The smoky aroma of crackling lamb and pork hits as soon as you enter Porteno, thanks to the open roasting pit near the foyer of this South American restaurant and bar – meaning that vegetarians might want to give this place a miss.
I, however, love the smell, although it turns out my drinking companion, the Gay Wingman, has an aversion to pork and feels uncomfortable. Well, you can’t please everybody.
Run by the people behind Bodega, Porteno is a much larger and grander affair than their previous offering (which is still operating). The restaurant is on the ground floor and with its white walls and arches it looks a bit like the interior of a Spanish manor – but what I’m here for is the cocktail bar upstairs (called Gardel’s Bar) and so I tell the GW to hold his nose until we climb up.
The best way I can describe the upstairs décor is to call it 60s rockabilly kitsch. Actually, it’s a bit too stylish to call it kitsch – the long burgundy padded bar counter with stools is actually very cool and the old South American posters add a touch of faded glamour. There are tables and chesterfield-style banquettes, a pressed metal ceiling and also a secondary room that has so much cowskin and leather that all I can think of is the theme to Rawhide (although the music currently playing here is actually soul and rockabilly). There are also chandeliers, an antique foosball table and lots of partitions and nooks and corners to hide in, making this a great place to take a date.
Since I’m here with the GW instead of the glamourous woman of my dreams, however, I decide to sit at the bar counter instead. We perch ourselves on the stools and the non-smiling bartender takes our order – I opt for the Banana Old Fashioned (banana-infused Jack Daniels and smoked maple syrup) while the GW gets the Rio Grande.
The Banana Old Fashioned makes me smile because it reminds me so strongly of the banana Paddle Pop ice-creams of my youth while still retaining the flavours of an Old Fashioned cocktail. It also has a nice velvety mouth feel and I like the large hand-chipped ice cubes – and the simplicity (in fact, I’m becoming a fan of maple syrup in cocktails – I also had a great Honeycomb and Maple Old Fashioned at Tokonoma). However, the GW doesn’t like it, saying the banana flavour is an abomination.
He much prefers his Rio Grande, which is a beautiful cocktail made with brandy, Cointreau, maraschino liqueur, lemon juice and cherry, lily and star anise syrup as well as Angostura bitters. The dominant flavour comes from the brandy, with the other ingredients giving it sweetness and complexity – and there’s also a good strong citrus aroma.
Talking of aroma, the smell of roasting meat is driving me nuts from hunger and so we look at the food menu. Unfortunately you can only order food from the bar menu, which is devoid of any roast suckling lambs or pigs, so we try a variety of tapas-sized meals instead.
The pincho (skewers) of palm heart, piquillo (red pepper) and brown anchovy are a nice, simple snack and the empanadas are good (the same as the ones you get at Bodega).
The meatballs with romesco sauce are my favourite here – simple and juicy – and the surprise winner is the flash-fried asparagus wrapped in prosciutto and finished in a romesco sauce. I don’t even like asparagus and yet I love eating these.
The GW and I remove ourselves from the bar and are now seated at one of the tables, where we find there’s table service. The hostesses are extremely polite and friendly – so much so that, while I usually like sitting at bar counters, in the future I’m just going to grab a table here instead.
I liked the Rio Grande so much that I then order the Areolineas Argentina’s, which has similar ingredients. Named after the airline, this is inspired by the Aviation cocktail and is made with gin, maraschino liqueur, lemon juice and cherry, lily and star anise syrup, with a splash of orange bitters. However, it doesn’t work anywhere near as well as the Rio Grande in both mine and the GW’s humble opinions and the strong sweet flavours actually taste – at least to us – a bit like cough medicine. Unlike the Banana Old Fashioned, this is one flashback from my youth I don’t want to revisit.
We do, however, love the Santa Rosa, which is made with Aperol, blood orange and caramel syrup, lemon juice and a dash of grapefruit bitters. You can really taste the Aperol and the bitters and if you like negronis as much as I do then you ought to love this.
One thing about Porteno is that you should arrive early if you want a seat – we’re here on a Wednesday night and by 9pm the place is packed. However, if you like cow skins, tapas and cocktails then the upstairs bar here is worth checking out.
Update: I’ve since come back and eaten in the restaurant below. The main attraction here is the suckling pork and woodfired lamb, so I try the pork which is tender and smoky – although it’s the crackling that really stands out. Surprisingly, however, my favourite dish here is the grilled tuna with asparagus and charred jalapeño and garlic dressing – it’s nice and pink in the middle and yet still has a great charred flavour about it.
Porteno / Gardel’s Bar, 358 Cleveland Street, Surry Hills. Phone 02 8399 1440 or see the Porteno website
Now it’s your turn – how do you rate Gardel’s Bar / Porteno?