The red-hot embers create a focal point, almost altar-like in its construction. Around it, four beasts are splayed on blackened metal, sacrifices to the flames.
This is Porteno, a temple to flesh and fire.
This Argentine restaurant in Surry Hills has become one of the most talked about restaurants in Australia in recent years, and people are making a pilgrimage to wait at the door and hope for a table. And it is well worth the effort.
The constantly pumping music is the rockabilly and rhythm’n’blues of the 50s, with the styling of the always-enthusiastic staff following suit. But while the feel of the place is firmly in the mid 20th century, the food is positively Paleolithic.
Under the guidance of its high priests, Ben Milgate and Elvis Abrahanowicz, the kitchen here takes cooking back to the basics of what we have been doing since man discovered fire. They put meat to flame. But they do it brilliantly.
There are plenty of meats to choose from. Chicken, chorizo and seafood are all options. Morcilla, an Argentine style of blood sausage, is a powerful hit of iron and salt. Soft and rich, it’s cut through with some sweet roast red capsicum. Skirt steak is charred over the grill, but cooked slowly enough that the fat only just breaks down, making the juiciest, fatty steak I’ve eaten.
But the real game comes from those sacrificial beasts. Whole pigs and lambs are strung up over that central fire for 8 hours, making for smokey, succulent meat. The pork is moist and soft, dripping with juices. On top, shattering salty shards of crackling of the type that we pork-lovers dream about.
Yes, the pork is exceptional, without question. But the lamb is a revelation. I don’t really know how to describe this lamb. It was richer and meatier than just about any lamb I’ve had. Smokey and charred, but still moist, it was exceptional. As for the strips of skin, while it doesn’t have the joyful crunch that you get form pork crackling, it exploded with flavour, letting the salty fattiness run down your throat.
Not that this food is for everyone. This meat is incredibly fatty, almost dripping with it, and some people don’t like that. They are wrong, of course, but that’s the way some people are. Rarely has the truism “fat is flavour” been so apparent.
This is not fancy food. It is chunks of meat cooked over flame, served plain with dishes of salsa and chimichurri beside it. Yet it would be wrong to refer to it as simple. Nothing cooked with this level of skill could be considered simple.
The skill extends to the non-meat sections of the menu, such as the celebrated Brussels sprouts. Deep-fried and served with lentils, this would turn even the most anti-sprout person. And the banana, peanut and dulche de leche concoction known as a Postre Chaja is gooey and sweet, the sort of dessert needed after this sort of meal.
The drinks didn’t excite me as much, however. While an El Nino, like a margarita with cucumber and spiced up with jalapeño, was good and refreshing, the Mezcal Michelada, based on mescal and beer, had an overpowering amount of chipotle that was a bit of a struggle. And a glass of Malbec was buried by the fat of the steak. This food needs something simple to go with it. I’d stick to beer.
Ben and Elvis have put together a great restaurant, and an experience you won’t get in many places. The food is amazing, and the staff is rightly having fun. It is no wonder that Anthony Bourdain raved about it, and that the Sydney Morning Herald gave the boys the Chef of the Year award. It deserves the accolades.
I’m not a religious man. But this is my sort of temple.