Last night I had one of those dining experiences that must be shared right away. Most of my posts are written up to a week after the fact but this time, I just can't wait that long. Although I didn't get much sleep last night and I'm tired and I'd rather be online shopping, I've got to document the memory before it fades and I start omitting details.
I know I say this about lots of restaurants but Ortiga has been on my 'must visit' for a long, long time... ever since the day I first saw it when I had dinner nearby at Mint. Mint is long gone but I still remember seeing the legs of cured meat hanging in the restaurant and thinking "I want to go there". At the time I hadn't made the connection that Isis used to be in that exact location but I soon learned that Ortiga was the follow-on.
Well, I missed the boat on Isis but I knew I'd have a chance to try Ortiga.
False alarms of 'I think this weekend is The Weekend to finally go there' came and went. Next thing I knew, I saw Ortiga leading the rank of Queensland restaurants in Gourmet Traveller's 2012 restaurant awards... and the desire to go went up a few notches.
The chance came at last. An uncle flew in to Brisbane from the USA and Grandpa asked me to pick a restaurant to enjoy a family dinner. I couldn't suggest Ortiga fast enough. I rang up and a booking was secured. Next came the wait.
Last night, the wait was over. We battled the kind of travel complications only possible when you get a couple of seniors (grandparents), a stuborn man (good old dad), a guy from out of town (uncle), a woman who can't park in the valley (mum) and an incorectly set-up GPS, and spread these out across 2 cars. The result was a lot of getting lost, getting confused, yelling, frustration and going into wrong restaurants...
It was a miracle we all ended up at our table in Ortiga's basement restaurant. By the time dad's car full of people arrived, I was halfway through a nerve-calming gin and tonic.
The late arrival had driven me into a high-strung mode of panic. Once everyone was seated, I found myself bossing the drinks waitress to bring me menus when in fact, someone else was already on their way with our menus. As soon as these were set down, I pounced our waiter with a "how do you recommend we order from this menu" and was politely told "I was just about to explain..."
I think I managed to calm down a bit after that.
Not to toot my own horn but I've eaten a fair chunk out of Brisbane's available restaurants. I can decipher most menus. Ortiga's menu was totally foreign to me. I spotted the odd English word here and there ('squid', 'duck', 'lamb' etc) but on the whole, I did need a lot of help.
The waiter explained that the menu was designed for sharing and that the majority of dishes were smaller tapas sizes. If we wanted enough for the whole table (6 people), we'd need to double up on those orders. There were also 3 items from the 'mains' section that were larger serves so we could just order a couple of single serves of those.
Orders were placed and very shortly after, the food started arriving.
Our first morsel from Ortiga was the croquetas. I won't venture to guess exactly what the filling comprised of, only that it tasted cheesy and hammy but much more complex.
I don't know if grandpa was just super hungry or genuine but he proclaimed that it was delicious. I thought they were good and had a more interesting flavor than standard cheese croquettes. Did it blow my socks off? No, but a plate of those with some beer would've been fab.
Next was our selection of jamon. Our waiter gave a detailed description of each variety. What I gathered was that there were 4 types of cured ham, ranging from left to right in order of 'most normal' to 'most special'. By special, I mean that it had winning specs such as 'black pig' and 'fed on pure acorns' etc. Mum and I liked the '3rd one' the most. Because that's not helpful to anyone, I will go out on a limb and venture to say this was te 'serrano'. But that is an educated guess, no more.
Grandpa pretty much went to heaven with the jamon. He's always been an epic fan of cured meats, ever since he descovered humble proscuitto. Everyone loved this platter but commented that it wasn't really Ortiga's cooking that made the meat so fine. Fair enough, I suppose.
The following dish was one of Ortiga's creation. And boy, what a creation it was. I blindly ate away without any idea what I was eating (I promptly forgot what we ordered the moment the order was finalized). When the waiter described the dish, I heard 'foam' and 'jelly' but that's about it. Whatever it was, it was art on the plate and in the palate. I now know (via studying the menu and using Google) that this was the ajo blanco, which is a kind of cold Spanish soup. It had a beautiful, creamy consistency, well balanced by the crunchy ham pieces and sweetness of spring onion. It's supposed to have a smoked eel component but without knowing that, I couldn't detect it in the dish. Dad said this was like 'mayonnaise with bacon'. He might have meant that nicely but what a way to unglamorize a dish! Tsk, men...
Sesos de cordero con jamón, habitas y camarones – Lamb brains with jamón, broad beans and school prawns
Half our table wanted to try the lamb brains so we ordered on portion of those. Initially, I was part of the half who didn't want to try any but peer pressure (and gluttony) made me change my mind. The tiny morsel I tried was beautiful! It wasn't at all gory like I imagined but very delicate.
The duck dish arrived around the same time. Mum and I actually watched these being plated up without realizing they were destined for our table. We were marvelling at how careful and finicky they were with the presentation (I saw a piece of duck being swapped because it wasn't balancing on the plate properly). Not only was the dish visually stunning, it was absolutely delicious. We were told to try to get all the components in one mouthful and that, in my opinion, is indeed the best way to enjoy this dish. Every element on the plate adds a depth of flavor and texture that just makes each mouthful sing. Mum said something along the lines of 'symphony in my mouth' and no one laughed at her lameness because we were too busy agreeing. The ducked was sous-vide and then seared to ensure juiciness and the collaboration with crisp onion, chestnuts and more bits than I can comprehend were just genius. This became our table's favorite dish. We later learnt that it was being taken off the menu in the next season in favor of a chicken dish. To that, I say: too bad guys.
That was the end of our tapas selection. We next moved on to mains. To this point, the men had been enjoying the food but were wondering 'will we need a burger after this'.
Our first main was the seafood stew. I tried to translate this in Chinese and I think everyone was expecting a paella-type deal but what we got instead was a stew. This was... an unusual tasting stew.
Again, the flavor was multi-tonal and complex. I recall the waiter saying something about aniseed. There was definitely saffron. I didn't like it at first but it really grew on me. The seafood bits that I had were so fresh, sweet and juicy too.
The next main was one of the dishes I was looking forward to the most: the slow-cooked lamb shoulder.
It arrived as a whole shoulder, served with potato gratin, a lamb jus and lemon puree.
Our waitress then tore the shoulder apart with nothing but 2 spork-looking instruments. It's a testimont to how tender a piece of meat is when it can be pulled apart with sporks.
I thought the lamb was extremely melty, soft and juicy. As for flavor, well, it had a strong lamb flavor... but that's about it.
This is a great dish if you like lamb in it's element, pure and stong. However, for me (and the rest of the table), after the taste trip we got from the other dishes, this seemed totally homely and mundane. Sure, it was a very well done homely dish but homely all the same. The men would have liked some charred crispy bits.
I have to to say I was let down too. It wasn't bad but for Queensland's best restaurant, I expected more fireworks from the finale of the savory dishes.
We were undecided about dessert. I do love dessert and rarely pass up an opportunity to try dessert at a new restaurant. For some reason, I didn't think Ortiga had dessert or at least, they weren't famous for it.
To grandpa's insistence, we ordered 3 desserts to try and share.
The first was a pumpkin mille-feuille. This was surprisingly good! As a pumpkin fan, even I wouldn've been shocked by the suggestion that pumpkin would be good in a puff pastry slice but it worked really well. This dessert was delicate and creative and it just worked. Mum and dad liked it too. It wasn't too sweet either.
Our second dessert was the special of the day, which was a rice pudding with apple. I was feeling high on the whole experience and thought this dessert was good too. After all our savory food (especially the fatty lamb), it was refreshing to have a cool, fruit-based dessert to cleanse the palate.
Uncle chose the chocolate pudding and fritter dessert. When I read the description, I pictured churros but it was more like a cinnamon donut served with artsy chocolate smears. The middle 'dollop' was extremely boozy... in a good way.
I'm so sorry I didn't take a photo of the dessert menu, and now I can't find the dessert items online so I can't give better descriptions of what they were.
By this time, all the blood in my body had gone to my stomach to tackle the problem of digesting and I was feeling content and restful. Unfortunately, I had a social event to rush to after dinner so mum and I thought a 'pick me up' was in order. We both ordered lattes to finish the night.
I know that it's usual to get coffee after a meal in a Western restaurant... but I don't normally make time for it. Last night, I did and was really impressed by the coffee. Mochi and I spend so much time rushing around to cafes that are famous for their coffee and well, I have to say the latte from Ortiga was amongst the best I've ever had. It was strong but not overpoweringly bitter and had a very smooth, dense foam. It was just the fuel I needed to last a night of talking/catch-ups with close friends.
On the whole, I had a great time at Ortiga. The service was fabulous and I don't just mean 'friendly' or 'fast'. There was something about the entire staff that oozed professionalism.
We were seated in front of the open kitchen and for me, it was one of the highlights of last night's dining experience. Watching the chefs work and plate up was an absolute joy. Mum joked that it was like 'Masterchef live'. It was a bit like that, I suppose, only not at all panicky/chaotic/messy. If a kitchen is a machine and the chefs are cogs and wheels, these cogs and wheels turned perfectly smoothly and with extreme precision.
I loved that waiters stopped for a chat and talked to us about the menu and the produce. I loved that the sommelier gave us wine recommendations without any hint of snootiness (we know nothing about wine and they have won awards for their wine list).
The food was a journey through lots of flavors, textures and techniques. I definitely recommend you give Ortiga a try.