17 Bligh St Sydney, NSW 2000
|Features||Licensed, Bar, Accepts bookings, Outdoor seating, Business lunch, Groups|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||02 9223 6176|
The spaces between the chopping-block wooden tables in this new 175-seater Spanish wine bar and restaurant are way too tight. You're elbow-to-elbow and back-to-back with your neighbours, cocooned in wire-framed and cushioned Spanish chairs, hoping the staff can wriggle their way in with your sangria.
In other words, it's just as it should be.
To get that warm, loud, in-your-face cosiness you love about tapas bars in Spain, you need too many people, too much wine - and just enough salty, thirst-inducing food to make it all come together.
The seasoned industry professionals behind Tapavino, that sultry little sherry bar tucked down a laneway off Circular Quay, have turned what could have been a difficult CBD space, hovering above the incandescent Hubert, into a brilliant wine library.
With 22 x 1.2 metre floor-to-ceiling wire cages of 5000 wine bottles and dazzling horizontal lines of red light, it's like an alcoholic art installation. As well, there are Spanish vermouths, sherries, aged brandies, and of course, sangria (good, grown-up) and cerveza (Spanish beer). I think it's clear where their priorities lie.
Some chefs wouldn't enjoy their food being relegated to a supporting role, but former Buzo co-owner Todd Garratt fights back with a large and flexible menu designed to make the wine work that bit harder, from brunch to suppertime.
There's a lot of jamon on the menu, from everyday Serrano perked up by manchego, cippiolini onions or dusky little fried chickpea fingers ($20), to the magnificent acorn-fed Iberico de Bellota ($58). Glossy, waxy slices of both leg and shoulder meat from the lesser Iberico cebo ($36) are the colour of fresh bruises; brilliant piled on top of Garratt's pan con tomate ($7), tough little plancha-pressed sourdough rolls with a coarse puree of fresh and roasted tomato.
The plancha works hard, sending out grilled prawns, split and doused with salted red peppers ($30) and whole calamari on a pool of squid ink ($20). And yes, there are chips, topped - a little weirdly - with a pimenton-dusted soft egg ($11).
For those who prefer the insides to the outsides, there's tender, braised sheep's tripe ($28) stuffed with minced lamb, served in a sweet, vinegary tomato sauce and (real, cooked from scratch) chickpeas.
You get exactly what you order with the Galician style pig's head ($35) - a plate of fatty roasted pork cheek, jowl and crisp ear in a salty, chewy interplay of pork-on-pork textures.
Luckily there's wine on hand to cut the grease, like a fresh, mouth-filling Rayuelo 2012 organic Bobal in your choice of glass ($14), 375ml ($37), 500 ml ($48) or bottle ($70).
The house trifle ($18) of sherry-soaked Santiago cake, rhubarb, raspberry, fruit gel and loads of lemony cream is big enough to share, and yet still slam the door on the idea of a cheese platter.
Balcon is about Spanish wine first, and Spanish food second; about relaxing over Rioja, nibbling almonds, not giving a damn about fat, salt and cholesterol, and staying too long over lunch on the vast alfresco balcon to the rear. In other words, it's just as it should be.
Best bit: The glossy red and yellow Spanish ties on staff.
Worst bit: Food can be salty.
Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.
Go-to Dish: The Iberico cebo jamon (leg) and paleta (shoulder), $36.