silky marble bar top as payment for a bottle of top-shelf barolo (bonus perk here, you can prepare with a cellar viewing downstairs). Both also have well-starched waiters delivering and removing dishes in rhythmic ballet. But Agostino tries to tone down the excess vibe. The lights are low. The snacking is easy. The leather banquettes running halfway up the wall have the soothing effect of a (very glamorous) padded cell. It's nice here, but neighbourly, too.
Take a load off. Let the brevity and genuine seasonality of the menu wash over you.
Classic dishes are more airbrushed than drastically altered. Plush slices of culatello, the sweetest part of the pig's haunch, come with shaved and lightly salted persimmon, a tart, smart hat-tip to melon and parma ham. Bullhorn peppers, sweet and intensified by a slow roasting, are dressed with a little balsamic, a thick wedge of fresh cow's milk squacquerone cheese and basil, like autumn's answer to a caprese salad. Buttery pine mushrooms, some of the few to have grown this season, play fruity back-up to perky tortellini filled with a luxurious parmesan and mushroom goo.
But the ace in the hole is the wine. What'll it be? A Lucy Margeaux wild vermouth? Americano straight up? There's more than one way to drink very seriously here. To some, the Gaja barbarescos and langhes circa 2004-2006 that have been "priced to sell" at $570-$850 will be the draw. For more mortal budgets, sommelier James Tait's Oz-Italian and sometimes Greek list of carefully produced wines, even at the lower by-glass buy-in, has some serious voltage. You could hang your coat off the structure of either the Avani Amrit chardonnay from Mornington Peninsula or the Troupis "Tomi" moschofilero from Mantinia in Greece.
Whether you take a $10 glass of montevecchio or a $32 nip of 2012 Linnea Barolo from the Coravin with your quail, it's a guaranteed good time in the glass.
The plates rarely slouch either. Snacking advances to a brodetto, a vibrant aniseedy seafood stew of fat mussels, tender john dory, squid and vongole to soak up with a grilled crust of aioli-slathered bread. Quail, gently blushing and laid on rich polenta, is flavour-packed with a little marsala-spiked jus, peppered with sprouts, pancetta and chewy chestnuts for bite.
You have to hand it to the crew, time spent waiting to open hasn't been wasted, evidenced by smooth moves straight from the gate. There's instant calm, sat among those olive greens, and sandy woods, the walls of backlit bottles bringing texture.
The sighs keep coming as spoons sink into flourless chocolate torte both intensely rich and feather light at once with crystallised ginger lifting it onto that higher plane. Agostino is late to the party, but long may it rule.
Vegetarian Plenty to work with in big sides, salads and pastas.
Drinks Top-shelf boutique drinking with an Italian slant, from spirits to wine and beers.
Cost Smaller plates $7-$23, pastas $25-$29, mains $39-$45.
Pro Tip: For $20 corkage grab any bottle from their retail wine selection.
Go-to Dish: Spaghettini with prawn, crab and soave ($29).