I think this may be my new favourite restaurant.
I kinda had high-level suspicions that Orto Trading Co. in Surry Hills would be good – it’s by the people who started Baffi & Mo in Redfern (Anne Cooper, Louise Hunt, Chris Low), a cafe that near-instantly became one of Sydney’s best breakfast joints after it first opened. Their new operation is so great, though, it may even outblitz their previous project.
Since moving on from Baffi & Mo, the Orto Trading Co. crew has outgrown the moustache fixation, and focused on a modern bistro with lots of likeable flourishes and inventive, upcycled decor. Outside, they’ve created DIY kitchen gardens by taking stacked pallets and lining them with small buckets of parsley, oregano and basil. One large table is constructed from an industrial sign. Meals are illuminated by candle-holders made out of jam jars. Old bottles are tucked with flowers and suspended above the bar as height-defying vases.
The likeable wit also extends to the food. While you wait for your order, you are served a small bucket of popcorn as an appetite-containing snack. It’s a fun twist on the usual bread you get as a meal-starter at restaurants. The popcorn is laced with a little truffle oil and, even as a truffle-oil naysayer, I have to admit that little dash of flavour gives that cinema staple a nice bite. This trademark touch of popcorn seems to be a deal-breaker for some people – a few folks I’ve mentioned this to say that they’d be happy to eat at Orto Trading Co. just for this fact alone.
Here’s for an embarrassing admission – we actually ate three small buckets of popcorn before we got to our meal. But, you can’t pin that entirely on our greed; there was also an unusually long wait for the food.
We’d ended up at Orto Trading Co. on the first night it opened and – surprisingly, on a cold Tuesday with little advance notice of the opening sign going up – the restaurant was utterly crowded. From the start, we were told there’d be at least an hour-long delay for our meals. Under such hunger-haunting circumstances, the staff was extremely kind and lovely (how could you not like waiters who kept plying you with popcorn to reward your patience? Or their knack for describing the wine list as having reds, whites and “some cheeky rosés”?). They were accommodating and continued to be sweetly apologetic, even though they’d clearly told us how much time it’d take before any dishes would hit our table, and we were fine with accepting that long-wait bargain. It was the bistro’s first night, after all, and we just had the bad luck to be seated just after a massive party had put in its orders.
The thoughtful, ultra-attentive service sweetened the wait, and the food was such a pay-off. Spunta Potato Batons ($9), golden-brown and delicious, were sprinkled with chilli salt, and quickly disappeared under stealth attack from forks and etiquette-shunning fingers. Will enjoyed his Slow Cooked Pork Shoulder ($28), its slices served with paint-like strokes of carrot puree and brussel sprouts so tasty (charred, sweet, crunchy) that they could reboot the poor reputation the maligned vegetable has with kids. The dish was very rewarding on the eye – almost painting-perfect, and in fact, the pear it was served with looked like something taken from a classic still-life.
Now, a Cabbage Roll ($24) may not sound so attractive (I think sad uni bain-maries are to blame for our queasy apprehension), but at Orto Trading Co., this dish is laced with such well-measured flavour – a light tangle of wild mushrooms, gritty-toasty walnut crunch, salty linger of goat’s cheese, simple pearl barley stuffing and rich sweetness of house-made tomato sauce. It’s a lovely mix.
A fine side dish is the Autumn Vegetable Salad, a pretty pile of baby zucchini, squash and brussel sprouts – lightly cooked and still colour-bright, garnished with French tarragon and placed on smears of carrot puree ($12). It’s a much-appreciated upgrade on the usual steamed vegies or joyless leaf salad option. In fact, all the offerings here play nicely against the stock standard ideas. There’s a lot of originality at work – a lovely relief from the case of menu deja vu you can get, when the same dishes keep reappearing at most restaurants.
I’d watched the desserts travel the room all night, and it was a great shame that we had no time/stomach-space left for a Gingerbread Crumble, Rhubarb and Pomegranate Trifle or Chocolate and Chestnut Mousse. I also would love to come back to try the cheeses, which sound like intriguing stand-alone courses instead of the item that tries to bring life to the tired cracker + dried fruit equation. For instance, Touree de L’Aubier is served with autumn fruits baked in parchment ($12), La Luna Holy Goat is accompanied by celeriac remoulade ($12), and Pyrengana cheddar gets hooked up with pear piccalilli and home-made pickles ($12). Sounds like great bait for the cheese-curious.
Oh, and Orto Trading Co. also will be open for lunch for part of the week – so I’m keen to see what the options are like then, too.
Not that I have to search hard to find reasons to return to this new favourite.
Orto Trading Co., 38 Waterloo St, Surry Hills NSW 0431 212 453, www.ortotradingco.com.au