Sunday, 9 December 2012

Ortiga - when only the best will do

December seems to be Spanish month!  After visiting a couple of tapas restaurants I thought it would be time to get along to the king of Spanish tapas in Brisbane, Ortiga.  For me, Ortiga has re-defined the way we look at tapas and elevated the humble meal into a gastronomical delight, fine dining at its absolute best.

Simon Hill is responsible for Ortiga on the site of his once famous Brisbane institution, Isis Restaurant, on Brunswick Street Fortitude Valley.  Isis was recognised as Brisbane's best for a long time and Simon ran this in conjunction with one of my all time favourite Chefs, Jason Peppler (recently of now closed Confit Bistro).  It took a long time for Ortiga to be developed, with the Isis site empty for around two years before it's unveiling.  

I wasn't long before Ortiga achieved the ultimate accolade as being voted Brisbanes Best Restaurant in the Gourmet Travellers Top 100.  Ortiga is one of only three restaurants in Brisbane that has been awarded two chefs hats in the prestigious Brisbane Times Good Food Guide and two stars under the Gourmet Travellers awards.  Ortiga is also ranked the 30th best restaurant in Australia.  There are some serious accolades here for a restaurant that has only been open since 2010!

Pablo Tordesillas is the genius head chef of Ortiga who has worked in some of the world's best restaurants and learned his trade under the tutelage of Richard Corrigan (regular judge on the Great British Menu) and has spent time with one of Britian's most respected chefs Phillip Howard from two Michelin starred, the Square.

Ortiga is unusual in the fact that the upstairs area is bar/tapas casual dining and the serious cooking happens once you descend the stairs to the basement of the building.  You move from a very funky bar to a very serious dining area.

We arrived fairly early at 7pm and it was already pumping down in Ortiga, with almost every table taken with a fantastic vibe.  The kitchen area is completely open and from most seats in the restaurant you can watch the team of chefs working like crazy to produce delicious and spectacular looking tapas.

Like most tapas restaurants, the idea is to select a heap of different menu items and then share with your dinner companions, who tonight were CI and TB (now in a relationship since our last outing with them).  After completing a run through with our very capable waiter for the night we were on our way on what we hoped would be a wonderful food journey.

First out were the Croquetas, which are small cylindrical shaped breadcrumbed fried food roll that contains mashed potatoes and/or ground meat and mixed with a bechamel or brown sauce.  Tonight the croquetas were based on Jamón (ibérico ham).  I am not a fan of croquetas, there is something about the texture that I don't like, really squishy and soft.  As far as croquetas that I have had in the past, these were really good, you could taste the Jamon and the contrasting texture of the breadcrumbs offset the creamy innards well.  However, one was enough and I am pretty sure I could not have eaten a second one.

Out at the same time was a selection of Jamones: Jamón ibérico de Bellota, Paletilla ibérica de Bellota and Serrano reserva (each 20 grams).  I must say that I really love the Jamón served at Ortiga and I have fond memories from our last visit.  The ibérico is a special type of ham that must come from an pre bred Iberian Pig (black pig) or can be from a crossbred pig, as long they are at least 75% ibérica.  The hams are cured for at least 18 months with the Serrano reserva being cured for 24 months.  They have a sweet and salty taste that is hard to describe, certainly not like any ham you will get from the local butcher!  My favourite was the Paletilla ibérica de Bellota as it had a lovely texture, sweet pork flavour and worked wonderfully with the bread provided.

The next delight delivered to the table was the Pulpo a la Gallega - Galician braised octopus with potato and pimentón.  Visually stunning with the octopus tentacles placed artfully around the plate, with potato and covered in paprika.  It was almost too pretty to break up and split between four of us, but split it we did.  The Octopus was soft and expertly cooked, a few seconds over and it could have been like eating rubber.  The octopus was a subtle flavour which was enhanced by the paprika and when the potato was added to the mix, there were great flavours and textures working together.  CI, who has had some great octopus around Brisbane lately thought the potato was the best part of the dish but I was more than pleased with this one.

Next out was another artfully decorated plate in the Gambas with asparagus and blood orange.  CI is allergic to prawns, so this left more for SC, TB and I, so happy days.  Everything on the plate was again cooked expertly and to perfection.  The two types of asparagus were delicious and the prawns fresh and sweet, but the whole dish was enhanced significantly by the blood orange sauce that accompanied.  Each component on its own was fantastic but complete harmony was only achieved by combining all together into one amazing fork full of food.  At the end of this we were all scraping the sauce off the bottom of the plate and I would definitely have licked the bowl clean if no one else was around.

I didn't get the Spanish name of the next dish and it was a slight variation from the online menu but it was a crab with hazelnut sauce and artichokes various ways.  Again a very pretty plate of food that was hard to split three ways (sorry CI, allergic to crab also).  The crab was fresh and very sweet,  the hazelnut sauce rich and decadent, all brought together in little onion cups and artichoke chips and dust. The mix of textures and tastes were very unique, not something that I had experienced before and really nice.  Being a very subtle taste, there is a danger  that crab can get lost with some other powerful flavours like hazelnut and artichoke, but the chef had worked miracles and you could discern each of the flavours individually. Very clever!

We were not doing CI any favours with the food selection tonight but out next was the Cigalas con sepia y pollo – scampi with cuttlefish and chicken.  Continuing the trend of lovely looking dishes the scampi looked beautiful on the plate with vibrant colours offset with some edible green leaves.  While scampi has more in common with lobster than it does prawns, I always think of scampi as a slightly bigger prawn.  This was probably the weakest of the dishes we chose tonight, I didn't really like the texture of flavour of the scampi, which was a bit too salty for me and a bit too squishy in texture.  The cuttlefish bits were really thin and were there for visual appeal as much as taste.  The chicken was lovely, with crispy skin and a deep flavour of chicken.  CI was able to have much of the chicken, so not a complete waste for him!

I really loved the Papada con verduritas, anchoas y huevo – Pork jowl with spring vegetables, egg and anchovies but CI thought it was a bit too much like his Dad's pea & ham soup and didn't like it so much.  It was a lovely broth with slow cooked pig jowl as the protein with a mixture of beans and broad beans, with some flowers in for appearance.  There was a slow poached hens egg that we were instructed to break and mix in with the broth before serving.  In the end it was like a decadent version of pea & ham soup with rich porky flavours and a great texture added by the egg yolk, which had the dual impact of adding another layer of flavours.  I loved it.

SC was starting to fill up a little bit by the time the Cordero a la vainilla - Lamb breast, vanilla, spiced chick peas and truffled honey was presented to us.  The lamb was sliced very thin with a crisp and crunchy outer skin and tender lamb flesh underneath.  The jus that came with the lamb was rich and sticky and combined really well with the almond milk dollops.  I could not really taste the truffle in the jus and the spiced chick pea was perhaps a little heavy for the delicate flavour of the truffle.  I have not had lamb cooked quite like this before and as long as I didn't have too much of the chickpea mixed in with the rest of the dish, it was delicious.

After quite a few delicate and beautifully presented small tapas plates our last selection was a bit of a monster in comparison.  The Whole slow cooked lamb shoulder with patatas a lo pobre and lemon puree (for two or more) was the biggest piece of lamb I have ever eaten and I was thankful that there were three others with me to share, albeit that SC and TB were pretty much full already.  The waiter served this for us and the lamb simply fell off the bone, this was extremely tender.  The crisp outside of the lamb had a different taste and texture to the perfectly cooked and oh-so-tender inside. Accompanying the lamb was a sauce that that complimented it beautifully.  Never a fan of roast lamb as a youngster, this was like no lamb I have eaten before.  It was sweet and tender and cooked with love for many hours.  We gave this dish the respect it deserved and ate almost all of it and all agreed that this was spectacular.

I was the only one of us brave enough and with enough room left for dessert.  After conferring with the waiter decided on a strawberry and rice pudding dessert.  Having all sorts of preconceptions about what I was about to receive, I did not expect the amazing looking plate that arrived.  Usually rice pudding is in a bowl and quite soft, this was on a plate and covered with all sorts of delights.  There was a puff pastry made on site for some texture and some herbs and flowers that added acidity.  The strawberry puree over the rice was delightful but the whole dessert revolved around the delicious and creamy rice underneath the whole concoction.  TB was the only one in the group with any room left over for a bit of a taste and agreed that this was a special dessert.  A fantastic way to finish of the meal.

This was the second time I have been to Ortiga and was just as memorable as the first time.  Given my penchant for visiting the best restaurants around town, I am not too sure why I have not been back here more often.  Its got all the elements I love in a restaurant, its Spanish, fine dining and a short walk from my unit.  It's reasonably priced too with the bill coming to just over $400 for the four of us, including drinks.  Considering the quality of the food and the amount of food that we ate, this is really good value.  As much as I love degustations, a great one (Urbane & Esquire) can set you back around $350 for two, so this definitely represented great value.

We were in the restaurant for just over three hours, and in that time we saw tables finish up and new diners seated for their meal.  As we walked up the stairs of the restaurant I could see the wait staff cleaning our table up for the next sitting, which at close to 10pm was amazing.  Simon Hill and Pablo Tordesillas have developed an amazing restaurant and space and they need to be congratulated!

Ortiga on UrbanspoonOrtiga

The bar & tapas area upstairs at Ortiga

A hive of activity in the bar before our meal downstairs 

A pre meal amuse bousche of pork crackling - lovely way to start

The potato accompaniment to the lamb shoulder - creamy and delicious 

The kitchen in action

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