Meat. And fire. The metal frames look more like torture instruments, but to a hot-blooded carnivore, the Argentinian asado barbecue pit offers a reverential appreciation for all things meat.
It's the promise of flesh that brings fervent diners to Porteño. Fifteen minutes before the doors open for dinner, the queue outside is consistently twenty people deep. Inside, the asado takes centre stage, an open charcoal pit that slowly roasts whole beasts for six hours or more. Each day, they cook two whole lambs and two whole pigs. The unmistakeable smell of animal fat dripping over hissing coals weaves its way into every corner.
Porteno dining room
Arrive early and you'll score one of the moody nooks and crannies littered around the central exposed courtyard. Skylights overhead drench the courtyard in natural light, but its noticeably louder too, with an echo that builds with each diner.
The open kitchen means it's worth taking a wander, if only to see your dinner before it's plated. There are flames licking wood in the parilla grill, beasts splayed flat above the asado pit and more tattoos in the kitchen than a season 6 episode of Top Chef.
Lamb ready for carving
The menu is larger than you'd expect, with plenty of dishes to keep any waylaid vegetarians satisfied too, including broccoli and ricotta empanadas ($6.50), barbecued eggplant with peppers, cauliflower and tahini ($24) and roast beetroot with witlof and housemade feta ($24).
Lengua en escabeche $8
Pickled veal tongue
We start with the pickled veal tongue, wafer thin and enviably tender, elegantly draped in a pool of refreshing vinaigrette. Sure you can see the tastebuds, but for me, that's half the fun.
Tira de asado $38
Pasture-fed Angus beef short ribs
Pastured-fed Angus beef short ribs are simply done, cooked over charcoal to a caramelised crust. It's not a large portion, with each rib costing close to $10, but the meat is rich and fatty, with an intensity of flavour that comes from pasture-fed beef.
A little pot of chimichurri sauce - parsley, garlic, olive oil, oregano and vinegar - provides an acidic lift. All that's left on our plates are little bones, licked clean.
Cordero a la cruz $46
8 hour wood-fired lamb
The wood-fired lamb and pork don't come cheap either, but when you consider the eight hours of tending required - the animals are rotated and moved constantly around the firepit - it doesn't seem worth quibbling.
Chanchito a la cruz $46
8 hour wood-fired pig
Both the lamb and pig are succulent, hunks of flesh ribboned liberally with creamy fat. All the good bits are here too, like the crispy treats of lamb skin and shards of pork crackling that shatter with a resounding crunch.
Repollito de brusela frito $14
Crispy fried brussel sprouts with lentils and mint
The crispy fried brussel sprouts are a house specialty too, known to convert even the most ardent brussel sprout hater. They're a little on the oily side tonight, but the combination of nutty fried brussel sprouts with lentils and fresh mint leaves is both nourishing and refreshing.
Pulpo asado con chorizo, papas y alioli $26
BBQ octopus, chorizo, potato hash and alioli
We also find room for one more dish, tender barbecued octopus tentacles curled around dabs of intense garlicky alioli on a plank of chorizo. Golden towers of potato hash are a highlight.
Postre chaja $16
South American style pavlova
The postre chaja, described as a South American style pavlova, ticks the meringue and cream boxes. It even has a trail of passionfruit syrup. What it also brings is a turret of fluffy sponge cake, sandwiched with fresh mango, crushed nuts and a sticky puddle of dulce de leche caramel in the middle.
Leche quemada $16
Burnt milk custard with cherry and chocolate ice cream
But the knockout dessert is the leche quemada. The huddle of flan may look unassuming, but its silkiness will make your toes curl, a burnt milk custard that's slightly bitter, incredibly creamy and crowned with a thin veneer of blow-torched caramel.
Cap off your night with a glass of thirty-year-old Pedro Ximenez sherry ($19.50). It's like drinking raisins drenched in honey and golden syrup with a toffee chaser - guaranteed to end your evening on a sweet note.
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358 Cleveland Street, Surry Hills, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 8399 1440
Tuesday to Saturday 6pm til late
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1/21/2013 01:06:00 a.m.