Sydney’s really starting to get its small bar groove on, and as a proud Sydney-sider, I feel it’s almost my duty to support them to make sure they stick around for good and change the big beer barn mindset (Oktoberfest excluded, of course).
In my sights this evening is the fairly new Berta in Surry Hills, from the already uber cool and popular-with-locals Vini lineage, also in Surry Hills. Seekers beware – it’s ever so slightly difficult to find. First of all, finding the obscure laneway street off Goulburn Street, and then not losing faith when you find the lane that has nothing but garage roller doors and half-finished street construction. There is one glass doorway from which warm light radiates, and even that looks empty from the street.
But you don’t judge a small bar from its door on the quiet street. Pushing the heavy (or yet to be eased in) glass entry door, we find ourselves in a little foyer, like a Japanese genkan even, though I wouldn’t remove shoes at this point. The next similarly heavy door reveals a warm, yellow-ish lit corridor and, if your eyesight is good enough, some life down the end.
Walking through the narrow-ish walkway with what looks like a stand-up bar along one side, we gradually hear more sounds, start to smell some tantalising aromas, and the splodges from afar become people. Lots of people, in fact, in a classroom sized space with two large blackboards facing each other with the night’s food and wine by the glass options. The compact bar displays a wealth of wine bottles and a range of glasses to match, while the other end of the restaurant features huge glass windows looking out to graffiti-ed brick walls and barbed wire fences.
There’s seating at the bar, and then a row of high bar tables with stools (where I perch, legs swinging), a row of square tables (where there’s a group dining) and a row of round tables by the window, in addition to narrow side benches with stools.
The black-clad staff are mostly cheerful and very helpful with the exclusively Italian wines and the shared plates menu; the former of which features half glasses – an ingenious idea made for tastes or light drinkers, at no more cost than the full pour glasses. We start on prosecco – lightly bubbly and a little too easy to drink – and the lighter, fruitier of the reds – a Bracchetto which has an almost floral perfume and twirls lightly on the palate.
The food menu includes appetisers, entrees, sides and mains, as well as desserts which don’t appear on the blackboard. Our waitress advises on the ideal order size for two sharing (an entrée, a side and two mains) and we do something of the like from the succinct but tempting menu. Sadly, they had just run out of suckling pig that night, so we were painfully jealous seeing plates of the burnished brown skin, flesh and bone circling us to other tables. Nonetheless, we had an intriguing mix of dishes headed to ours.
Cuttlefish seems to be the ingredient du jour, as I’ve seen it around a lot in the last month or so. First impression is that the dish is quite small, but the flavour hit is quite something. Pan fried in squid ink, the small pieces of cuttlefish are deliciously tender with a fresh savoury taste while taking up lots of the flavour of preserved lemon, quartered chunks of which are surprisingly not astringent. The thinly sliced rounds of zucchini soak up the rest of the flavours for a balanced, well rounded dish – it definitely sets the sophisticated tone and high expectations for the rest to come.
The special of whitebait was an immediate choice for us, although I think a better partner to beer than wine, especially not the fruity Brachetto I was drinking. A pile of lightly fried whole whitebait sit next to a warm dipping sauce of bagna cauda – an anchovy laced aioli really, strong on both fish and garlic.
Heavily seasoned, the whitebait taste fresh, with that feeling of bones and heads and tails disintegrating on the tongue and in the throat, nicely tempered with the creamy bagna cauda. Not being a huge fan of the extremely fishy anchovies, I actually found this plate enjoyable, particularly with radicchio providing a contrasting taste and texture.
A small pause gave us time for the next round of half wine glasses (it was a school night), with the next couple of reds in line – a Dolcetto and one I forget the name of which was to have “mushroomy, barnyard-y flavours”. The former was again a light tipple, less sweet on the palate than the Bracchetto; while the latter certainly had a musty aroma and was much more full-bodied – perfect for the oncoming main.
If I were to become a vegetarian today, I would want the braised lentils at Berta everyday. I wouldn’t even mind some today as an omnivore. In the dim of the restaurant, the lentils are dark so I’m not sure if they were black or dark brown, but I am sure that they were completely and utterly scrumptious.
I want to cuddle the bowl with a spoon all by myself, but that would probably be rude with company. There’s the sweet savouriness from the barely visible cooked -down leeks and no bitterness at all from the radicchio. The lentils actually have a meaty flavour, so I wonder if they’ve been braised in a meat-based stock, but the flavour is so spot-on that I momentarily forget that’s there’s the actual meat main dish to come.
The oxtail dish again surprises in its rather small sizing, but again, the ingredients stand out and provide great depth in flavour and presentation. It’s a deep brown stew of small boneless pieces of oxtail with soft, yielding meat and tendon richness. Indeed, the jerusalem artichokes pieces are bigger (although the two are almost indistinguishable from each other in the dim light), cooked to a complete softness and natural sweetness with the skin the only thing holding its shape.
Then there are bright green sparkles of broad beans, a subdued flavour addition compared to the pitted black olives; all together a comforting dish (especially with the lentils) with satisfying high and low flavour notes.
Looking around post meal, most people are eating as well as drinking, with little-seen Italian wine bottles all over the place. In the small space of exposed concrete, it’s quite a loud place but it was nice to see both clientele and staff/kitchen bustling away in a happy manner. It wasn’t just somewhere to drink or eat or work – it was more; more than just the sum of its parts and just the way Sydney’s small bars should be.