"Vivir para comer," yells the bull. Live to eat. Inscribed on his nine-foothigh chest, meanwhile, is the legend "Barriga llena corazón contento": a full belly equals a contented heart. When Bodega opened in the winter of 2006 on a Surry Hills side-street, the declaration painted on a bold mural seemed like a brazen call to arms from a group of unknowns. Ten years down the track and the restaurant is a landmark. Those unknowns - chefs Ben Milgate and Elvis Abrahanowicz, and restaurateurs and maîtres d' Joe Valore and Sarah Doyle - are now the most distinctive operators in town, and the words on the wall seem to be more a matter of quiet pride. Well, maybe not that quiet.
This is Bodega, after all.
So how does a restaurant that made its reputation being cool and of the moment manage to get a decade under its belt? Why does it still pack in a young, hip crowd night after night in 2016? "Because it's delicious," says Abrahanowicz.
"It's consistent," says Valore. "And it's fun," says Milgate. One thing the restaurant has never lacked is atmosphere. The music remains on the high side of comfortable, sassy service has always been part of the package, and the look is as sharp and as slick as any of the rockabilly styles sported by a great many of its staff and patrons. "The place looks better than ever today," says Valore, "and eating here now, even for us, is really good."
"The food has gotten a bit more refined," say Abrahanowicz and Milgate, a pair so used to working side by side that their sentences flow together. "The first menu was chorizo glazed in a pan with cider and we'd put a bit in the pan and neck the rest. The menu was designed so that just the two of us in the kitchen could knock it out, and we could do it pretty wasted as well." Refined, but still big on flavour. The current menu gleefully remixes Latin and American flavours with a rock 'n' roll sensibility, never more successfully, perhaps, than in the crunch and squish of the signature raw kingfish on charred toast showered with a confetti of cuttlefish, mojama and onion. Some more recent hits, such as the buttermilk pancake topped with fried salt cod, a poached egg and smoked maple butter seem to speak of excess, but, although they're hearty, care in the kitchen keeps them balanced. And that, perhaps, is the real secret of Bodega's continued success: they care. "The people that have worked with us have always had that same mindset of having fun doing what they love doing," says Doyle.
Today, despite the demands of Porteño, the much larger restaurant in which both chefs hold a stake, and despite the work Abrahanowicz does with Valore and Doyle across the Continental Deli in Newtown, Stanbuli in Enmore and their partnerships with LP's Quality Meats, Mary's and The Unicorn Hotel, in Chippendale, Newtown and Paddington, Abrahanowicz and Milgate are still at the pass at Bodega every week. So what's changed? "Sometimes we turn the music down when people ask now," says Milgate. "But that's just because we can't hear each other any more," quips Doyle.
Try these Bodega recipes at home:
Bodega, 216 Commonwealth St, Surry Hills NSW, (02) 9212 7766, bodegatapas.com