Monday, January 17, 2011

Elvis Sydney

I’ve recently extricated myself from a decision vortex usually populated by twenty-something former daddy’s girls, drunk late-night buck’s party participants and members of narcotic peddling ‘security’ specialists astride motorbikes. Why at the age of 30 I thought a tattoo clinging awkwardly to my hipbone was an intelligent decision, I can’t quite determine.  I have an odd and unexplained fear of butterflies which therefore eliminates about 50 percent of tattoo designs readily directed at female tatooees.  I loathe the tramp stamp, can’t read Asian characters (other than those required to order at my local Szechaun restaurant) and think branding myself property of my boyfriend is not one of the experiences I care to share with Johnny Depp. Wino Forever.
 Steaks, whisks, eggs, knives, forks and pork butchery diagrams - all suggestions avidly advanced by my friends.  I’m not sure what these proposals say about me but permanently inking myself with the butchered carcass of fellow mammals is not really what I was hoping for as a permanent memoir of the completion of my third decade.  If only I adored cute butterflies and fairies, tattoo regret would not have loomed until well after childbirth and the reappearance of my hip bones.

So no tattoo for me.  I went blonde instead.  Yes, yes, I hear you. And the word ‘crisis’ does mean something to me.  Crisis (n) a calamitous occurrence whereby the local fromagerie owner unexpectedly closes up shop early and one is forced to do without brie for close to 15 hours. Crisis.
Casually relaxing on Sydney's beaches

For now my ink-free, flaxon self is in full disguise amongst the tan, blonde and brauny inhabitants of Sydney, Australia.  Looking the way I do right now, they’ll never guess I’ve lived a life of back-alley coffee shops and basement restaurants in Melbourne.  My black and camel wardrobe is a bit of a giveaway…although I can always blame Paris for the costumes.

I’ve always been fiercely supportive of the Melbourne restaurant scene, often at the expense of Sydney’s offerings, but this trip, consider my words eaten.  There is a real buzz around the Harbour right now. Loosening of liquor licensing has really opened up the market and the streets around Darlinghurst and Surrey Hills are speckled with niche eateries, bars and sexy restaurants.  OK, it’s still Sydney and being hot and not looking like you eat at all still helps secure a table in front of the newest and coolest kitchens.  But trust me, disguises work!
The butchers counter at Porteno...table top dancing for carnivores
 Costumes and all we met outside Porteno in Surry Hills (358 Cleveland Street, Surry Hills, 2010, Australia, +61 (2) 8399 1440) this week in hope of a rare table at Ben Milgate and Elvis Abrahanowicz’s new Argentinean restaurant.  I knew it would be popular, their last venture Bodega is still credited as changing the pace of Sydney dining and tapas in particular.  But to see at least 50 people without reservations loitering in the street outside and calculating their sprint to the soon to be opened doors surprised and amused me.  It was 5.45 on a Thursday and we had already secured poll position with no exceptions for women, children or the elderly.

The Bodega/Porteno crew
The Porteno crew
Once seated, I immediately regretted my decision not to tattoo myself.  The staff here explode from the rockabilly subculture with all the ink, Brylcreem and rolled up denim you can imagine.  They have an immediate capacity to make you feel so terminally uncool and yet so welcome at the same time.  This isn’t a theme, this is just a group of friends and family running a fiercely popular restaurant exactly how they want to.  Front of house manager, Sarah Doyle, partner to Elvis, platinum pin-up girl, and perfect vegetarian paradox to carnivorous menu, is immediately crush-worthy and expert at hosting the large dining room, smaller upstairs bar and waiting list as boisterous diners pack the restaurant each night.  My suggestion, go as a group as you can book for 6 people and more…and you can order for 6 people or more.  You will want everything on the menu.

The asador mid-roast...and always empty come second service!
 I was distracted for most of the ordering process.  Usually I am looking at other diners, judging the feel of the place, sneaking a look into the kitchen.  This time I was eye locked on the asador, a large campfire pit over which whole lambs and sucking pigs are iron strapped in some sort of flesh roasting sadomasochistic display.  Beyond food porn for the protein fetishists in the dining room.

The best way to eat beans
Oddly, or so I thought, we started with a vegetarian dish: barbequed eggplant, tahini, pearl barley and my current love of the moment, preserved lemon.  Surprisingly, the vegetarian offerings at Porteno are extensive and tasty (perhaps the result of Sarah Doyle herself being vegetarian).  The green beans, ricotta and oregano which side kicked our main dishes were equally as good as the silky and fresh eggplant starter and held their own in the crowd of alpha meats overwhelming our table. But before the alpha meats arrived, our grilled calamari was perfect, just opaque and visibly whipped by the charred hot parilla grills before being soothed on the plate by cool pickled green tomato and whipped all over again with strips of chilli.  
Blood sausage and capsicum...
 But what really has the Sydney-slickers queuing are the meaty offerings Elvis and the kitchen team bring to the menu. The blood sausage was ripe and drooling with richness, the sweetness of the roast capsicum smoothing over the bite of garlic. A truly dreamy mouthful, this sausage and a fatty shred of eight-hour wood-fired suckling pig complete with glass crisp crackling to finish for bite.  I am still in debate as to whether it was this pig or the wood-fired Suffolk lamb which ruled the roast.  I imagine the only way to ease such contention will be with further research.

Suffolk lamb...the skin was amazing!
 A little like the band performing after the Rolling Stones at a music festival, the desserts at Porteno are probably independently very talented, but I’d already left the building.  It’s just unlucky timing that my will to dine was, by this point, lulled into a state of post-hedonistic paralysis and sweet ambivalence.  Even the promise of dulce de leche in every possible contortion couldn’t arouse my interest.  My heart and stomach remained with the meat splayed burning asador…unsurprisingly the latest proposal for my now defunct advancement into the world of body art. I wonder if Porteno would like to take on my lower back as advertising space?

Burnt custard and dulche de leche...if only I had room!