358 Cleveland Street Surry Hills, New South Wales 201002 8399 1440
|Opening hours||Lunch Sun, Dinner Tues-Sat from 6pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Private dining|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Chef||Ben Milgate , Elvis Abrahanowicz|
Porteno is by far the hottest new restaurant in town. The recently landed Argentinian grill house, from the team behind Surry Hills's charismatic Bodega, is already registering temperatures of 250 degrees above the glowing charcoal embers of its parrilla grill.
Braving the heat and madly slugging back water are the quiffed and tattooed chef/owners Elvis Abrahanowicz and Ben Milgate. Alongside, Abrahanowicz's father, Adan, tends the coals of the asador grill pit, raising and lowering whole lamb and suckling pig carcasses on crucifix-like contraptions. This place was always going to be hot.
Elsewhere, in the vast split-level two-storey space, it's actually pretty cool; what with the portraits of Eva Peron, the cowhide furniture and the ponyskin lampshades. The old Dimitri's Greek restaurant has been re-coiffed and quiffed but it hasn't had the soul designed out of it. Instead, it fans out into a kooky collection of nooks, crannies, cellar rooms, atrium terraces, balconies, private dining spaces and upstairs bars featuring gold pressed-metal ceilings, wrought-iron railings, rustic lighting, black-and-white tiled floors and backlit bars. The bad news is that even with seating for 120 downstairs, it's packed by 7.30pm. No bookings are taken for fewer than six people, hence the foursome I saw stomping out, muttering "bloody no-bookings policies".
Here are 10 things I already like about Porteno:
1. The pork pate that comes with the house-baked bread ($2). It's fresh, blood-pink, spreadable and rich enough to make a French charcutier want to cut out his liver.
2. The spirit. In Buenos Aires, there would be tough, old, gum-chewing men and a few stray cats on the floor. But this is Sydney, so we have the exquisitely coiffed (it's a serious hair place) and frocked-up Sarah Doyle flitting from table to table like a 1950s hostess, with co-owner Joseph Valore following up with Argentinian wine suggestions.
3. The pickled veal tongue ($8). Soft, tender and thinly sliced, its vinegar component is nicely offset by its natural sweetness.
4. The fat, pan-cooked tortilla of little baby squash and goat's cheese ($16). It's rich and gooey and just-set; a triumph of timing that is actually quite difficult to achieve.
5. The morcilla blood sausage ($10). It's the real deal, all blood-warm, sweetly spicy, larded with diced fat, grilled on the parrilla and served with soft, sweet red peppers.
6 to 10. The lamb. Oh, lordy. It is, to put it mildly, f---ing amazing. The skin is crunchy, salty and comes off in shards; the young meat is soft, sweet and striated, completely impregnated with the perfume of wood-smoke. The pure-breed, black-faced Suffolk lamb from Richard Gunner's Feast Fine Foods – on the menu as cordero a la cruz ($42) – is cooked "on the cross" over hot coals on the asado for six to eight hours, then served on the bone on a wooden board. Chimichurri is provided but no sauce is needed. The same goes for the six-hour, slow-cooked suckling pig (chanchito a la cruz, $42), with its lovely, milky, pull-apart meat.
Unusually for an Argentinian asado grill house, there are some great non-meat dishes; particularly the nutty, flash-fried Brussels sprouts ($14) and a tangy ensalada de remolacha ($14) of roasted beetroot, witlof, blood orange, fennel and radish.
Valore's Argentinian-driven wine list takes you on a learning curve from the malbec-rich Mendoza region to pinot noir-driven Patagonia, with a terrific supporting cast of Spanish wines. An intense, elegant 2009 Martin Codax Albarino from Rias Baixas ($69) works well with cold meats, while a fresh, ripe, complex Schroeder Estate Saurus Select Patagonian Pinot Noir ($76) loves the lamb.
To balance this unprecedented rave: the empanadas ($4) have good soft pastry and real beef filling but one per serve feels mean. And you have to put your order in for the lamb as soon as you get there – when they run out, they run out. It's not as if they can just throw another one on the coals, unless you want to wait six hours. We also need warmed plates brought to the table when sharing food; a better print job on the already fading menus; a cheese course of some kind;and toothpicks. And you could consider the wisdom of throwing oh-so-sweet dulce de leche caramel at oh-so-sweet meringue in the postre chaja ($14), a Uruguayan pavlova. Or you could just eat it.
Sydney is enriched by this warm, buzzing, multi-level room, fragrant with wood smoke and high on charcoal-fuelled energy, run in a casual but professional manner. We have some great restaurants, chefs, food and wine ideas and individual dishes in this town but rarely does the whole thing come together in one place as the irresistible, unstoppable force that it is here.