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|
Let's start with the salt dispensers, because they say as much about Bar Carolina as the silky pappardelle tangled with rabbit ragu, the gay divorcees gossiping over prosecco, even the designer dogs in the rear outdoor nook helping their owners decide between wood-roasted eye fillet and lamb rump with sweetbreads.
The salt dishes – squat brass cylinders with concave tops and ribbed perimeters that echo the restaurant's bar – are a passion project of owner Joe Mammone, who also has city restaurants Il Bacaro and Sarti. He reckons he took 10 trips to Coburg to get them made, sweet-talking a machinist called Giuseppe to pause work on vintage Mustangs and create a weird kind of gear for a fashionable destination in South Yarra.
It's this kind of attention to detail that makes Bar Carolina sing; it's a new restaurant with old stories. Designed by veteran restaurant whisperer Chris Connell, the corner hotspot is both homecoming and coming of age for Mammone. He kicked off his career in the mid-1990s as a 19-year-old waiter at one of Melbourne's best proving grounds, the venerable Caffe e Cucina. He knows this suburb, he knows its people, and they've embraced his return to 3141 with wine-fuelled frenzy.
These instant regulars – and anyone who nabs one of their tables – get soulful but playful Italian food from chef Paolo Masciopinto, mostly Italian wine from an easy-to-navigate list, and a happy buzz that makes it hard to have a quiet natter but easy to feel like you're somewhere.
Start with snacks and fizz, definitely the tapioca cracker topped with a morsel of juicy snapper, and probably the new-fangled vitello tonnato, a poised rethinking of the classic poached veal with tuna sauce. This one is a delicate scattering of slow-cooked girello and raw tuna, dotted with anchovy mayonnaise and pickled mushrooms. Dehydrated mushroom consomme is formed into fronds to decorate the plate like some kind of earthy seaweed. It's a cool dish.
The pastas are mostly handmade, sauced with classic-and-a-twist flair. Beetroot ravioli is dotted with poppy seeds, the rabbit for that pappardelle is slow-braised in white wine and hidden under truffled pecorino.
The Toorak ladies' favourite dish is the barramundi baked in herb and salt crust, which basically means it's steamed, seasoned and scented all at once. Come to think of it, I bet a nearby salon offers just this kind of spa treatment for humans. In any case, it's a delicious way to cook fish: gentle, clean and juicy.
There are a couple of steaks, cooked in the wood-fired Josper oven, as much as anything so you know you're not at France-Soir over the road.
The tiramisu is a showstopper, a white chocolate sphere sitting on wispy liquid nitrogen "snow". You have to smash the sphere to eat the dessert – like, really destroy it – but in the ensuing mess you'll find the flavours of classic tiramisu: coffee, marsala, mascarpone cream.
It's not too much of a stretch to find analogies between this fancy sweet and Bar Carolina as a whole: it's smooth and sophisticated until you take that silver spoon and start trashing things, letting loose all kinds of naughty fun.
Rating: Four stars (out of five)