Never let it be said that the Porteño boys are afraid of flavour. Every plate at Wyno, their new bar, drips with the stuff - cheddar and butter, anchovies and olives, cured fish and fat. Tweezer-food it ain't.
Are you going to eat a richer new dish in Sydney this winter than the plate of fried eggs smothered in a gravy laden with foie gras and the twang of oloroso sherry? Served with buttery triangles of blonde toast, it'll stop you in your tracks, a yolk-dripping riposte to every snotty slow-cooked egg in town.
Until very recently this space was 121BC, the best Italian wine bar the city had ever seen. Apart from the change to the sign out the front and the addition of some plants to the shelf of glasses over the bar, and the fact that the map of Italy and the big, light-bulby chandelier are gone, squint and it's the same room: a narrow corridor partitioned down its length by safety-glass, wine for sale in bottles on one side, a low, skinny bar down the other. Dark and convivial and wondrous.
Joe Valore, Ben Milgate and Elvis Abrahanowicz were the original partners in Bodega, everyone's favourite rock 'n' roll tapas bar, when it opened a little more than a decade ago a few blocks from here. In the years since, the three have opened Porteño, their genre-busting rockabilly Argentine grill, then moved it to the site next door to Wyno, where MoVida Sydney once stood, and opened another Bodega, the superb Bodega 1904, at the Tramsheds in Forest Lodge. On top of this Valore and Abrahanowicz brought us Continental Deli in Newtown, Stanbuli in Enmore, and had a hand in Mary's, The Unicorn Hotel and LP's Quality Meats. As far as Sydney restaurants are concerned, they might just be the hardest-working men in rock 'n' roll.
Fried eggs with foie gras and oloroso gravy.
With so much else going on, having them back in one small room, Abrahanowicz and/or Milgate in the tiny kitchen, Valore on the pour in dapper duds behind the bar, feels a bit like they've put the band back together. One of those gigs when the Stones step away from the stadium to a smaller venue to reconnect with their blues roots.
The immediacy of the cooking at Wyno is reminiscent of those early days at Bodega when the plates were designed so that two guys, working side by side with not much more than a flat-top and some cheap knives, could bang out great food to a full room fast and hot. Sardines from Continental come out in the can in molten butter, topped with a nest of matchstick-cut fried potatoes, while a purée of spinach, a mixture of wood-ear, shimeji and shiitake mushrooms and a boatload of cheddar make a bowl of porridge anything but dour.
Keeping it in the family, there's seafood sausages from LP's Quality Meats, filled with a mixture of gently smoked crab and flathead bound in egg, set on bisque sauce. The fine texture of the mousse in the sausage is complemented by what the menu calls spaghetti, but reads on the plate more like buttery egg noodles, tossed with salmon roe. Rounds of octopus tentacle braised tender in a tomato-based ragù are presented stuffed cannelloni-style in the giant tubes of pasta called paccheri, held on the plate with a smooth pool of celeriac purée. Saucy stuff.
Seafood sausage, spaghetti, bisque.
In terms of flavours, the share-plate menu leans more Continental-Euro than Bodega-Latin, but it's six of one and half a dozen of the other. In any case, Milgate and Abrahanowicz haven't lost their taste for fat. There's a good chance your meal will (and should) start with hunks of focaccia cut from a loaf on the bar. It's a gorgeous, olive-oily thing, shot through with whole black grapes, but it really comes alive swiped through the smear of rosemary-powered whipped lard on the plate. They're also not content to serve shelled peanuts as they are; the Wyno version comes with cold bits of fried pork belly in the bowl, a great many of them just diced fat.
Opt instead for the witlof, sold by the leaf for six bucks, each cradling a fillet of Ortiz anchovy with a crumble of dried black olive set on a dollop of puréed potato. It's a pretty excellent thing to have with one of the many vermouths on the list - the citrusy, perfumed bianco from Piedmontese producer Mauro Vergano, say. Where 121BC had a reputation for being almost rigid in the ideological and geographical specificity of its selection, the Wyno cellar is a patchwork thing, composed in part of quite a lot of wild and woolly Italian wine that presumably came with the premises, an odd smattering of hipster locals, some of the sherry and malbec Valore specialised in at Porteño and Bodega, plus a helping of the Austrian and Alsatian whites he enjoys drinking right now. Call it a work in progress.
Some downsides. There's not a lot of light and shade on the menu. Every vegetable on the carte comes with cheese, anchovies or cold-cuts. A lot of the plates will start to congeal if left untouched for too long. "Wyno" ends team Porteño's hitherto unbroken run of excellent names, but at least it's easy to remember, and easier to pronounce than Porteño. The pace of service is slower than when this used to be 121BC, but then this is week one. Desserts are basic: see the sticky cheeks of poached quince with a spoonful of labne redolent with cardamom, and exactly no soil, squiggles, crumbles or cress.
Poached quince with labne.
Just about everything you may not have liked about 121BC is still going to be an issue. The room is small, the seats are few, the space is tight. You have to either leave the building or walk through the kitchen to get to the toilets, and you won't get through a meal here without a little squeezing and elbow-jostling at some stage of the night. The fellas have swapped out their more usual honkytonk, hillbilly and guitar-driven tunes for a soundtrack that leans more Bobby Womack and Bill Withers, but it's by no means hushed.
But then just about everything that you liked about 121BC is still a big draw. The fact that you can buy everything you're drinking to go from the retail shelves. (That shouldn't be so radical, but this is Sydney, after all, The Land that Liberal Licensing Forgot.) The one-to-one immediacy of the service over the counter, the hustle in the small kitchen, the raw atmosphere of the place, and its perfect blurring of the eatery-drinkery divide. It's what living in the big city is supposed to be all about, and just about all of it tastes great. Who's afraid of flavour? Not us.
Wyno, 4/50 Holt St (enter via Gladstone St), Surry Hills, NSW, (02) 8399 1440. Open Tue-Sat 5pm-midnight. Shared plates $7-$26, desserts $14-$18.