Friday, January 28, 2011

Catching Fire at Porteno, Surry Hills...

Che Guevara fought, and he stood. He stood for many things. The good man was all about standing. Standing up to - and standing up for. He even said it is better to die standing than to live on your knees - well it's certainly better for your kneecaps at the very least. Che. Brave, fearless and good. Who doesn't love the man? This Argentinian would-be-doctor, Marxist-Revolutionary who tore through history and inequity on a ramshackle motorcycle is still there, young and beautiful, frozen in the faded mists of our starry imaginations. Che was a good many noble things, I know, but by God, whatever else he was... the man was bloody Hot. I have to capitalize the H, that's how Hot he was. Not just sort of hot. I am talking damn fine. Drop-Dead Striking. Dreamy-Starry-Beret'd Beauty. Even my (straight) father can't talk about Che without alluding to his deep-eyed, bearded, revolutionary handsomeness and burning up somewhere in the confines of his heterosexual subconscious. It seems we are always, always (like a moth)...drawn to the flame.
And everything inspired by Argentina, like Che, seems to be born of the flames. Hotter-than-hot Surry Hills HotSpot - Porteno - sizzlingly continues this incendiary tradition from the hollows of its hallowed hearth to the cool, white world of the pristine plate. Word about Porteno has certainly been spreading like wild fire, and it was at 6pm with no booking on a Friday that Tats and I finally found our way into the Cleveland St foothills, ready to scale the culinary heights of a truly edible Andes. A huge Spanish style white-washed edifice with a dark interior leads to a light and rustic space where authentic Argentinian tiles, light fixtures and wrought iron transport us, to the sinuous strains of a tango, very, very far away...
...we couldn't possibly still be in Sydney, could we, not when the waiter looks like this. CakeKnifeAmigos, meet Eric (aka Eduardo). Styled, dappy-dappa-dapper (in blacker), with a quick, easy smile and a cavernous belly-laugh, he was every bit the charming-Che-esque part. I can't say whether it was the black bow-tie, the attentive service, the earring or the slicked back do in which I could've probably seen my own inner-awe reflected if I had ever cared to look - but both Tats and I were absolutely smitten. Under the groomed guidance of that epic mustache (which I think we should christen El Stacho), Eric deftly guided us through a menu as rustically charming as it was sufficiently lavish enough for el presidente. Hola! WhatHave. We. Here?
Sydney dining is finally enjoying a revolution. One comes to Porteno not to eat, but to feast - and no less. Marinated Olives and Spiced Eggplant have a Mexican Standoff with Fruit-Woodfired Sufolk Lamb and Blood Sausage w Red Peppers + Garlic. This is heady, sensuous, voluptuous food - fired, marinated and Argentiniated. And with all of the glorious aesthetics of unapologetic, Roman-Emperoresque carnivoredom. Food got too pretty for a while there. Too styled, too sterile, too White-Table-Cloth+Silver-Spoon. That's not how they roll at Porteno, not at all. This is the dark side. And delicious carnage goes a little something like this...
Splayed meat on metal contraptions burning like black-black sin within open woodfires, a startling apparition in flesh and flame and brick. If you watch closely enough, you might even be able to see Satan. Bones and skin and whole carcasses parade before your twinkling eyes. Porteno is medieval magic. The Restaurant/Bar is brilliantly conceived. It's a showcase of fire and skill - you watch the meat burning and being sliced and taken apart. The process draws you in and makes you feel welcome and warm and generous and relaxed. It's entirely sharp but not at all formal. There's a natural friendliness and ease that emanates from the quick footed, suave staff. The open dining hall is supposed to make you feel that even at a mere table for two, it's really a party with everyone else - laughing and drinking amidst the quick, silver glint of wooden-handled blades carving into succulent strips of ragingly roasted flesh. Good Restaurants should be theater as much as anything else, and this one's Evita.
Tats gets his merlot on while we plot the best way to line our bellies. So many courses. It all began with the ensalada palermo viejo, this dish might actually be the most fun you can have for fourteen bucks. 
Simple and Beautiful. This is what happens when BBQ eggplant, pearl barley, tahini and preserved lemon decide to hold cool, spicy tomato-spangled hands. Although it could have been just a little more burnt, the eggplant is soft and glisteningly oiled beneath the barley, parsley and tahini. Chilled and plump and salted, with a recurrent echo of preserved lemon punch and startling in red vs green. 
Spoons and forks easily slip into the eggplantiness, dollop it with some of the rich tahini and the smoothness of it all contrasts wonderfully with the little shards of gentle, pearl barley. Tomato and onion for crunch, a little chili powder like fairy dust, parsley for GreenFresh and it's a chilled, creamy beauty, alive and rich and full, but, like a tawdry romance before the love of your life: soon forgotten in all that ensued...
The bonito w palm heart, avocado + pickled celery is probably the reason that the human throat even learnt to gasp. Gasp. Do it. Actually practice your gasp before you come to Porteno and lay claim on this little wonder, you want to be able to say you got it just right. Anyone who knows you were lucky enough to sample this dish will not cry for you, Argentina. The plate is a perfect mess of glistening greens and crunchy-whites and pale-fish pink - drowning in a tarrying tangle of dizzying dill. It is infusion gone decidedly and delectably: bonkers.
Cross my heart and hope to die, this was a paranormal phenomenon. Different fish. The gorgeous flesh of the silky-striped bonito is yet to gain the acclaim in Australia that it has overseas (kind of like Tania Zaetta). Bonito is the protagonist in any good dashi and you've probably eaten it in Japanese food without knowing it is wonderful in its own fleshy right. It's oily without being as overpoweringly fishy as salmon or trout, it is subtle and smooth and salty and deep. And at Porteno, it is cooked to Wow. 
These little slivers of smoked bonito were swathed in dreamy-tart sauce into which the bountiful dill blended into and out of seamlessly. The fish had such a crazy, delicious smokiness to it that you tasted as much as you felt. 
The Palm heart and pickled celery were just about the best garnish I think I have ever had. The celery was tart, crunchy and North-Shore cold and the palm heart so subtle and smooth with a vegetabley denseness that was almost unthinkable. Each bite was so varied, it was more collage that food. To you I must hiss that this is the most original fish dish for which you could ever wish. Salty-flaky-oiled-fish-dallying-in-dill-smart-tart-smack-prickle-tongue-lip-fresh-pickled-celery-palm scream. Go on, let it out. It's not healthy to keep it in. If El Stacho was a meal, he would definitely be this.
Knife up, kids. Gets your blades sharp and your forks poised, chanchito a la cruz (the woodfired suckling pig) is about to get crackling, and I know you don't want to miss out...
Hey pig, yeah you, hey pig piggy pig pig pig
All of my fears came true...
Nothing can stop me now
I just don't care...
Hey pig, nothing's turning out the way I planned
Hey pig, there's a lot of things I thought you could help me understand
What am I supposed to do, 
I lost my shit because of you...
Okay, I know Reznor wasn't talking about Porteno's suckling pig when he penned those lyrics, but they perfectly describe my feelings towards this poor, sumptuous porker that suckled on its mothers milk and wouldn't have lived to see 7 weeks of life in this pork-frenzied world. Eating baby animals is like eating nutella from the jar: wrong and so, so good.
Porteno's woodfired piggy is something else. It's definitely one piggy to get into your middle sometime soon. Putting a wee pause on pescetarianism, I had to try a bite, I couldn't help it. It was divine: subtle, flaky, smoky pork, so flavoursome and salty I almost oink'ed. I couldn't bring myself to try the crackling, but Tatsu (with his Japanese Metabolism) was in double-crisped-salty-pig-sizzle-skin-fat heaven. So rustic and beautiful and vividly piggy. It comes on a no-nonsense slab of wood with and a pot of green-hot-oiled Argentinian sauce to spoon all over.
If suckling pig isn't your thing, there's no going wrong with Coorong Angus sirloin and beef short ribs. There's even a beef inside skirt you might do well to look up.
Sides sparkle in antioxidant islands alongside ample mounds of sumptuous meat. There's the Crispy fried brussel sprouts with lentils + mint. If your mum knew how to cook sprouts like this then she never would have had a hard time getting you to eat them. The Roasted beetroot w blood orange, witlof and radish speckled with walnuts made an appearance at the table next to us. Despite how beguiling it looked, we were definitely Too Full. 
But when someone like Eric suggests a sweet finish in the form of the peanut smashed postre chaja - what's a gal to do? Think desconstructed LatinoPavlova w peanuts, sticky-tricky-pretty-dirty dulce del leche and shards of meringue spiked sponge with hidden pockets of custardly cream.
Caramel white-spiked-sugar-crunch-nut mess in sticky OhMyGod. If you're currently single/celibate this is definitely a viable substitute. It's light and fun and brassy caking, with luscious creaminess and poached fruit softness slipping into dry-crunch, crumbling into soft, silken, spongey-cream.
Ben + Elvis...thank god you didn't leave the foodie building with Bodega. Porteno is punk-rock BBQ for people who know good food, by people who know good food. Sweet, sweet Sarah of the ethereal flaxen-40's curls, runs the floor with such an amiable sincerity that you know no matter how smart they run the shop, it's all food, love and family behind the scenes. 
If you don't get in early you can hang ten (x 4) in the soon to be relaunched bar upstairs, dusky and in black with deep-dark-blood-red and finished with paintings of Argentinian football players. There's even an antique foosball machine in the upstairs nook - perfect for anti-social boyfriends who wouldn't mind burning off some crackling indued calories with all of that swift, cardiovascular wrist action. 
Porteno happens at 358 Cleveland St, Surry Hills. Ph 8399 1440, Website here.

Sarah and Eric, you are walking testimonials to the food, the fun and to your hairdresser. Thanks for a rollicking night x, we'll be back. To Tats, I think you're going to miss me when you're gone.

Porteno: real, roasted and rocking, and not just another brick in the Sydney-restaurant wall. Get your hair oiled, get your suits pressed, get every friend you ever had and head in for an experience that is made for a hungry, happy crowd. The hype is completely justified. Porteno is freedom fighting as food, it's a revolution on flames, it's a slaying of the beast and it's edible Che - all of the way. 


Simon Leong said...

really sounds like my kind of bbq feasting place. i must try :-)

amanda said...

hello Simon, if you need some company drop me an email - i'd be happy to do it again x