The Courier Mail
January 18, 2010
RENOVATIONS can be painful experiences and for Simon Hill and his team at Ortiga – the restaurant formerly known as Isis – the highly anticipated opening has been a bittersweet process.
First came the sweet bit – the field trip where Hill and his key people, chef Pablo Tordesillas and manager/sommelier Matt Brook, spent three weeks distilling their vision and eating their way around the Spanish culinary landscape.
Sourcing and creating fantastic artisan produce like jamons and the Ortiga-branded sausages made to Tordesillas’ recipes in Sydney and giving the already substantial cellar a Spanish injection must also have been fun.
Then there was the bitter – the building process and its associated drama, all of which eventually fell into place with one monster exception.
The very open kitchen now located downstairs needed a complicated extraction fan, which came in parts from Germany. Unfortunately, they didn’t fit and this set the opening back by months.
Looking like a modern art installation, this umbrella of steel is mighty powerful and necessary because the kitchen is quite literally in the dining area.
Tordesillas is parked nightly at the dolomite stone pass which is designed to look like a kitchen table. Grills fire and the enticing aromas reach the nearby tables minus the smoke and bluster from the plancha grill.
The brick wall behind the kitchen has been glassed in and backlit, creating one of the most attractive open-plan kitchens I’ve seen.
The menu takes some explaining.
Upstairs it’s simple wines by the glass and delicate tapas like piquillo peppers stuffed with salt cod, Spanish pizza topped with spreadable pork sausage, boards of Iberico and other jamons. A delicious baby gem-heart lettuce is draped with cantabrian anchovies with a creamy valdeon dressing or you can nibble on some spiced nuts, olives and shucked-to-order oysters. Downstairs, traditional recipes have been given a shake up in both preparatory methods and plating techniques.
Oysters with pigs’ trotters is an example. Where you would expect some charcuterie in the form of a hoof, perhaps stuffed with oysters, you get no such thing. Put through several intricate cooking processes until the meat literally falls apart, it is then set and cut into strips. This wraps around the oysters, encasing them entirely, and the dish is served warm with a piquant blend of fried ortigas (stinging nettles), crushed fried bread, garlic and nuts. Hard to picture? I’m sure it is but, trust me, the flavour burst of the hidden oysters is a gastronomic show-stopper.
Carrillera de cerdo estofada, or pork cheeks – the actual cheeks about the size of an eye, not the fleshy jowls – are vacuum-packed and slow braised in a circulator with fino sherry and almonds. The result is stunning. It’s as rich as Croesus but you want to drink the sauce straight up.
Ajo blanco is normally a soup garnished with grapes and melon but this version is a creamy cappuccino draped elegantly over smoked eel and garnished with grapes.
Escabeche of quail is an artistic arrangement of tiny, fragrant quail joints perfumed with coriander and fennel, seared until lightly caramelised and served with a bitter leaf salad to balance the sweet richness of the meat.
Goat’s milk is just set using a rennet derivative and forms a soft, wobbly custard so delicate it’s almost gossamer-like. Sliced fig is the perfect accompaniment but the truffled honey is a double edged sword. The honey is ideal but the truffle packs a bit too much punch for my palate.
The wine list is easily one of the state’s best, with eloquent descriptions that help decode the multiple global listings and you are also in good hands with manager/sommelier Matt Brook, whose knowledge of the menu and its evolutionary background is invaluable.
It might have nearly done him in but Simon Hill has pulled this one off and then some. This is bold, robust food put through molecular techniques and plated in an artistic and contemporary manner. It is hard to get the x-factor that the place is already exuding down on paper – guess you’ll have to see for yourself.