Steady as she goes: Corte's interior. Photo: Ken Irwin
The question I'm most frequently asked, after ''Does he look like that in real life?'' and ''What's a good place for a 60th birthday dinner for 14 people, three of whom are coeliacs, one vegetarian and one a lapsed vegan with pork issues?'', is why do I mark so many restaurants 13 or 14? And the simple answer, my friends, is that 13 and 14 are bang-on average. They are the pivot point. The magnetic north of restaurant reviewing.
Of course I'd prefer more 15s and 16s and even 18s opening every other week, but those scores are for the exceptions rather than the rule.
On the other hand, I could fill this page weekly with terrible places that don't deserve your time. There's a three out of 20 not even half a kilometre from my house, and everyone loves a critical bloodbath, don't they? But fish and barrels spring to mind. Trust me, I'm really not that mean.
Scallop ceviche, sweet potato puree, pork rind, lime and pomegranate. Photo: Ken Irwin
Port Melbourne's Corte belongs to the group of restaurants I'm fond of describing to the Epicure editor as ''a happy 13''. Check the legend at the bottom of the page - it translates as ''solid and satisfactory''. To put it in layman's terms, I'd say a 13, while not exactly worth cross-town travel, is doing a decent job at a decent price of making diners decently happy. And praise be to that.
Corte was opened by a couple of young hospitality chaps early last year and given the Spanish name for the former courthouse it inhabits. It really is a lovely space, with a garden shielding it from Bay Street's traffic crimes, and a soaring ceiling and cracked stone walls lending a quasi-ecclesiastical feel that's emphasised by soft candlelight and wooden booths.
It's the kind of place that sends out a subtle semaphore as a place for lingering over drinks, rather than eating and running. It stays faithful to its South American theme, from tequila and rum to the cerveza, on top of a zesty wine list that dons its backpack to tour around South American wine regions, as well as Spain and Portugal, complete with a Lonely Planet mindset of useful tasting notes.
The Argentinian food is geared towards snack appeal. There are just three mains, all off the parrilla (charcoal grill), including a nicely cooked hangar steak with the texture of velvet and a grassy knoll of chimichurri. The main game belongs to the list of raciones, such as house-made rabbit sausages - skewered curls seasoned with herbs and enough pork fat to keep them juicy. Caciocavallo is decent, too, the toasty wedge of fried hard cheese charged up with lemon, chilli and parsley (not as good as the Greeks' kefalograviera, to be honest, but when in Rome…), while the crisp tortilla sandwiching a smoosh of cooked corn and topped with red sauce and sour cream is an exercise in stodge.
The kitchen cracks out its manual for modern presentation with scallop ceviche, the zesty cured bivalves, a quiver of red onion and sweet potato puree getting interesting with pomegranate seeds and pork rind. There's pressed wagyu treading a similar line, each tile of beef hatted with a slice of tequila-cured lime, queso fresco and fried Jerusalem artichoke. Ole.
There's only one dessert (and no dulce de leche in sight, amazingly), although the list of specials yields something called ''cuajada de citron'', the Hispanic answer to trifle, with layers of rum-soaked berries, lime curd, vanilla marshmallow and meringue, topped with coconut crumble. It's definitely on the sweet side (although I do like the touch of candied lime zest tickling the top), but, really, I'm the only sad case inspecting Corte's gizzards. Corte and its ilk aren't designed so much for deep analysis, as for deep enjoyment. And that's another sure-fire way to describe a happy 13.
The best bit The space is lovely
The worst bit You'll be paying for bread
Go-to dish Scallop ceviche, sweet potato puree, pork rind, lime, pomegranate, $11
How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.
12 Reasonable 13 Good if not great 14 Solid and enjoyable 15 Very good 16 Capable of greatness 17 Special 18 Exceptional 19 Extraordinary 20 Perfection
Restaurants are reviewed again for The Age Good Food Guide and scores may vary.
- 03 9646 7697
- Cuisine - South American
- Prices - Typical smaller dish, $12; larger dish, $29; dessert, $12
- Features - Licensed, Gluten-free options, Accepts bookings
- Chef(s) - Warren Flanagan
- Owners - Jonathan Couche and Mark Stewien
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Tues-Sun, 11.30am-late
- Author - Larissa Dubecki