50 Holt St Surry Hills, NSW 2010
I won't go on about it, but 121BC really was a fantastic bar. And when I heard they were selling up, a little part of me died. So hooray for the folks from Porteno who have swooped in and bought the wine bar and shop.
They've done very little to the place. Short of taking down the massive glass chandelier (according to a staff member it now features in one teamster's bedroom) and painting over the chalk map of Italy displaying all the regional wines on offer, you'd never know they were involved.
That is, until you look at the menu. Elvis Abrahanowicz is currently in the building, alternating shifts on the pans with co-chef Ben Milgate. It's not unusual, mind, to see the pair working across any number of their venues but it's been a long time since they've manned a kitchen this small. It is literally the size of a broom closet.
From the outset, you can see they're taking the classic wine bar approach – rich, highly seasoned snacks that make you want to order more to drink.
On that, the wine list is now a sort of hybrid of what you would have drunk at sommelier Giorgio Di Maria's 121BC (all natural, all Italian), what you might now see under Porteno's Big Boss Joe Valore (some natural, lots of it South American) with the addition of Gavin Wright (ex Wine Library, Bar Brose and ACME) delving into the burgundy archives.
On the plate, a whipped pork fat is served with a chunk of cake-like focaccia, perfumed with rosemary and layered with baked grapes. A single baby witlof leaf is filled with creamed potato, draped nonchalantly with a single Ortiz anchovy. All that and a showering of finely chopped chives. Three small bites, one big flavour explosion.
From the outset, you can see they're taking the classic wine bar approach – rich, highly seasoned snacks that make you want to order more to drink
The dish everyone's talking about, which you'll smell way before you see, is the sardines drowned in hot butter, smothering a fistful of french fries. I actually completely forget to order it because the aroma is enough to make me feel like I've already chewed through it. Pungent.
Goddamn, though, if this isn't the best plate of fried eggs doing the rounds of Sydney bars right now. Probably thanks to the blanket of pâté de foie they're coated in, and in no small part to the deep-golden-fried toast points resting on top of the whole situation.
There's perfume and lightness in dishes like the browned coconut rice, served under tongues of cuttlefish and swollen lobes of raw scallop, heightened with pepita sauce. Soft seafood sausages (say that six times with a lisp) are almost mousse-like in texture. They come courtesy of chef Luke Powell at LP's Quality Meats and are served with a tangle of flat egg noodles.
Now, it's not cheap by any stretch of the purse strings – those small plates and "oh, maybe just one more" glasses of wine add up very, very quickly. But it is a lot of fun. And what you lose in dollars you make up for in good times.
Maybe it was Johnny Depp who said it best, one failed marriage to Wynona Ryder and a doctored tattoo later: Wyno Forever.
Pro Tip: It's all about timing. This is as much a holding pen for neighbouring Porteno as it is a standalone bar. The place packs up just before the restaurant's first sitting but empties just as swiftly
Go-to Dish: 'Pork and peanuts' are the most literal bar snack in Sydney right now: dry-roasted peanuts, skin on, served up with batons of fried lardons