Attention has been magnified on 358 Cleveland St, Surry Hills, for a long time. We’d all been keeping watch on Porteno, the new venture by the folks behind the beloved Bodega tapas bar. My friend Al proved to be a great deployer of Porteno updates, texting me handy info whenever he came across some. He was highly keen about the place long before it had even opened – I think we were all Porteno enthusiasts, much before we even knew what it would really be like.
So Porteno opened a fortnight ago, Al was there from the first evening and I very much enjoyed his reviews of it. As he said to me, “you’ll love it, but,” addressing Will, “you’ll love it more!” And there it was – as a vegetarian, I wasn’t sure how to graduate my excitement about the opening of an Argentinean barbecue place. Full-grind enthusiasm wasn’t likely, but I do love Bodega, and, ironically, really good vego food can be found in places you least suspect (eg Rockpool Bar & Grill – I still think about its Oven-Burnt Pumpkin in Garlic Yogurt).
I rang ahead to find out if Porteno offered any vego content at all, and, was quite pleasantly told that yes, there was, as one of the folks involved in the restaurant was a vegetarian (not something you’d expect at a South American grill house!), it was important that the menu accommodated that. In the bar, where you can switch between a lavender-adorned cocktail or the monster strength of something absinthe-powered, you can grease your fingers on Vegetable Fritters with Aioli or Corn & Mahon Cheese Croquettes* ($10 each), or if you get a seat in the dining area, you can stripmine the menu for excellent Broccoli & Ricotta Empanadas, or, if you like dill, Goat’s Cheese, Zucchini & Squash Tortilla or Potato & Preserved Lemon Salad (the herb plays a not-so-silent-partner role in both dishes). And there’s the surprise cinnamon-spiced flavour of the Borlotti, Chickpea, Green Bean and Tomato Salad (which I liked). Sure, you wouldn’t expect a zillion vego choices at an Argentinean grill, but credit to Porteno for having thoughtful options on offer.
The biggest deal for me, though, was the South American Pavlova, which Al had tipped me off about. Mango cheeks, meringue, crushed nuts + the caramel-sweetness of dulce de leche = a lovely, multi-flavoured equation. When I asked the waiter about it, he told me how you could make your own dulce de leche by boiling a can of condensed milk – but do it with care and leave it to cool, or else it will explode, he warned.
Porteno might need the same cautionary label; we went on the first Saturday after it opened and there was an hour-and-a-half wait for a table. (That’s an observation and not a complaint; the bar kept us happy, as it imagine it will for a lot of people.)
Porteno, 358 Cleveland St, Surry Hills, (02) 8399 1440, www.porteno.com.au
*If cowhide furniture causes some level of offence, though, this may not be the place for you