It seems you can’t turn around in Brisbane these days without bumping into a Spanish menu.
Or, more specifically, a tapas menu, with the bite-sized sharing plates becoming de rigueur in the city’s bars and restaurants.
Some do it more authentically than others though. It’s not every restaurant you’ll find genuine jamon Iberico de bellota, cured from black pigs who’ve feasted exclusively on acorns. At more than $1000 a kilogram ($55 for 50g serving), there’s probably good reason for this. But then restaurateur Simon Hill has always taken his food seriously.
Having run Isis to critical acclaim for 12 years, Hill closed up shop in late 2008, completely gutting the multi-award winning venue during its transformation to Ortiga.
Upstairs, a tapas bar is full of swanky young things enjoying a Saturday night drink and nibbles among rustic wood tables and exposed brick walls.
With mood lighting and upbeat tunes, only the climate-controlled glass cabinet of pigs’ hinds above the bar gives any indication this is not just the latest watering hole to take up residence on Brunswick Street.
A glance through the sexy A6-sized bar menus – revealing nearly 20 sherries by the glass – also hints at authenticity.
Despite an appealing list of foreign beers and cocktails, I decide that when in Rome – or Jerez, in this case – it’s best to adopt the local custom and with the waitress’s help isolate a sherry that strikes my optimum balance between sweet and dry.
With such an enjoyable ambience, it’s with some reluctance we’re taken downstairs to the basement dining room. But we needn’t have worried. Apart from white cloths on the tables, the tone and decor remain similar, with diners seated in an L-shape around a very exposed kitchen. No Gordon Ramsay-style tirades from staff here.
A 40-page wine list is daunting at first, stopping everywhere from the Granite Belt to Burgundy, with an understandable emphasis on the Spanish varietals. Prices are just as varied, ranging from $35 to $16,500, while the ability to order by the half-glass, glass, half bottle or 500mL means the wine is pleasingly accessible.
Asked to recommend a tempranillo within a certain budget, our personable waiter was eager to accommodate and convert us to one of his favourite drops. Mission accomplished.
The menu is part old-school Spanish, part new vogue cuisine and the beauty of entree-sized servings to share is that you can flit between genres and eras.
And so it was we started with an ultra traditional ‘pulpo a la Gallega’ – tender pieces of Galician octopus served on discs of firm potato and topped with paprika. It was deliciously unpretentious, like gourmet peasant food.
Contrast this with deconstructed ‘pig’s head’: an innovative trio of slow-cooked pork cheeks, julienned deep-fried ear, and snout crumbed in pistachios (all delicious, though the texture of the snout was, shall we say, challenging).
Having settled on our choices, the chefs preferred to stagger their arrival as they saw fit, and so we criss-crossed our way through a rustic and hearty chickpea and baby octopus stew and an exceptional salad of crisp radish, orange, hazelnuts and black olives.
Of our five dishes, only the last went unfinished: cylinders of pancetta-wrapped rabbit, served with king brown mushrooms and fresh snails in a cappucino foam, was just too rich, although by this time our stomachs were starting to beg for mercy.
The beauty of Spanish cuisine is that it’s every bit as delicious as that of its northern neighbours, but without the pretentiousness and formality so often attached to French cuisine.In that regard, Hill and chef Pablo Tordesillas couldn’t have been more loyal to the Spanish spirit.
Whereas most of Brisbane’s top-notch restaurants retain an unfortunately stilted feel, Ortiga oozes personality, but is no less delicious for it.
Perfect for people who take their food – but not themselves – seriously.