There's this punk rock band called The Bronx, and they got such a kick out of occasionally playing the support slot at their own gigs dressed as a mariachi band and playing mariachi music that they put out an album of mariachi material under the title Mariachi El Bronx. I mention this partly because it describes the relationship between the restaurants Bodega and Porteño, but mostly because Mariachi El Bronx is blasting over the speakers at Porteño right now. This is not a Mexican restaurant - it is, in fact, largely concerned with the culture of Argentina, as the discreetly plant-shrouded bust of Eva Perón or the bolos hanging from the walls may suggest - but broader Latin culture seems to have always been an interest of the chefs, alongside rockin' tunes.
It's loud here. Loud and fun. The volume of the PA probably won't surprise you if you've followed Ben Milgate and Elvis Abrahanowicz here from Bodega, the game-changing tapas bar the pair of chefs opened with their backer and friend Joe Valore back in 2006, and nor will the fun. What's surprising here at Porteño is how big the place is. Between the sunken central dining area, the arched alcoves by the glassed-in cellar and the sprawling bar and lounge on the first floor, there's room for a lot of people. Some of them are here because they love Bodega's sense of freewheeling, DIY fun, others because they share the Bodega crew's taste for rockabilly hair, '50s fashion and robust and extensive tattooing, but most of them, I suspect, are here because they recognise Bodega as one of the most interesting places to eat in Australia, and have been dying to see what the team would do with a bigger space and a new project to tangle with. They're here, in short, to see them play with fire.
The relationship between Bodega and Porteño is in some small way akin to the one between Rockpool and Rockpool Bar & Grill. Bodega, the mothership, remains the more outré eatery, while this new premises is bigger and grander in almost every other way, but delivering straighter food.
The word "porteño" is Argentine slang for a citizen of Buenos Aires, the port city, and the cooking of the capital's restaurants is the specific inspiration for Porteño. That much is clear the second you step through the front door onto the black and white tile of the floor and the scent of wood-smoke and meat arrests you, and is abundantly more so when you see the boys at work in the open grill area. Behind a marble-trimmed counter replete with butcher's diagrams with Spanish notation on the front and a bandsaw on top, beside the too fluorescently bright kitchen proper, sit an asador, two parrillas and a firebox. The parrillas are adjustable grills for direct cooking over the coals supplied by the firebox. The asador, on the other hand, is almost like a campfire with whole lambs and small pigs splayed around it across crucifix-like pieces of steel, slow-cooking over the smouldering fire. There are other restaurants with parrillas in Sydney, but none as far as I know that have an asador. Fewer still are likely to have Porteño's secret weapon: Adan Abrahanowicz. Elvis's dad hails from Buenos Aires, and as the veteran of many an asado, he's the restaurant's pitmaster, working the coals, adjusting the grills, fine-tuning every piece of meat. (For the record, he says he's not perfectly happy with the construction of the firepit; for the record, Abrahanowicz junior says he always says stuff like that.)
The menu sprawls unfettered by entrée or main course subheadings, as at Bodega, and though this is not a tapas restaurant, it's still all about ordering dishes to share and eating family-style. If you've got fewer than, say, three in your party, hit the bar instead and enjoy the snacks put together in the smaller upstairs kitchen by Porteño's other secret weapon, Hilda Abrahanowicz, Elvis's mum (she's from Cordoba), alongside excellent drinks from an all-star cocktail cast led by the polished Julian Serna. The stars of the show are of course the asado dishes, and they command a premium - you're looking at $42 for a small board covered with whatever cuts of the available animals are ready to go at the time you order them. This could be a deeply flavoursome leg of Suffolk lamb from South Australia, for instance, or the saddle and shoulder of a Melanda Park suckling pig. (Ask nicely and you might be offered the chance to order a head - all crunchy pig's ear and buttery skin.) From the parrilla you'll find outstanding chorizo and the inspired pairing of blood sausage and roast red peppers. There's a spatchcocked chicken of surprising succulence and an outstanding, seriously beefy grilled skirt steak. The charry taste of veal sweetbreads pulled fresh from the coals, meanwhile, makes them a must. They're served plain, just like most of the meats, and can take a lift from a splash of chimichurri (Argentina's answer to salsa verde) or salsa criolla at the table. "Bien jugoso" is one of the bigger compliments you can pay an Argentine grill man, and this stuff is nothing if not juicy.
There's more going on here than the charring of flesh, too. The ceviche Peruano, for one thing, hasn't known the taste of flame. It's kingfish quick-cured in a very sharp lime juice bath, and its presentation says a lot about the Porteño take on South American classics. The traditional accompaniments of corn and sweet potato are neither chunkily unreconstructed nor fussily deconstructed into foams or smears - it's more about a process of refinement and a foundation of respect. The sweet potato, in crisp deep-fried ribbons, brings welcome crunch, and the corn, sheared from the cob in smart cheeks, is just clever knife work. It's not as brilliant as the raw fish on garlic-rubbed toast with raw onion, cuttlefish and shaved air-cured tuna at Bodega, perhaps, but it's a dish of accomplishment, and good eating besides.
The empanadas, on the other hand, are simply beefy empanadas done very, very well. That's one of those things that separates Milgate and Abrahanowicz from many of their more vocal contemporaries - they may have more tattoos than your average day-release motorcycle enthusiast, and the complexity of their product-rich hairstyles may at times defy understanding, but their considerable investment in style is outweighed by work of real substance. Their cooking is intelligent, fast and consistent, whether you're talking the simple and traditional likes of slices of pickled tongue or wonderfully smoky calamari, or the more inventive likes of a side of Brussels sprouts rendered sweet by the grill. They've got the skills to pay the bills.
Their inventive side gets its greatest workout over dessert. I reckon the firmness of the jelly in the Piña Colada spider mars its cleverness; for me, the pick of the sweets is the pavlova, rendered as a sort of mess combining shards of meringue with dulce de leche, a little sponge and - a touch of classic Milgate-Abrahanowicz perversity - fresh mango sous-vided to resemble canned fruit.
Porteño is as much a family affair as Bodega on the floor, too, with Valore and the unfailingly glamorous Sarah Doyle leading a floor team of mostly young, mostly friendly waiters. Wine leans heavily South American; if you want to exercise your taste for Argentine malbec, Valore has the bottle for you.
If noise is a deal-breaker, then this restaurant isn't going to be your cup of tea. Then there are those who will find Porteño expensive - the meats are all bespoke and a production on this scale doesn't come cheap - and others still who will find it doesn't provide quite the edginess of its Commonwealth Street sibling. For the rest of us, though, it's a shiny new toy that's going to prove hard to stay away from. This is a promising restaurant, clearly a labour of love for its owners, and there's definitely nothing else quite like it in this or any other port city.
PHOTOGRAPHY WILLIAM MEPPEM
This article is from the November 2010 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.