Monday, April 18, 2011

Porteño calling

I’d been meaning to go to Porteño since it opened in September last year, mostly to heed the call of the woodfired suckling pig, but the constantly packed-out restaurant and no bookings policy had prevented me from doing so.

Recently, I was particularly chuffed to have found an occasion for which dinner on a Monday night was appropriate; since my logic was that they surely couldn’t be that busy on a Monday evening.

The parilla at Porteño, Cleveland Street, Surry Hills
Well, they were, but we were lucky to score the last table for two after a quick cocktail at the upstairs Gardel’s Bar.

From the Bodega guys, Elvis Abrahanowicz, Ben Milgate and Joseph Valore, Porteño is an Argentinean grill restaurant that’s become a magnet for rave reviews and meat-induced swoons

The setting is just perfect – a large, airy, former house with sunken rooms, around-the-corner spaces and a courtyard feel – all decked out stylishly with a nod to Argentinean heritage and roots.

The asado
Our table was in prime position right in front of the asado pit and parrilla grill which sit just outside the kitchen. There are a few tables here, a few in the sunken courtyard, a communal table and others in the nooks and crannies of the character-filled venue.

The below-mentioned, all hard at work
Abrahanowicz’s father, Adan, mans the spinning metal contraption that tightly holds flayed pigs and lambs over a warming wood fire, while Abrahanowicz junior presides over sawing meat off the grill and plating the woodfired goodies, and Milgate the parrilla and associated plating.

Pan de casa - House baked bread with olive oil and pork pate
As a fairly hungry dining duo, I found it a difficult to sample a large range from the enticing menu. Our waiter recommends a couple of choices from the smaller, starter-like menu, one meat dish and one side dish.

It’s not easy to whittle down the choices from what I want, but we start on pan de casa - for one as I didn’t want to waste eating capacity on bread.

What I didn’t know was that this white, house-baked bread was sublime; a crunchy, floury outer and fluffy innards, perfect with the very citrusy olive oil, the rich and smooth porcine pate and even the eggplant starter.

Berenjenas picante – Spiced eggplant
Informed that the eggplant was roasted for hours then marinated in spices, I hadn’t expected the dish that arrived. The inside flesh of the eggplant was darkened brown and almost a complete mush; quite ideal to spread on bread.

But the flavour from the roasted vegetable was nothing short of sensational – enlivened with chilli and cumin, the robust flavours against the delicate flesh and intact skin made for a meal in itself, so intense and bang-on the flavours.

I couldn’t help but scrape the very last remnants of eggplant from the oil, and lick every bit from the tiny serving fork.

Morcilla – Blood sausage with red peppers in garlic
I’m not good with blood. Chinese style pig’s blood jelly gives me the heebie-jeebies and I’m not much better with any style of blood sausage or black pudding.

Porteño’s chunky morcilla isn’t quite spurting blood or anything, but it’s not that far from it as far as I'm concerned. A little crumbly and dotted with cubes of pork fat, the thickly sliced blood sausage reveals its all atop an appropriately-red roasted capsicum.

I manage a small taste of an edge that's free of fat cubes, especially with some of the super-sweet capsicum, but I don’t really manage a larger bit with a jelly-like fat cube. The capsicum, on the other hand, is delightfully roasted with an earthy smokiness that would be impossible to replicate on the home stovetop.

Chanchito a la cruz – Woodfired suckling pig
The pork was other-worldly; simply spectacular. The smallish serve is deceptive as appearances give nothing away as to the richness of the pork. We landed a rib-like portion consisting four pieces of the suckling pig; and later in the night, I even saw the head being dished out.

Firstly, the crackling. I’ve never seen pork skin/crackling so thin, and not bubbled and puffed but rather smooth (like the non-crunchy parts of Chinese roast pork crackling).

I picked up a shard of this smooth, burnished brown crackling, with very little fat on the underside, and tasted the most perfectly roasted, shatteringly crunchy pig skin ever.

Woodfired suckling pig - lust-worthy
And then the flesh. It’s undeniably fatty, at least the section we got. But it was as if all the fat had completely rendered down and melded with the meat such that the impossibly soft flesh is actually a blend of fat and flesh.

So, maybe that’s not so appetising a description, but it was tender, moist, full of flavour on its own and hands-down the best roasted pork I’ve ever had.

Repollitos de Brusela frito – Crispy fried Brussels sprouts with lentils and mint
Best vegetable side ever? Probably that too. I’d heard the hype and didn’t think I’d be all that convinced by deep fried halves of Brussels sprouts. Being deep fried and hence unhealthy, for me they don’t even really qualify as a healthy vegetable serve.

But at the first bite of the slightly crispened Brussels sprout, and I was a converted worshipper of the humble miniature cabbage. I think the key is the dressing that each and every sprout is dressed in: sweet, tangy and a fabulous match to the greenery.

The lentils were almost redundant except for the fact that I love lentils. These took on an almost meaty flavour; while the mint leaves throughout were necessary to freshen up the overall flavours.

Postre chaja – Argentinean pavlova
We’d ordered a dish more than the waiter suggested but took the leftovers home as I wanted to ensure room for dessert. As a pavlova fan, there was no other choice but to order Porteño’s take on the Aussie (Kiwi?) classic dessert.

Looking like a neatly thrown-together melange of ingredients, I first see and devour bits of white meringue with fresh cream and cooked peaches, which look so much like the tinned stuff but I’m positive aren’t.

Digging deeper I hit jackpot with a thick river of gooey dulce de leche and peanuts – a winning combination as salty-sweet combinations can often be. The layers of delicate sponge partner well with the cream and peaches, but awkwardly with the caramelly-thick dulce de leche and crunchy nuts.

In all, I’m not sure all the dessert ingredients go together as well as everything else through the night did. Water was desperately needed to wash down the sugar overload though the staff seemed a little run off their feet for the full-house Monday night.

The asado at the end of the night
But this was easily forgiven at the end of our night, when there were just small parts of two whole animal (from a starting total of four) left on the asado and a genial buzz around the very open room.

Happily clutching my foil-packed leftovers, I bid adiós to Porteño for now, leaving the premises as others were just arriving at the restaurant.

With the variety of the menu and the richness of a lot of the dishes, I’d say dining with a group of at least four is ideal, in which case you could order both the woodfired pork and lamb, more sides and a few desserts to end – which is what I intend to do next time I heed the call for oh-so-beautiful meat at Porteño.

Porteño on Urbanspoon


hollypop said...

wow you really liked it.
went a few months back and i really enjoyed it but the service was POOR and the food was good, but oily. even the vegie sides. i can make better vegie sides and more flavoursome tender meat at home. arrogant maybe? but it's true. the dessert we ordered was dry and gross and had gluten even though he specifically asked for no gluten options.
i came away thinking it was a great place for people who aren't inclined to cook for themselves, but want to have nice food.

joey@FoodiePop said...

I haven't been bitten by the Porteno bug yet, but I think I've been chomped on hard by the pics of the woodfired suckling pig! Yummo.

Zina @ tastedbytwo said...

I really enjoyed the food at Porteno when I visited late last year, but agree, the service could be improved. It was arrogant to the point that the waiter told me to "put my hand down". Only in Sydney!

Anonymous said...

Still packed even on Monday nights? I guess I'll wait a bit more to go :)

chocolatesuze said...

oh man your description of the suckling pig has me dying in jealousy!

Keely aka The Richest Girl in Bondi said...

I love Porteno! Every time we've been the food and service has been beyond excellent. Glad your experience was the same. I can't wait to go back, and I'm a vego!

sugarpuffi said...

omggg that asado pit looks so awesome!!! mmm....piggie meat...

OohLookBel said...

I've been hankering for a bit of crackling from Porteno for ages. Thanks for the warning about the peak times - looks like they're always busy!

Dumpling Girl said...

Meant to go ahead this Thursday with a group of 4, as last time the 2 of us struggled, but looks like they are not opening over the Easter break including Thursday, so I have missed out.

Lol, I feel the same way you do about Chinese style pig’s blood jelly.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I really loved the food there and that's about the best way to eat brussel sprouts in the world!

Tina said...

Hi hollypop - Sad to hear you didn't have as good an experience. It did seem as though they were a little understaffed when I visited...

Hi joey - That pork is the stuff of dreams...

Hi Zina - Oh, that's quite an odd thing to say!

Hi lateraleating - Might be like that for some time yet...!

Hi suze - But it's that good!

Hi Keely - The smell doesn't bother you?

Hi sugarpuffi - I'm going for the lamb next time!

Hi Bel - Apparently the lamb 'crackling' is just as good.

Hi Dumpling Girl - Oh no, not even Thursday?

Hi Lorraine - The most awesome Brussels sprouts EVER!

susan said...

That suckling pig looks and sounds amazing! I want some now!

jenius said...

AHHHH, I still haven't dined here yet! The suckling pig & brussel sprouts look incredible!

chopinandmysaucepan said...

You mean all 4 suckling pigs were gone by the end of the night?? ok, I want the last 4 hind chops on the asado.

Julie said...

"I’m not good with blood. Chinese style pig’s blood jelly gives me the heebie-jeebies and I’m not much better with any style of blood sausage or black pudding." Oh I share the same feeling. I want to try this place and really want they juicy pig!

Tina said...

Hi susan - So do I!

Hi Jen - They're the popular menu picks!

Hi chopinandmysaucepan - Two pigs and two lambs, I think.

Hi Julie - No blood, just juicy juicy pork please :)

Adrian in Food Rehab said...

oh mama! I want that And those juices...I swear I could swim in that. LOL

Phillip Nom said...

Isnt the suckling pig and brussel sprouts a duo of dining heaven. Still the best pig and sprouts for me to date!

Tina said...

Hi Adrian - Swim in porky juices? You'll need a strong stroke ;)

Hi Philip - Definitely!

Cathy x. said...

that suckling pig looks so tempting even in 2D.... i think i just drooled on myself :P*

mademoiselle délicieuse said...

I've been meaning to get here too but their no bookings policy combined with their popularity make it a little difficult when, like you suggested, you want to get a few more people together to try a good range of dishes. But, ahhh, I will get there eventually!

Tina said...

Hi Cathy - That's OK, you're probably not alone :)

Hi mademoiselle délicieuse - You can book if you have more than ... 6 people, I think

Esther said...

Can't wait to try out this place again on Thursday! Loved it the first time (especially the brussels!), but came too late to try any of the 3 hour roasts. Love Porteno!

Tina said...

Hi Esther - I think you'll love them! I haven't tried the lamb but am plotting my return visit now :)


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