Photo: Marco De Grande
It might be nippy out but Orto is all warm and cosy inside; little votive candles twinkling like fireflies. A cook dashes out of the kitchen to pick herbs from the pots in wheelbarrows on the outside terrace, returning with handfuls to toss into a simmering pot. How nice. I might settle in here for winter and emerge, blinking and yawning, in spring.
Orto is the Italian word for ''a vegetable garden'' and verily the garden theme runs rampant at this reimagined bistro, recently planted-out in the rich restaurant mulch of Surry Hills. Wheelbarrows of potted herbs sit on the terrace and every table sports a pot of rosemary, thyme or sage, ready to pick and add to your dish. An installation of recycled bottles and flowers hangs over the bar and garden tools hang on the wall.
Orto comes courtesy of the same team that built Redfern's Baffi & Mo into a hot little cafe - Louise Hunt, Anne Cooper and chef Chris Low - and it has a similar laid-back, not-too-fussed vibe that's like a breath of fresh air.
The winter-friendly menu lists a pile of British-inspired starters, running from toad-in-the-hole starring house-made pork sausage ($9) to a terrific, runny-yolked Scotch egg ($9) in a crusty halo of crumbed sausage mince. There's a glass jar of warm, pickled mackerel ($12) to pile on to grilled rye bread; and a platter of cider-cured ham ($13) strewn with quail eggs, pears and croutons. After that, there's a full-on beef and Guinness stew with autumn vegetables and Yorkshire pudding ($28) and a meat-free cabbage roll with mushrooms and pearl barley ($24).
Most main courses appear on heavy wooden planks, designed for sharing. Now, listen up. A lot of chefs claim their food is designed for sharing, then you end up with a DNA sample of prosciutto per person. This is designed for sharing. If you're on your own, drag someone off the street to join you or you'll do yourself some damage.
Order the quince-glazed duck ($26), for instance, and you'll get a still life of meaty marylands, cooked sous-vide, coated in quince paste and roasted until brown-skinned, sweet and sticky, arranged with bunches of dark grapes, ripe figs and a tree-load of hazelnuts. There's crisp pancetta, too, and the warm, burnished ruby of radicchio rosso. Another wooden board carries a massive amount of slow-cooked but slightly dry pork shoulder topped with crisp, fried crackling, an entire toffeed pear and a pile of roasty, toasty brussels sprouts. The best main so far is a large, tender rabbit leg, filled with a pork and veal farce laced with date and sage. It's a mini feast in itself, yet it comes with a slab of very good pork and rabbit terrine, wilted spring onions and pistachios.
The kitchen dispenses mad scatterings of herbs, flowers and nuts over everything, as if sowing seeds. It's all very charming, generous, hearty and colourful; jumped-up cafe food from a kitchen on the domestic side of professional.
Tellingly, the dish that most attempts a chef-style plated effect is the least convincing. A warm salad of somewhat under-cooked autumn vegetables ($12) just comes across as prissy.
Nothing else is prissy, in this relaxed, no-attitude corner space, with its tall glasshouse walls and bare Scandinavian tables laid with squares of brown paper. The young waiters are helpful, casual and unaffected, with good knowledge of the food and wine list. And it's comforting to see a list where more than half the offerings hover about the $40 mark and half are available by the glass, including a 2007 Two Italian Boys Sangiovese from the Riverina ($9/$39).
The shamelessly large portions continue through to dessert. The trifle is no trifle. Instead, it's Aunty Sonia's cut-glass bowl filled with boozy madeira cake, rhubarb, pomegranate seeds, orange blossom jelly and rose petals, all sitting on a soft, warm vanilla bean custard like some sort of anti-precious, free-form nursery food.
From the little bucket of truffled popcorn that turns up at the start of the meal to the Tourree de l'Aubier baked in parchment with autumn fruits at the end, Orto is full of fresh ideas and enjoyable surprises. It's genuine, hospitable and just a little bit nutty; feeding the multitudes with rich, growth-promoting tucker and watering them with rich, red wines. I can dig that.
Orto Trading Co.
Address 38 Waterloo Street, Surry Hills, 0431 212 453; ortotradingco.com.au
Open Lunch, Thurs-Sat; dinner, Tues-Sat
Cost About $85 for two, plus drinks
Critics rating: 14/20
- 0431 212 453
- Prices - about $85 for two, plus drinks, about $85 for two, plus drinks
- Opening Hours - lunch, Thurs-Sat; dinner, Tues-Sat
- Author - Terry Durack