Restaurant Review: Orto, Sydney

(April 2011 review; now, they’re only open for breakfast and lunch…):

Run, don’t walk, to Surry Hills’ latest new restaurant, Orto, but make a reservation first. We were there on the 3rd night it opened, a Thursday, and sat at the bar, since the tables were booked up. The women who brought the stylish, upmarket café Baffi and Mo to Redfern Street (which, I’ve heard reported, has sadly declined in their absence) went travelling in Europe and came back to open this new modern Australian restaurant, at the corner of Waterloo and Adelaide Street, on the ground floor of the deNode, next to the Reader’s Digest Building.

‘Orto’ (the full name of the restaurant is Orto Trading Co.) means ‘garden’ in Italian, and that’s the decorative theme here, a cart of fresh, potted herbs out front, flowers and leaves suspended from bottles above the bar. There are beautiful wood tables and quite a few large ones for big groups – or is this a mini-version of the table-sharing at other restaurants. Our spot at the bar had a comfortable view of a skilled bartender, whipping up inviting cocktails, and a popcorn machine, talking to itself while providing the basis for the complimentary tiny metal bucket of truffled popcorn.

The menu is uniformly interesting – I could have ordered any one of the dishes. What we decided on was “Toad in the Hole“, a perfectly baked Yorkshire Pudding (I’m not sure I’ve ever had a Yorkshire Pudding here in Sydney) with a homemade sausage in the middle; and a Scotch Egg. I came to know (and love) these treats in London, but the ones in delis and groceries have a hard-boiled egg – to have a gourmet version with homemade sausage surrounding a soft-boiled egg was fun. They were both beautifully done and inventive.

For the mains, pork shoulder for S., huge pieces of pork with the fat left on (which he gave to me!), the meat was delicious with more of a ham texture than what I’d expected. It was super tasty, served on a wooden cutting board, with roasted brussels sprouts, toasted hazelnuts, and I think a butternut pumpkin mash. I ordered the cabbage roll – which had the same rustic, homemade feel which I hoped for – but was elevated to gourmet status with wild mushrooms, barley and goat’s cheese, and a homemade tomato sauce/stew on the side.

I wish I’d brought my camera, but I’ll be back, and will document the next meal… it was too dark for my iphone.

What really thrilled me was the vibe. It’s clear to me that the owners were in charge of every detail of the restaurant, and hired all of the young, good-looking staff, and have filled it, already, with love and personality. The owners were greeting friends who were stopping by; it felt like their friends were excited about being able to eat with them again. Our neighbours at the bar leaned over to rave about their dishes and enquire after ours. The owner knew exactly when to take our order and bring our bill; it was busy but she provided us with top service. Compare that to Cotton Duck, a block away, always packed and with great reviews. But on the 2nd night that the Duck opened, there was an air of confusion, and even with a full complement of staff (and not too many tables), our food took so long to get to us, that I don’t remember whether it was any good. I’ve been trying to convince myself to give it a second chance, but with Orto and its enticing menu, I’ll be heading back there first.

Orto Trading Co.
38 Waterloo Street
Phone: 0431 212 453

(August 2011) And here’s my update… My partner went again for a birthday party and said the food was even better than the first time. This encouraged me to go in mid-August. I still forgot my camera. The jug of Pimms was awesome – and the food was as exciting as I remembered it. I went again last night with two friends (23 Aug 2011), and between the 3 of us, we split two appetizers – a kind of cheese and meat board (at the bottom of the photo) and a fondue of Welsh Rarebit (at the top):

I really liked the rich flavour of the rarebit, and the choice of endive leaves, radish and poppy seed bagels, to dip into it. A fun, unusual plate. The other dish was a perfect combination of meat, cheese, pickles, onion and the superstar of the dish, a creamy and beautiful liver parfait.

For the mains, we shared two between us. A stuffed rabbit leg, with a rabbit terrine – generous portions – quite ‘meaty’ and filling. And then the amazing lamb belly dish, with two squares and one round of lamb, a tasty starch (I don’t remember what it was – parsnip?), buckwheat cracker sticks and mushrooms

I just don’t know of any other restaurant that it serving food in this style. There are dozens of restaurants who explain “our plates are made for sharing” who serve tiny round tapas plates. No, these plates really are for sharing – substantial, tasty, innovative, filling… and what’s that description they were always trotting out on Masterchef this season? –honest. This food is honest.

And the damages? Two generous entrees, two generous mains, and two bottles of wine between three of us: $80 each. Compare that to another Italian eatery that I was at this week – one appetizer, one not particularly large main, and a half a bottle of wine: $70. I know which place is the better deal. Orto, I’m a huge fan! Keep up the good work.

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