263 Lygon St Carlton, VIC 3053
|Opening hours||Mon & Wed-Thu 5-10.30pm; Fri-Sun noon-10.30pm.|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Events, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||03 9349 1939|
If the name Lagoon Dining conjures images of a spectacular 1980s fusion-y buffet restaurant, I wonder if you will be slightly disappointed or thrilled to learn that's not the pitch at Carlton's hottest new place to get down. Instead, you'll be eating charcoal-grilled char siu, culture jamming winningly with tare (a Japanese soy sauce) and knocking back some wild Australian wines. Actually I don't wonder. I'm pretty sure you'll be thrilled.
It has been a while since we've had a change in the flavour index. All roads, for many months, have been paved with the familiar hits of wine dining and new-wave Italian. Nothing to sneeze at, but it's a welcome buzz to face garlic shoots partying with 'nduja in a hat tip to the restaurant's Italian surrounds; chewy rice noodles amped with a riveting XO; sour and spicy strands of just-blanched potato that still have some crunch, all delivered by a razor-sharp team of Ezard expats, co-owner Chris Lerch and Gemma Neil, who have come out of the gate swinging, and hitting their marks.
Lagoon Dining, by proper introduction, is a contemporary restaurant, border-hopping freely between China's delicious dining districts (mostly Canton and Sichuan) and occasionally weekending in Japan. Is it funny to find it here on Lygon Street, at the epicentre of Melbourne's Little Italy? Not lately.
While the rest of Melbourne seems to be rapidly transforming into one gigantic Italy, Carlton has been welcoming notables like Super Ling (Iain Ling and chef Michael Li's "Chinese-ish diner"); Japanese-French fine diner Kazuki's and ramen haven Hakata Gensuke. The strip is changing. With delicious results.
Chefs Ned Trumble and Keat Lee (also both ex-Ezard) are used to cross-pollinated menus. Ezard famously preceded the fine diner's elegant dumplings by focaccia and parmesan oil. This amalgamation is possibly less jarring and has its hair let down in terms of formality.
The room has vim. Rough black granite hems the kitchen pass. A spacey, white angular bar table commands the entrance, but there is also a tidy pocket of tables at the front with cushioned banquettes, semi-secreted by an elegant falling drape. Choose your speed. Mount your attack.
Everything has punch, but the touch is light enough for you to go deep without hitting palate fatigue. Heat hums at a respectable level in the hot and sour dressing of those potato threads, knitted together with pickled enoki and showered in crisped garlic for a festival of crunch.
There's the circuit-breaker brightness, too, of smashed cucumbers, all fresh garlic and black vinegar lift-off with a subtle earthing of umami-packed Chinese olive vegetable, and wobbly crunchy clouds of black ear mushroom.
Sure, there's bold drinker bait aplenty: popcorn chicken with a white pepper togarashi and the ubiquitous tartare (they serve theirs with a double chilli attack and Chinese doughnuts).
But they know when restraint pays off. A vibrant mix of broad beans, asparagus and sugar snaps is glossed up by the lightest black bean sauce. Plump pork dumplings have a light note of celery folded through the farce. A whole barramundi is almost like an ethereally light jelly after its steam bath, and kept bright and lovely with notes of ginger and fine scallion threads.
That same restraint could be said to apply to the drinks list, which gets a thorough job done in just one page. There's Never Never Gin for nerds, Tanqueray for classicists. A spice-accepting wine list goes for interesting smaller producers like Holly's Garden for sparkling, say, and the off-piste stylings of winemaker Michael Hall, but check the bar's ice bucket too – perhaps there will be a fresh-cracked jewel like a berry-rich Bugey Cerdon sparkling in the daily mix.
It's hard not to feel revived by this freshly charged team serving fresh ideas, and even fresher desserts (don't miss the mango puddings – pure essence of Kensington pride, just set and sluiced with a little evaporated milk and zippy pomelo). It's the circuit breaker we forgot we needed.
Vegetarian A solid mix in each bracket, with vegan options too.
Drinks Interesting small producer Australian wines, with a little French thrown in.
Cost Snacks $4-$16; medium $14-$18; mains $38-$49.
Pro Tip: A private dining room upstairs spells a good times end of year party.
Go-to Dish: Smashed cucumbers $7; hot and sour shredded potato $7; mango pudding $11.