Sunday, 20 October 2013

Ortiga - sunset falls on a Spanish great

What tumultuous time it is with Brisbane restaurants of late.  There has been much movement with many new restaurants opening but sadly some closing as well.  The last few weeks have heralded the news that some of Brisbane's best and most awarded restaurants are closing down.  First was the news that after only a year in operation Bistro One Eleven would shut its doors immediately and then later the same day was the sad news that one of the country's best restaurants would also be shutting its doors.

The news that Ortiga was to shut down hit me hard, it's not only one of the best restaurants in the country, it's one of the most imaginative and creative restaurants I had been to.  Ortiga still seemed so relevant in today's cut throat restaurant industry having risen two places in the Gourmet Traveller Top 100 restaurants to number 28.  It also hit me hard as it was a regular special occasion dining spot and  I was booked in to visit for my wedding anniversary, indeed a special occasion.  While I was incredibly saddened by the news, the one consolation was that Ortiga would continue to operate for a few weeks and that we could still have our special occasion dinner, only now it would also be a farewell dinner.

The partnership between Simon Hill and Pablo Tordesillas had indeed been a special one.  Simon has had the knack of building special partnerships after such a long and successful relationship with Jason Peppler at Isis, ironically in the same location.  Isis was a mainstay of the Brisbane dining scene for around twelve years before it's ultimate transformation from Modern Australian fine diner to Spanish award winner.  It seemed as if the success of Pablo and Simon would continue on for equally as long, but incredibly Ortiga will be closing its doors after five incredibly successful years.

There is a tendency to want to hold onto great concepts for as long as possible and while I am saddened by the closure of such a fabulous establishment, I thought it best to celebrate its existence and enjoy my last ever visit.  We had a limited amount of time for our dinner as we could only get into the 6pm sitting and we had to be out by 8pm, so there would be no lingering over a long dinner.  It would be a bittersweet night.

In the tradition of Spanish restaurants everywhere, Ortiga is very much about sharing and there were some spectacular menu items on offer.  The first and hardest task of the night was to look down the incredible list of menu items and try to limit the number of dishes to select.  Our friendly waiter, who remembered us from our last visit, recommended four to six options as being usually plenty of food for two people.  Of course we found it too difficult to limit it to four or even six options and ended up ordering seven and had our eye on dessert as well.

Because we were on a tight timeframe our waiter advised us that our seven courses would be coming out in quick order, but before the first of our formal courses came out we were given a little bite to get the taste buds warmed up.  We were given a couple of pieces of chicharron to munch on, which are essentially some fried pork crackling.  My initial attempt at eating the chicharron failed miserably as it was so crunchy, so I had to reassess my attempt and really crunch down on the pork from the side.  Once I got going though the intense flavour of the pork was released and I suddenly wished we had a whole bowl to munch on throughout dinner.

As we were still crunching on the chicharron, our first course of Coffin Bay oysters arrived.  It's never really possible to order enough oysters so we just arranged to have three each to get a bit of a taste.  I prefer my oysters 'al natural' but SC loves a little bit of extra flavour so we also arranged for the shallots and cherry vinegar with some of the oysters.  As it turned out the shallots and cherry vinegar came as a side so we could add as we pleased.  The oysters were presented simply and elegantly in their shell on a bed of rocks that matched the colour of the shells.  They were plump and creamy but had quite a heavy saline level, so tasted quite salty.  My first oyster went down very well and I was about to have a second one 'al natural' but was convinced to try the vinegar with my next one, which I'm pretty happy I did, the oysters were just elevated to a new level of deliciousness.

Ever since our last visit to Ortiga, we had been raving and dreaming about the selection of Jamones available.  We developed quite a liking for the robust and incredibly flavoursome ibérico ham native to  Spain and some parts of Portugal.  There were three types available on the night and each was more tasty than the last.  Everyone has their favourite and while the waiter told us the Jamón ibérico de Bellota was his favourite, SC and I were split between the Paletilla ibérica de Bellota and the Serrano reserva.  In reality though, all of the jamones has its own quality and appeal and it's really splitting hairs to pick a favourite.

We had a bit of a debate about the Pulpo a la Gallega – Galician style braised octopus.  I had really fond memories of the dish from our last visit but SC, who is not a fan of octopus, could quite easily have given it a miss.  The slow braised octopus was presented wonderfully on a plate with potato and then sprinkled with paprika and for me is about as good as it gets.  To her credit, SC did try the octopus again but quickly put the delicate flesh on my plate and just stuck with the potato.  The octopus meat was very tender and had a lovely soft texture on the palate.  I really loved the flavour that the dusting of paprika provided to the octopus, it really complimented the flavour and texture.

We were pretty excited when the next dish arrived, it actually looked like a bowl of chips that we had at the Spotted Pig (see post here), which were the most incredible chips we had ever eaten.  The calamares con huevo y patatas - fried local baby squid with hens eggs and potatoes was actually much more involved that it sounded.  There was a slow cooked hens egg underneath a pile of matchstick thin chips and simply fried calamari pieces, with the idea to break open the egg and mix the runny yolk through the whole lot.  The egg was perfectly slow cooked and burst open with it's golden contents easily mixing with the chips and calamari. The flavour combination of the egg yolk and the calamari was genius and what was even more amazing was how the texture remained in the chips even after they were doused in egg yolk.  It was an inventive and tasty dish and was just about the pick of the night.

The actual dish of the night was up next though with the suquet emulsion with scampi and globe artichokes providing the most interesting and intense flavours of the night.  The scampi was expertly cooked, maintaining a moist yet firm texture as well as a lovely freshness that can be lost when cooking such a delicate shellfish.  The suquet emulsion and the sauce that came with the scampi just enhanced the flavours to a whole new level of flavour.  The globe artichoke was a great addition to the dish and I was thankful it was cooked so well, it certainly had the potential to overpower the subtle scampi flavour but didn't.  SC is not normally a fan of artichoke but after some encouragement from myself and an assurance that it was quite different than previous artichoke dishes we had tried, she had a crack and really enjoyed the vegetable.

All of the dishes that we had consumed at that stage of the meal were the lighter dishes and it was time for the first of our larger and heavier dishes to arrive.  The cochinillo - suckling pig with melon and pickled fennel seeds was a beautiful looking dish with a large and perfectly cooked piece of pork belly presented with a couple of rings of fried mellon.  The crackling on top of the suckling pig was so thin yet perfectly cooked, we could easily cut through with our knives without breaking up the pork flesh too badly.  The flavour of the suckling pig was divine and the little bit of crunch from the crackling was amazing but what really raised the bar was the sauce that accompanied the dish, it was beautiful but I wish there was just a little bit more on the plate to soak up the pork flesh with.  In an unusual twist, there was melon with the pork instead of a more traditional apple and surprisingly it worked really well.

We were really quite full by the time we finished the quite substantial suckling pig and were a bit worried that we still had one dish to go.  The conejo con setas - rabbit, mushroom and pancetta had sounded like a pretty heavy dish when we ordered it and we weren't sure if we could go another round if it was as filling as the pig.  Luckily there's not a lot of flesh when dealing with rabbit and the pan full of baked rabbit pieces provided lots of flavour but not a lot of flesh.  The dish came with a finger bowl and instructions the best way to eat the dish was with fingers.  This turned out to be good advice but it was still really hard to eat with fingers, I have to say, rabbit bones are small and the pesky little pieces were hard to eat!  The difficulty in eating and portion size aside, the rabbit was delicious and worked really well with the mushroom and pancetta.

We knew we had to be out of the restaurant by 8pm and we were pushing time to fit in some dessert.  We had actually started making plans to walk somewhere to get some gelato when the waiter came across and handed us the dessert menus.  Given this would be our last ever visit to Ortiga we threw caution to the wind and ordered some desserts.  The chocolate, citricos and cafe that SC ordered looked like a scoop of ice cream in a pile of dirt but was actually a coffee ball of ice cream and an intriguing mix of ingredients to look like soil. The dish had a very organic feel to it and looked a little dry but once the ice cream started to melt a little bit and mixed in with the 'soil' the dessert balanced out nicely.

My dessert of arroz con leche con fresas - rice pudding with strawberries was an extremely interesting looking dish.  I'd actually had this the last time we were at Ortiga, so I wasn't at all surprised by its appearance but it certainly did not look like your run of the mill rice pudding.  This dessert had it all, flavour, texture and appearance and was extremely unique.  The rice was compacted to retain its shape and then covered in a strawberry concoction and covered with puff pastry and herbs.  The whole lot tasted incredible but there was a lot of it and I really struggled to eat it all, but knowing I would never get the opportunity again I pushed through.

Our meal had finished and we called for the bill.  It was a very sad moment as we knew that it was the end of an era.  We spent some time speaking to our waiter at the end of the meal and there was a sense of melancholy and acceptance that it was all over.  There is a lot to consider when closing a restaurant and one key consideration is what happens to the staff?  Our waiter not only needed to find a new restaurant to work in but a new sponsor so he could stay in the country.

There are tough times ahead for the Brisbane dining scene if one of the country's top restaurants struggles to keep operating.  It's pretty indicative of the  market though, when, with only a week to go before Ortiga closes for ever the restaurant was not full.  For our 6pm sitting there were at least five tables empty, which in a small restaurant like Ortiga is quite a bit.  I guess people just don't have the disposable income that they used to.

I'm not sure what will become of 446 Brunswick Street in the Valley, it's been a top quality restaurant for so long I can't imagine it being anything else.  I'm also curious to see what Simon Hill gets up to next, I really can't imagine someone with fine dining in his blood to simply pack up and go home...  I'm going to miss Ortiga and what it represents in the Australian dining scene and I really hope that Simon and his staff find the next chapter in their lives soon.  For now I have my memories my photos and my blog to remember what essentially was one of the best dining experiences you can have.


I love the exposed brick of the dining area.  I always thought it was a bold move to have the dining area downstairs and not upstairs.
Some incredibly light biscuits to finish off the meal
Some free tables during the 6pm sitting
The kitchen hard at it.  I have always loved the open kitchen style at Ortiga, it makes it so accessible
It's not a huge space but it has a very welcoming feel
The awards.  Two hats, two stars and one of the best restaurants in the country
Upstairs is the bar and light tapas area, would it have been a better dining area?  Who knows

Ortiga on UrbanspoonOrtiga

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