Large hunks of wood fire roasted suckling pig piled along a wooden carving board. A firm, crunchy crust of golden crackling, sweet, tender, juicy meat, with the intermediary strata of fat all but rendered away.
If there ever was a Peking duck of roast pork, this would be it.
Roasted whole “on the cross” over an open wood fire pit situated in plain view within the heart of the restaurant, dinner at Porteno is by no means your typical dining experience.
Take, for instance, the interior courtyard dining area.
This covered space, complete with skylight, gives the feeling of dining alfresco in another country. It’s also an absolute godsend for people who like read menus without the need to squint or resort to a flashlight, like to actually see what they’re eating, and for those that like to take photos of their restaurant dining experiences in soft, flattering light.
That is until the sun dips over the horizon and the cloak of night is drawn across the heavens. Then it loses its unique appeal and becomes much like most fine dining experiences i.e. dimly lit mood lighting. Though, this is not so much of an issue during the longer days of Summer.
One issue that remains constant regardless of the time of day is the cacophony of noise that can build up, as the unforgiving hard surfaces of the walls and floors echo around the conversations of the diners. Once the tables start to fill, pleasant conversations with a dining companion can soon be reduced to nightclub-like miming, lip-reading and guesswork.
Empanada de Carne ($4 each). Resembling the size and form of curry puffs, these beef empanadas are a spiced mince filling with pieces of olive and hardboiled egg encased in a soft pastry body with a firm, crunchy spine running along its seam.
Whilst these empanadas taste great, they made me realise how little my $4 got me. Especially when I’ve had the larger, though equally tasty, pasty-sized empanadas from La Paula for less. Then again, different circumstances, different dining experiences. Take that however you will.
There’s also a Broccoli and Ricotta Empanada on the menu for the same price that I’d love to try out at some stage.
Calamares Asado ($18) A warm salad (for lack of a better term) of BBQ calamari with pickled green tomato & chilli.
Though the serving size is rather stingy considering the price paid, the calamari is wonderfully smoky and a little on the firm side, though I didn’t find this to be an issue. There’s a bit of a chilli kick to the dressing but it was no sweat for a chilli lover such that I am.
Arbejas Estofadas ($14) Though this flavourful side dish of braised green beans, borlotti beans, ricotta, tomato and oregano may seem rather spicy, it’s actually rather mild.
Not something I was particularly a fan of but that’s more because I’m not a fan of beans that are cooked through so they’re tender and left without any crunch.
Chanchito a la Cruz ($48) Pork roasted “on the cross”, according to its name. Whole suckling pigs are splayed flat and roasted in medieval looking racks over an open wood fire pit. Much the same way that Portuguese style chicken is roasted, but on a much larger scale.
This is one of the best examples of roast pork I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. The sublime chimichurri sauce that is served alongside elevates this dish to another level, cutting through some of the richness of the meat.
Though the serving size is generous enough for at least two on its own, the roasted pork is so good that after the first piece, thoughts of avarice start to encroach on the conscience. We wants it. We needs it. Must have the preciousss…
Suffolk Lamb is also roasted whole in this same fashion at a more modest price of $42. If it’s anywhere as near as good as the pork, I’ll certainly be back to give it a go at some stage.
Overall, I have mixed feelings about Porteno. On the one hand, there is some utterly fantastic food to be had. On the other, it’s also quite expensive. It up to you as to how you feel about the apparent value for money, or whether or not that’s even a concern.
Though I’ll personally never consider this place a regular dining destination, I know I will be back in future, at the very least for lamb “on the cross”.
Finally, some words of advice to make the most of your dining experience at Porteno.
Arrive before opening, wait by the entrance when the doors open to avoid missing out on a table, book ahead if in a sufficiently large group of between 5-12 members, be prepared to spend a lot of money, and for the people who love take photos of their food, ask for a table in the courtyard.
Otherwise, you may find yourself dealing with long waits, a trial on your patience and perhaps disappointment.
358 Cleveland Street, Surry Hills
(02) 8399 1440
Mon-Sun: 6pm til late.
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