358 Cleveland Street Surry Hills, New South Wales 2010
|Opening hours||Lunch Sun, Dinner Tues-Sat from 6pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Events, Gluten-free options, Groups, Licensed, Private dining, Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Chef||Elvis Abrahanowicz, Ben Milgate|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 8399 1440|
Sydney, you're on fire. Not literally, although it is true that this Argentine hot spot has been closed for three months after a fire broke out early this year, and that both Fratelli Fresh and Rockpool est 1989 were evacuated after an alarm last month. Otherwise, it's business as usual for the rest of Sydney's wood-fired gang, such as Ester, The Bridge Room, Pei Modern, and The Apollo. Next up is Lennox Hastie's long-awaited wood-fired restaurant Firedoor, now open in Surry Hills. But right now, it's a big welcome back to Porteno.
It was fire that built Porteno, and it was fire that undid it on January 9, as sparks found their way up a flue and ignited, destroying the roof and damaging the first-floor bar.
The team, led by tattooed, black-clad chefs Ben Milgate and Elvis Abrahanowicz and non-tattooed sommelier/co-owner, Joseph Valore, popped up as Popteno in Rushcutters Bay while the damage was being repaired. They also installed two splendid new rotary grills that can be raised and lowered for more precise temperature control.
Some things haven't changed. The four whole beasts crucified over the glowing coals; the grill area swarming with chefs; the heavy thud of knives against wood; the Black Keys on high rotation; the Malbecs, the cocktails and the beers ... it is still one of the most exciting restaurants in Australia to enter.
Likewise, there is still a queue outside when the doors open at 6pm (pro tip get there at 5.30); the music is still loud, and you still need to put in your pork or lamb order early to avoid tears before bedtime. The split-level dining area is still the same kooky mix of nooks, crannies, cellar rooms, atrium terraces and faux balconies; and the meal still kicks off with warm, crusty house-baked bread rolls and a scrape of coarse chicken liver and ham pate ($3pp) that is too, too divine.
A few new dishes have slipped into the menu, but old favourites such as the rich house-made blood sausage, the chorizo, grilled wagyu skirt, and crisp-fried brussels sprouts remain, thank the lord.
Of the newbies, the big hit is the braised veal tongue ($18), crusty-edged from the parrilla, topped with warm onions and mustard greens. Fat, potatoey, ravioli ($30) are like soft, bland empanadas, filled with cheesy roasted cauliflower and served on creamed corn.
The eight-hour wood-fired pig and the lamb are OK, I suppose. Who am I kidding? The pig and the lamb are holy-moly, drop-dead amazing. Especially the pig, with skin that's as salty and crisp as a potato chip; meat that's rich and milky, sweet and smoky; and ribs that are downright gnaw-worthy.
So many of the sides and other dishes are riched-up with cheese that I'm left craving simpler, cleaner pleasures. A small, somewhat pricey, shaved fennel, apricot and olive salad ($16) is refreshing, as is a gussied-up dessert of poached feijoas ($16) with maple cream and toffeed wafers. It's up to the wine to provide balance, and a 2012 high-altitude Colome Autentico Malbec ($95) from Valore's impressive, Argentinian-inclined list does that well. Argentine's favourite grape can be intense, but this is elegant and beautifully balanced.
After a bit of time off and a freshen-up, the place is sparkling. It's brash, loud, rockabilly and party-time, but has a real style and character of its own. It's a macho, gaucho meatfest, and yet it's a proper dining experience. It's traditional, and yet contemporary. Welcome back, Porteno, my old flame.
Best bit: The wood-roasted pork
Worst bit: The queue
Go-to dish: Chanchito a la Cruz (eight-hour wood-fired pork) $50
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.