With an interstate family celebration planned, we decided to spend our last night of a weekend in sunny Queensland, in Brisbane rather than the bland Gold Coast. With less than 24 hours available, we decided to stay in Fortitude Valley and get in some retail therapy, good dining following by a good nights sleep, before returning home and to the grindstone.
We checked into The Emporium mid afternoon, hung over from the previous night’s celebrations. A night in bed with room service and a movie would have been perfect, but I had made a reservation about a month before for Sunday dinner at Ortiga. I had read a little about this new tapas bar and restaurant and decided to try it just prior to the restaurant receiving a number of awards including Gourmet Traveller’s best new restaurant and a top ten place in Queensland (was it number one?) Lucky for us as the staff told us they have been virtually booked solid ever since. Whilst a pain for keen diners it’s great news for owner and staff who all invest heavily of time and money in any new restaurant.
So reluctantly, we showered and dressed and made our way to the restaurant in Brunswick Street. The new restaurant and tapas bar has been open since early 2010 following the closure of former restaurant, ISIS Brasserie by its owner, Simon Hill, and subsequent reincarnation as Ortiga. The building has obviously undergone a major interior renovation and refit which took almost a year to complete, but the outside of this old Brunswick Street building, looked deceptively small for a bar and restaurant. Once inside the bar, which is located on the ground floor, we realized the space was quite large, but the bar was rather empty being a Sunday night. We were led downstairs to the basement restaurant which had a great pared back, rustic style. Much of the old character had been retained having been essentially stripped of all but structural walls and beams, and fitted out with a sparkling stainless steel open-style kitchen, and minimal decorative elements to distract the diner. There were a few odd dining spots I would prefer not to be seated in but every restaurant comes with these, and as long as I am not seated there every time I dine, I am comfortable with that. Lighting was perhaps a little dim, but while a constant criticism of many restaurants, its a tricky one to get right.
This place was clearly about food. And wine, which took up the other end of the restaurant. Menu’s in hand we set about taking that first nervous look. Am I going to love the place and find it hard to make a choice, or will the menu disappoint? One brief look and I knew it was going to be good. Lots of meat, lots of offal, (of course, it’s Spanish) but with some interesting, less predictable elements.
We selected five dishes including a cured sausage plate as an alternative to the great but rather predictable jamón plate. Many of the sausages were one’s I have not tried before, including a rich blood pudding type sausage called morcilla, and sobrasada, a spreadable, pâté-like pork paste, red with paprika served with some nice chewy crusty bread. Dishes were listed mostly (and appropriately) in Spanish with English descriptions. A few did not have descriptions so we played a game of guessing what they were while we waited for our waiter to provide some further information. Of course we did not wait long, as service was prompt, friendly and spot on. Our interpretations were usually wrong, which is why when travelling, we often receive surprise dishes that are a complete surprise. We generally avoid restaurants and café’s with English menus, designed for boring tourists, finding those which cater for the locals more authentic, if not always superior.
I would have loved to try the whole slow cooked lamb shoulder with patatas a lo pobre and lemon puree which Ortiga is well known for, but with our hangovers hovering, lighter meals were called for. We had some unusual light cheese Croquetas (croquettes); unusual in that they were not the obligatory cod. Croquetas are always on the menu, but the main ingredient is varied. We had a lovely fresh little salad, the contents of which I cannot recall except that it included baby French breakfast radishes. I was growing them in my garden so I recognized them immediately on the plate. (It wasn’t because it wasn’t good that I don’t remember, but it did serve the purpose of reminding me to take a note book and pencil to dinner!) We also had a dish which was called something like The Pigs Head. The dish consisted of a crumbed and fried snout, ‘crackling’ ears and a tender cheek. I did say there was a lot of meat and offal on the menu and it’s definitely not the type of place to take your new vegetarian girlfriend/boyfriend or potential client. The standout for me was a dish of sweetbreads, balmain bugs, and potatoes served in a creamy cod sauce. It was a special but we were told it was to go on the new menu so definitely try it if it is there. The unusual combination worked beautifully with a salty seafood tang delivered by the cod, but which didn’t somehow overpower the sweetbreads. I find it hard to pass up sweetbreads whenever they appear on a menu, and thank all those who will not touch them, ensuring that thought few and far between, they are available to me occasionally. Strict and sometimes idiosyncratic health controls in local abattoirs unfortunately ensure that a lot of offal is condemned and does not make it to our tables.
While a glass of coke would have been my poison of choice (thanks to the hangover), with this good food a good wine was essential. I was delighted to hear that Ortiga serve half glasses, so we were able to have a matching half glass to suit each of our varied dishes but not overdo it. The wine list claims to “showcase a wide range of wine styles and producers, ranging from Spain, France, Italy, New Zealand, Australia” which it certainly did. We are novices when it comes to Spanish wine, so we were keen to explore further. The somellier selected some lovely wines, at reasonable prices and we enjoyed these new varieties. My only regret was that I stalled at three (half) glasses and didn’t get to enjoy any Spanish Sherry which I love so much.
My partner (who “isn’t a sweets man” said in a very manly voice) had a girlie looking parfait which he seemed to seriously enjoy. I had a Milhojas de Cabello de Angel which was a like a millefuille of pumpkin. It sounded so unusual I had to try it. It was nice enough. On a better day I may have been more enthusiastic in my praise but I had really had enough to eat, and the pastry was just slightly too heavy, in ratio to the pumpkin cream. One less pastry layer would have been perfect. It was a blast however, to watch the chef prepare the desserts. Chefs are so hard working, often big and manly, but watching them handle such delicate desserts is something.
I can’t remember the cost of the evening, but I do recall that we were really pleased with the value. Perhaps we had drunk a little less than usual which would make a difference but all the same it was good value for excellent food, and excellent service, and excellent wine. What more could you ask for? This is my kind of restaurant. Good food and service without the stiffness of ‘fine dining’; where the diner can enter in a decent pair of jeans and feel comfortable, or dress up if it’s a special night. Bravo Ortiga. I hope I will be back.
If not, a trip to the newly opened Porteno in Surry Hills might have to salve my meat craving until we head up north again. That or the temple of steak, Rockpool Bar and Grill. I can always do with a dose of that to satisfy my lust for meat.
446 Brunswick Street,