Berta Restaurant & Bar

17-19 Alberta St, Sydney, NSW

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Terry Durack

14/20

It's about the noise. This new Surry Hills-meets-city wine bar is seriously shouty. Add MasterChef's shy and retiring Matt Preston, who is sitting three tables away, and you've got a very loud crowd indeed. But he is such a big personality, and Berta is such fun, the two of them almost get away with it.

You should see the women watch how Preston eats. They love his carnality, his fleshiness, his unapologetic alpha-male bravura. Given a small bowl of oxtail broth with a couple of tortellini floating in it, he doesn't just pick up the dinky spoon like normal, polite people. Like me. He just picks up the bowl and pours it down his throat. It makes me feel so … girly.

I look at my knife and fork anew. How genteel, polite, unnecessary. I should just pick up the suckling pig by the bone and tear it with my teeth. (Loud tearing noises suddenly come from the Preston table.) And that wine glass - it's so delicate, so measured. We men should be able to just rip the top off a goatskin flask, throw our heads back and swig.

Berta wouldn't be such a bad place to start a new men's movement, actually. It's up the sort of dark alleyway Clark Kent sought to change into Superman, with a blink-and-you-miss-it-entrance, and a dining room that sneaks up at you at the end of a narrow passageway. The space is suitably dark and cave-like, full of hard, shiny, noise-inducing, macho surfaces - concrete, glass, strip mirrors, brick - and row upon row of wine bottles. It's always very comforting for a man to be surrounded by a lot of wine; you know, in case of a siege.

Andrew Cibej and the team behind Vini, just down the road, have brought much of the same formula to their new venture. Wine is again the focus, with a constantly changing blackboard of Italian varietals, most imported by Cibej and available by the glass. As at Vini, there are no bookings (although you can call after 6pm to be put on a waiting list for that evening) and the Italian-accented, wine-friendly dishes come in small to middling sizes to be shared.

Behind the bar and another wall of bottles lies a glowing kitchen, where chef O Tama Carey (ex Billy Kwong and Vini) does a nice line in simple, fresh, unfussy food; the sort that reassuringly comes from a pan, oven or grill rather than via Pacojet, dehydrator or liquid nitrogen. By simple, I mean a nutty deep-fry of cauliflower, chickpeas and caraway ($12), which makes you want to race home and deep-fry every chickpea in sight. By fresh, I'd nominate a straight-talking mix of lightly pan-fried, super-fresh little cuttlefish with zucchini and the zing of preserved lemon ($9). A smooth, luscious, velvety chicken liver pate flavoured with Bergamino (bergamot orange) liqueur, gift-wrapped in caul and teamed with pickled cherries and divinely crisp, house-made flat bread ($16) is unfussy but finessed. Again, it's great wine food.

So is the night's special of slow-roasted suckling pig with fennel ($20). A lot of things get called suckling pig in this town but you can tell, not just from the size but from the tender, milky flesh, sitting in a puddle of its own lovely roasting juices, that this was a mummy's boy. Or girl more likely, but enough of gender differences.

There is a lightness and softness to the cooking that comes from the use of pan juices rather than sauces, natural flavours rather than artifice, tepid temperatures rather than extremes of hot or cold. It tips into the too-simple, too-bland only once or twice - the oxtail consomme with its rather stodgy tortellini of wild greens for one, and a blah dish of braised cos with shreds of prosciutto.

A quince tart of deep, crimson fruit on light, whippy creme pat ($12) is good and messy rather than primly precise, topped with tiny, crunchy, fried sage leaves.

Everything seems designed to make the wine the hero rather than the food, which makes a nice change, and the two-size pours by the glass make it easy to try a few different drops. Not being that promiscuous, I divide my time between a refreshing, fruity '09 Matteo Correggia Roero Arneis ($11/$46) and a big, dense 2006 Sassella Valtellina ($13.50/$68) but you could do some serious wine explorations here.

Berta is a babe. It's buzzy and likeable; and service under Vini's Kristen Allen is savvy, swift and helpful. The crowds just keep getting louder and louder but the architects have been called in to install a vivid blue sound baffle to help drop the decibels. Of course, they could have just banned Matt Preston.

tdurack@smh.com.au

 

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17-19 Alberta St, Sydney, NSW

  • Cuisine - Italian
  • Prices - about $75 for two, plus wine and service
  • Features - Licensed
  • Opening Hours - Mon-Sat, dinner
  • Author - Terry Durack
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