Porteno review

Porteno has moved its stylish digs into MoVida's old Surry Hills site.
Porteno has moved its stylish digs into MoVida's old Surry Hills site. Photo: Sarah Keayes

50 Holt St Surry Hills, NSW 2010

View map

Features Licensed, Groups, Accepts bookings
Phone 02 8399 1440

Oh, the waiters, in their black vests, white shirts, black bow ties and slicked-back hair. They even have shirtsleeve garters! Oh, the Argentinean parilla grills; the glowing fire-pit with its pigs splayed out on the cross; the handsome wood-fired oven dispensing baked cheeses and roast chickens. And oh, the 12-seat bar and the walk-in wine room; the black-and-white tiled floors and vintage portraits of Argentinian football players, framed in black against the white wall. 

There is a new Porteno. And what's even better, it's even better. 

There's a lovely old-world Latino feel to the 90-seat dining room built around the open-hearthed kitchen. Now snugly ensconced in MoVida's old Holt Street digs, it feels more of a restaurant; more polished, more professional, with its lazy susans, cloth napkins and fine glassware. Plus: you can almost hear yourself talk. Plus: you can reserve a table, even for two. Added bonus: we still get to use the old Porteno in Cleveland Street for events.

The wood-fired crab salad with charred cos lettuce.
The wood-fired crab salad with charred cos lettuce. Photo: Sarah Keayes

So what's new?  

More choices; more composed dishes than just meats and sides; more beefy grills, and more drilled-down riffs on Argentinean favourites. Both "fugazza", an Argentinian focaccia-pizza, and faina (chickpea pancake) evoke Italy's profound influence on Argentina's culture and cuisine, and seem like a natural progression for chefs Ben Milgate and Elvis Abrahanowicz to explore.

A creamy salsa golf, Argentina's answer to sauce marie-Rose, gives more than a touch of the Aussie prawn cocktail to ensalada de cangrejo ($26), a generous mix of wood-roasted and picked king crab with heart of palm, and warm, charred cos lettuce. A dish of veal tongue, warm and lightly pickled, combined with pink little school prawns ($26) is an eyebrow-raiser – tongue and prawns? – but it's revelatory, tumbled with purslane and a yoghurt dressing and topped with the prawns' own crisp, deep-fried heads and whiskers. Next time I'll put the parilla to work and have the bife de bistro, a grilled grass-fed sirloin with home fries that also comes with (cute touch) fried eggs.

A veal tongue and prawn dish seems confusing, but turns out to be "revelatory".
A veal tongue and prawn dish seems confusing, but turns out to be "revelatory". Photo: Sarah Keayes

But Porteno's heartland has always been whatever slow-roasted beast is cooked "a la cruz" ($50) on the asado.

Tonight it's pig, splayed for eight hours over the ironbark coals, and the hank of sweet, soft, white meat is eerily like eating pork butter. It sits on its bones, topped with fingers of crackling, and comes with a dollop of hot jalapeno mayo and lightly wilted kale. 

There's a house-made chorizo sausage ($14), that's crispy-skinned, salty and mild, and a new pin-up vegetable in braised silver beet ($14) and finely crumbed and deep-fried stems with (more) mayo.

Even the dessert is wood-fired at Porteno.
Even the dessert is wood-fired at Porteno. Photo: Sarah Keayes

To finish, wood-roasted stone fruits ($16) topped with a yoghurt sorbet are totally charming and simpatico. Why wouldn't everyone with a wood-fired oven have a dessert of roasted fruit?

Joe Valore has expanded the Argentinian wine list to explore some terrific Italian varietals. The wines I try crackle with life, from a bright-eyed Zorzal Terroir Unico Sauvignon Blanc ($14/$69) from Mendoza to a silky-smooth 2013 Poggio Scalette Chianti Classico ($90). 

The new Porteno is the sort of place you can come back to time and again, with its clever plays on tradition, cheeky nostalgia, pro service and sense of fun.

The go-to dish is the wood-fired animal of the day.
The go-to dish is the wood-fired animal of the day. Photo: Sarah Keayes

Just like the old Porteno, only better.

THE LOWDOWN

Best bit: Anything wood-roasted or grilled.
Worst bit: A little too much mayo.

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: Wood-fired animal of the day, $50

http://porteno.com.au