When the launch of new Melbourne restaurant, Lady Carolina, the latest addition to East Brunswick’s Lygon Street food-focused strip, was first announced back in April, news of the new venture rippled through foodie circles with much anticipation.
Described as a Latin-American cantina serving everything from slow-cooked barbeque and authentic ceviche to potent pisco sours and margaritas on tap (yes, literally), the venture is the much-hyped latest project from one of Melbourne’s most notable chefs, Paul Wilson.
Wilson, whose culinary hat is filled with so many feathers we’re beginning to wonder if there’s anything he can’t do, is fast becoming a household name when it comes to incredible interpretations of world cuisine.
If you’re not yet familiar with the Wilson brand, he’s the brains behind Acland St Cantina, Newmarket Hotel, Middle Park Hotel and countless other restaurant reinventions we’ve loved in recent years. Choosing to partner with Alby Tomassi—one of the founders of Richmond favourite Feast of Merit—on the new project, it’s a given that social responsibly would be written into the menu too, with support being given to Pay A Sack Forward, a charity for the homeless.
Let’s assess. Notable chef: Check. Unique cuisine: Check. Feel-good factor: Check. Lady Carolina had quite a following before she’d even showed up, but would she live up to the hype?
The first thing you’ll notice about Lady Carolina is how jaw-droppingly beautiful it is. Every tiny detail of the interior and exterior—there’s a taco garden, but more on that later—references Latin American culture viewed through a modern Melburnian lens. Hand-painted signage shouts about tacos and tequila, candle-holding skulls reminiscent of Día de Muertos celebrations adorn side-tables, and splashes of colour and neon are dotted throughout, giving the three-part venue a carnival atmosphere. They say we eat with our eyes; with Lady Carolina, the visual feasting begins as soon as you step out of the Lygon Street traffic and into her bustling dining room.
Deciding where sit dictates what you’ll eat. The main dining area is reserved for sharing plates, barbecoa (Latin-influenced BBQ), Japanese-Peruvian dishes such as pickled-ginger garnished ceviche, and some of the must luxe guacamole we’ve ever seen, while the back garden specialises in street food such as tacos and grilled corn, served from an open-kitchen to diners at shared tables. Between the two sits a dining area with two long tables — ideal for larger groups. A drinks menu that brings together Latin American piscos, rums and wines with Australian favourites rounds off the food and drink offerings.
Wilson has, yet again, exceeded expectations; Lady Carolina’s full dining menu is a cacophony of Latin American flavours, all of which are presented as Insta-worthy platters. The guacamole bar includes a mouth-watering super-greens twist on the dip, as well as a bacon and crackling topped version for those of you who can’t wait to get started on the Cuban-style meat. If you’re keen to get stuck into the ceviche, go straight for smoked kingfish, which comes dressed with horseradish and zingy Australian finger limes—the perfect fusion of smoke and citrus that melts in the mouth.
Larger plates are heavily centred around slow-cooked meat, which is great news for you barbecue fiends out there looking for something other than Americana-style fare. The jerk-spiced Barossa chicken (ordered by halves or whole birds) is steeped in brine before cooking, making it juicy and tender, and the Lechon Asado, also known as Peruvian suckling pig, comes with a rich orange mojo dressing and a spicy pate-style spread, making for an incredible sour-and-spice flavour combo. Add a couple of vegetable dishes—barbecue broccoli with almonds and pepitas, and the roasted spiced cauliflower with coconut and goji berries are stand-outs.
By now you’ll be fit to burst…Until you see the desert menu, that is. The purple corn pavlova, topped with rhubarb, sweet purple corn kernels, and berry and vanilla coulis, tastes unlike anything we’ve had before (is there a hint of chilli in the lilac meringue?!). Traditional Mexican icy poles and fresh fruit are incorporated into another dish, making for something that’s much more inventive that the average ice-cream sundae, and doughnuts get the Chilean treatment in the form of picarones: sweet potato churros-esque delicacies. We’d go back for the cocktails and desserts alone.
Lady Carolina’s charms are hard to resist. The already thriving restaurant-bar really is bringing something new to Melbourne’s world cuisine scene, making for a refreshingly different menu without a fried chicken burger or jaffle in sight—something Wilson seems to have perfected over his year’s in the kitchen.
Lady Carolina is exactly the sort of new Melbourne restaurant you’ll end up dropping by for a drink or two and staying for the night, stumbling back onto Lygon Street’s pavement at 1am after that one last pisco sour. And in our books, that’s no bad thing.
Image credit: Lady Carolina / Sarah Martin for The Urban List