44 Toorak Rd South Yarra, VIC 3141
|Opening hours||Open Mon-Tue 5pm-11pm, Wed-Sat 11.30am-late|
|Features||Bar, Accepts bookings, Licensed, Outdoor seating|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||03 9820 9774|
Looks matter in South Yarra. Entering Toorak Road where the tans become bronzer and the Miu Miu increases threefold is like crossing the Wallace Line (look it up, non-science-geeks).
The importance of looks in a restaurant are debatable to some. Style can't outweigh substance. But in the case of Bar Carolina, the new Italian bistro-bar from Sarti and Il Bacaro's Joe Mammone (one of the sharpest outfits Melbourne has seen in some time), the seeing and being seen, feeling like you're sitting inside an architecture mag clinking bright spritz in the sun, makes you realise sometimes looks matter a hell of a lot.
That isn't to say Bar Carolina lacks substance. But it is a place for those who eat with their eyes. Designed by the great Chris Connell, it is a cool-toned treasure trove of the bespoke. A stained glass atrium framed in strong steel lines gives views to Carolina Street and its alley of trees.
The ridged charcoal bar, overslung by glittering bottles, the white, adjustable downlights that work with ample daylight to hit the hints of bronze and midnight blue, are all Connell's and translate the story of how we're eating in 2017 as well as sibling Il Bacaro did when it opened over a decade ago.
Then, it was all about moody eating, snug spaces. It was the era when Melbourne's small bars were king. Bar Carolina enters a world where fickle diners make no promises to stay for more than one drink and a snack. Bar Carolina is a warren of spaces that promises escape, but has a drinking and eating agenda you might not want to.
A strong aesthetic sensibility spills to plates, though I'm not sure if it's always to as much benefit. Chef Paolo Masciopinto has come from Sarti. His menu here goes high and low, with most highlights being on the latter, more traditional end of the scale.
The pumpkin filling in the crisp, bronzed crochettes is sticky in the way of those pumpkin cakes you get at yum cha, nicely countered by aioli turned dark and vaguely sweet from black garlic.
For other drink-friendly snackage, you might want to go for the plate of flash fried octopus fritto, oysters or salumi. Otherwise, plates take a far more tweezered form.
Vitello tonnato resembles a collision between the Piedmontese classic with Hawaiian poke: seared veal and sushi-grade tuna cut to similar gauged cubes around which dried caper leaves, pickled shimeji mushrooms and dabs of anchovy mayonnaise are artfully arranged.
Pretty? As a picture, though it denies the veal its chance to mingle with the fishy sauce, the crux of the dish's deliciousness. Nicely tanned scallops with cauliflower schmear, trout roe and whimsical dehydrated cauli twigs feel more for the eyes than mouth.
Often the straighter stuff is where the joy is. A humble side salad is brimming with sugar snap peas and garlic flowers. Fresh asparagus cooked on the Josper grill are roasted to their ultimate glory.
Is house-made pasta a highlight as it is at Il Bacaro? It's house-made, beautifully presented, but beetroot ravioli with goat's curd dabs is earthy over sweet, and pretty salty, lubricated by its poppy seed butter.
Tagliolino twirled into a nest with bugs, wine, soft cubes of porcini mushroom and dried chilli threads has neither the sparkle nor comfort of the bug spaghetti that is the longstanding dinner-for-one at Il Bacaro.
But if the carbs aren't all killer, the wine list, spruiking all-Italian varietals hailing either from the boot or our own backyard, sure is. Il Bacaro and Sarti have always been glorious places to get your Brunello miles up and Bar Carolina is no exception.
A 2008 San Felice Campogiovanni is one of the premium wines by the glass from the coravin (for $52, but it's a chance to get at it all). On the excellently reasonable end of the spectrum, Ruinart 'R de Ruinart' champagne (a rare non-Italian) is only $22 a glass.
That is smart bait to pull in crowds for summer nights that might start in the sunny atrium and roll to some of the jewels in the menu's crown. Whole fish and bistecca come off that grill, probably what you'll need if clinking spritzes leads to popping bottles.
Better yet, embrace the sweet, musky glory of the goat: chops, breast and shoulder braised to melting point in subtle vegetable broth with broad beans tying it into spring, a shower of salted ricotta bringing it home.
Dessert? A white chocolate sphere containing the coffee-soaked cake and whipped vanilla cream of a tiramisu tastes a little of the mould it's cracked from.
It's a fun trick, just more razzle dazzle than you need when sun is pouring in, the service is bustling and drinks are flowing. Looks wise, Bar Carolina can just let the room do the talking.
Vegetarian: Beetroot ravioli, pumpkin crochettes, maple carrots and sides.
Drinks: Spritz and Italian varietals from the homeland and home base.
Pro Tip: Beeline for summer afternoons and spritz.
Go-to Dish: Capretto brasato, aka braised goat with broad beans and ricotta salata ($35).