177 Lygon St Brunswick East, VIC 3057
If you have ever eaten chef Paul Wilson's Latin menus before – the Spanish-inflected SoCal tacos and jugs of sangria at Newmarket Hotel in St Kilda; the Oaxacan-slash-Peruvian gear at Acland Street Cantina – you won't be surprised on arriving at Lady Carolina at being offered a Mexican margarita from a faucet, and your choice between a Peruvian alpaca burger or some Cuban-style braised beans.
Nor will you find it surprising that all these things sit together neatly and all pack a solid amount of punch.
Even though Wilson was first brought to our attention for his finessed work at the Botanical, and he's proved he still has an eye for the serious during a recent consultancy at Icebergs in Sydney, his is a heart that clearly beats for Latin American food as presented through a four-star-travel lens.
Wilson does carnitas with cushions and cocktails. And that's something the residents of Brunswick East approve. They come in their droves to the Lygon Street corner on Fridays and Wednesdays. And you can see why.
That giant back yard, Astroturfed and filled with bright umbrellas, a twinkling bar and banana palms, may be a Disney vision of Latin America – it's more gated community than gritty-streets-of-Lima, replete with shatterproof cups – but you feel inspired to order big on the properly salty grapefruit-soda-and-tequila palomas and a fistful of tacos regardless.
The tacos, filled with sweet, smoky shredded pork and pickled onions all crunched up with airy crackling, or a vegetarian version packing earthily spiced jackfruit, are presented in a length of notched bamboo. Our tortillas – the proper, corny ones from Flemington's La Tortilleria – would be better if warmer, but the flavours of the fillings are true.
Things are slightly more formal in the dining room. It's a busy space with a second lengthy bar and strings of lights slung across the roof like washing lines. Slatted screens smartly divide the giant room into intimate pockets. A booth for two beneath a glowing red sign is known as the Tinder table.
It's all happening. Pisco sours, the Peruvian brandy and lime cocktails, fluffed with egg white and dotted with bitters are flying over the bar – 200 a night, so we're told. Ceviche – raw fish cured in citrus – is done every which way. Slips of blue-eye cod are punched up a few grades with the typical chilli-lime liquor, plus tart passionfruit. Storm clams are a little chewier, drenched in a cinnamon-rich liquor you may find has a potpourri quality.
Something you could never accuse Wilson and head chef Blair Williams of is pulling punches. From the grill comes a spicy sausage draped with salty strips of cured beef heart. A black mole with charry depth and allspice accents glosses a slow-roasted purple carrot. This is casual food only in the eating. When I ask about the three sauces plated with the sticky, smoky pit-roasted Dutch cream potatoes and Peruvian yams (the pachamanca papas) I get a three-page response. All you need to know is one is cheesy, one is chilli-based, yet nutty sweet, and the other brings a dark olive base note.
Will wallet-conscious friends complain that guacamole, though on point and gussied up with tart goji berries, or pork scratchings and pepitas, is $15 a serve and $8 for extra chips – which you will need for more than two people? They will. But no one could fault the huge $32 dish of suckling pig – four fat rolls of crisp-skinned meat, delivered with starchy-sweet roasted plantains instead of potatoes.
No one will question the idea of the goat's milk ice-cream lollies filled with salted caramel either (available outside as is, or inside as a dessert dressed with cubes of watermelon and pomegranate), though the pavlova, turned blue with purple corn flour, served with tart rhubarb, is divisive – the flour not being the element you always want to taste in meringue.
Hopefully things speed up a little as time passes. Three hours is probably longer than you need or want, though the lack of pressure to eat and run is increasingly rare, and nice.
Of course it's busy and loud and so on-trend that it hurts, but there's substance beyond the hype. And that's a rare and nice thing, too.
Pro tip Try alpaca, between bread
Go-to dish Daily leche de tigre ceviche (MP $15 approx)
Like this? Try Mi Peru D'Carmen, cutest Peruvian-run restaurant in the land. 242-246 Como Parade West, Parkdale