Porteño, Surry Hills, Sydney
Porteño has brought Argentinean barbecue to Sydney in spectacular style. It's all about meat, fire and flavour. If you don't come hungry, you may cry in regret.
Porteño only takes bookings for groups of five or more to a maximum of 12 people for two seatings each night, 6pm to 8.30pm and 9pm to close. Groups of 8 or more are served a banquet-style menu at AU$80 per person. If the restaurant is full, you'll go on a waiting list - there is Gardel's Bar upstairs where you can wait. Juji, Jay and I are here with Craig and Caroline for the 6pm session.
As we're shown to our table we're thrilled to see we've been seated opposite the carving station and the asado, the barbecue pit filled with ironbark embers, around which two pigs and two lambs are stretched out on racks. It's the campfire of my dreams and a proud symbol of what we're all here to do: eat meat. All night, I watch and photograph the meat carving show as the lambs and pigs steadily disappear, taken off the rack, sliced up and served.
Along the back wall is the parrilla, the horizontal grill, where other cuts of meat are cooked, including beef, sausage, ribs, sweetbreads and seafood.
The staff are dressed retro-style. It feels like we've stepped into another time or crashed a costume party. I'm sorry I didn't get a picture of the maitre'd, who is absolutely stunning and elegant in a 1950s-style dress, her hair immaculately done in pin-curls. It's a noisy dining room even at the start of service, with the music turned up loud. You won't just get a meal here; you get sensory overload - the Porteño experience.
Tattooed chefs Ben Milgate and Elvis Abrahanowicz are the team that brought Spanish restaurant Bodega to Sydney. They always look to me like friends of the Fonz, more like 1950s mechanics than chefs. But these guys love what they do and it shows. Watching them work is better than TV.
We start our meal with pan de casa - house baked bread (AU$2 per head), served with olive oil and pork pate. The chimichurri and salsa that we'll eat with our meats is served up now too.
The bread is crusty and crisp on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside. It makes that satisfying crackle when I break it apart with my hands. I'm not a pate fan, but the others slather it on
The calamres asado (AU$24) is barbecued calamari with chickpea sofrito, preserved lemon and watercress. The large squid tentacles are tender and taste of the barbecue. The spiced chickpeas are fragrant and the preserved lemon adds zing. Watercress has to be one of the most under-utilised vegetables in Australian restaurants, and I am pleased it's been included here.
The chanchito a la cruz (AU$44), or 8-hour woodfired pig is fantastic. The crackling is crispy, with layers of creamy white fat and succulent meat. We gnaw on the ribs too.
On a table of pork fans, no one is more surprised than us to realise that the star of tonight's show is the lamb. The cordero a la cruz (AU$42) is 8-hour woodfired milk fed Mirrool Creek lamb. Tender is an understatement; a knife and fork are only necessary for manners' sake.
We almost forget that we've ordered the tira de asado (AU$30), O’Connor grass fed Angus beef short ribs. They're smoky from the grill but a little tough, which is a shame.
The crispy fried Brussels sprouts with lentils and mint (AU$14) are magnificent and could convert the most diehard Brussels sprouts haters, including me. The magic of deep-frying and the combination of fresh mint and vincotto dressing has transformed them into incredibly moreish flavour bombs. I've eaten Brussels sprouts made tolerable with the addition of bacon, but this is the best-tasting Brussels sprouts dish I've ever eaten. The recipe is available online: crisp Brussels sprouts with lentils.
The polenta with provolone cheese (AU$14) is drizzled with chimmichurri. It looks plain and nowhere as appealing as the other dishes, but it's creamy and deceptively rich, thanks to the cheese.
I'd be worried about missing out on the pork or lamb if I dined during the 9pm session. If you want to photograph your meal, you'll get better natural light in the main dining area in the courtyard during the early part of the 6pm session, although it will fade to darkness by the time you hit dessert.
The entire time we are there, I keep turning to watch and point my camera at Ben and Elvis. I think my dining companions understand - it's glorious food porn, hot and glowing, glistening and succulent, right in front of me.
This is happiness!
We order up a feast of desserts to share. At this point it's so dark in the restaurant we try a bit of experimental lighting using my iPad. See Craig and Caroline's Porteño post for a picture of the iPad in action.
The pina colada spider (AU$14) is made with pineapple soda and coconut rum ice cream with real chunks of pineapple nestled at the bottom of the glass, beneath the frothy ice cream layer. When we were kids, my brother and I used to make spiders using lemonade and vanilla ice cream. The froth always bubbled over and made a mess that we had to quickly clean up before grandma noticed.
The leche quemada, burnt milk custard with orange jam and chocolate ice cream (AU$14) looks like a 3D-textured abstract painting in the art gallery - everyone who sees it is tempted to touch it. Jaffa fans will love the chocolate and orange flavours of this dish. The popcorn adds a chewy element to an otherwise velvety dish.
The South American style pavlova (AU$14) with caramel, mango, soft sponge and meringue looks like a cross between a Star Wars battleship and a strange armored prehistoric creature... it looks intimidating and tastes divine.
If you're a meat lover and planning a trip to Sydney, this is a restaurant you should consider adding to your itinerary (round up four mates to go with you, so you can book). If you live in Sydney, lucky you!
I went to Sydney with my sister Juji and her fiancé Jay in November 2011.
See the list of posts so far, in reading order. There’s still more to come.
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