WHEN BEN Milgate met Elvis Abrahanowicz it was 2004. They were young chefs at the Four in Hand in Paddington, waiting to follow the Four's exiting head chef Brent Savage to a new restaurant in Surry Hills. Had the Bentley Restaurant & Bar opened on time, would we have seen Milgate manipulating a Thermomix or Abrahanowicz plating complex "molecular" desserts? ("Elvis was the pastry guy at the Four," Savage's successor, Colin Fassnidge, recalls, "And he was very good at it.")
Idle speculation perhaps, as it seems the partnership was meant to be. Milgate travelled through South America and fell in love with the Argentine barbecue culture. Abrahanowicz grew up with huge parrilladas (grill fests) in the family backyard, thanks to his Argentine heritage. Fire, coals ... and meat ... were in his DNA.
"There weren't many chefs who knew about Argentinian food," Milgate says. "So we had a common interest. And a bond, really, from then on."
The Bentley off the cards, the boys contemplated their next move. "Elvis said to me, 'How do you get a loan?'," Abrahanowicz's wife and Porteno maitre d', Sarah Doyle, says.
"Ben and I wanted to open our own restaurant. Luckily [brother-in-law] Joe [Valore] knew how to do it," Abrahanowicz says. And the rest is history.
The first enterprise was Bodega, in 2006. Like Porteno four years later, Bodega broke new ground. "We wanted to do counter dining, something interactive like a sushi bar or tapas place. No one was doing it," Abrahanowicz says. Sydney fell in love with fish fingers Bodega-style - kingfish sashimi on garlicky toast with cured cuttlefish and salty mojama - and empanadas came out from South American obscurity to become the snack of the year.
The old Dimitri's site on Cleveland Street had long caught their eye. "We knew it would make an amazing Argentinian barbecue joint," Milgate says, recalling endless trips past the deserted restaurant, pressing their noses against the glass. "It was the dream, the dream, the dream."
Dreams sometimes come true. With its extraordinary attention to detail, right down to old tiles and Evita posters collected on trips to Argentina - and the centrepiece asador, or fire pit -Porteno not only looked the part but delivered a combination of traditionally grilled and roasted meats, house-baked bread, house-cured cheeses and creative vegetable dishes to win the hearts and stomachs of Sydney and beyond. It's been a huge hit with visiting chefs - such as Brazil's Alex Atala at the World Chef Showcase weekend during last year's Crave Sydney International Food Festival. This October's Italian stars have already requested a dining date with the "rockabilly asadores".
With their immaculate '50s coiffures and signature vintage-western clothing, the "Surry Hillbillies", as Doyle jokingly calls them (including herself in the group), have dictated their own style. "You can't go wrong with the classics," says Doyle, the blonde doyenne in the amazing outfits who runs front-of-house with her sister, Rachael. And perhaps that's the magic formula.
The roasting, grilling and barbecuing at the heart of Porteno is based on the traditional art and science of fire, as lit and monitored each day still by Abrahanowicz's father, Adan. "He's our secret weapon," Milgate says. "He's taught us so much about coals and wood and how to tend your heat source." "It's not like walking into the kitchen and turning the oven on to 180, and getting the same result every time," Abrahanowicz adds. "It's different every day. And you've got to look after your fire. That's what I automatically learned, growing up."
Tradition and personal conviction have paid off.
"They basically gave Sydney the two fingers," says Fassnidge, no stranger to the V salute himself. "They haven't followed the rules much. And there are only a few cooks who can get away with that."
The Porteno crew is more circumspect. "We eat the way we want to eat," Doyle says. "The guys are very uncompromising."
"We do what we like," Abrahanowicz says. "And the last thing we ever thought of was whether anyone else would like it. When you come into our restaurant, it's just part of us."
Eating off the beaten track
WHILE most eyes are drawn to Porteno restaurant's asado and the signature suckling pig and lamb, served in huge, succulent slabs on wooden boards, Ben Milgate and Elvis Abrahanowicz have other picks from the menu. They both love the grilled wagyu skirt steak, served with chimichurri — a traditional dressing of parsley, oregano, garlic, chilli, vinegar and olive oil; and sweetbreads, slow-grilled for about 45 minutes and eaten with just a little salt and oil.
Most customers order the simple dish of fried brussels sprouts and lentils which, Abrahanowicz says, is just a simple creation based on the many influences in Argentine cooking, plus the fact that "we just like eating deep-fried food, really". Surprisingly, his other favourite dish is a salad of roast beetroot combined with their own fetta cheese, smoked pecans, chilli-stuffed olives, barbecued radicchio, garlic and Lebanese watercress.