Darlinghurst's Sagra is one of the unheralded gems of Sydney's dining scene — a rustic, unpretentious, unfailingly delicious take on regional Italian with a small, all-killer no-filler menu and staff who provide a lightness of touch. Ortzi, a Surry Hills venture by the same team, essentially replicates that formula but with the distinctive, homespun flavours of Basque cuisine.
The room doesn't have the natural warmth of Sagra's, but staff are friendly and the vibe is agreeably low-key, with small plates made for sharing and a range of pintxos, the bite-sized, flavoursome snack food popular across Basque country.
The salt cod croquettes ($5), one of the cuisine's enduring staples, is a must from the pintxos selection, with all golden coating and pillowy soft texture. A simply presented plate of jamón ibérico ($20) packs deep, sweet flavours into tissue-thin strips.
From there, you progress to the raciones, the more substantial plates, which include the likes of a chunky stinging nettle soup with smoked eel ($21) — an unfussy dish with loads of flavour and eel smoked to a creamy tenderness. A dish of roast cauliflower, chestnut and sesame ($19) brings out the sweetness of an often stubborn vegetable and the buttery notes of the chestnut adds considerably to the mix. It's ideal hearty winter fare.
Larger plates feature Basque favourites cod and red pepper, but you can't go wrong with a well-seasoned juicy Holmbrae chicken, morcilla and apple ($33) with some nice charred flavours on the bird. Making the most of the southern highland poultry, which is raised on cracked corn and lucerne, this chicken showcases the successful marriage of local produce with the flavour profiles and techniques of Basque cuisine.
For a side, try panisse ($13), another regional specialty made from fried chickpea flour. These corn-hued chunks are crunchy on the outside, smooth and soft within and moreish when paired with aioli.
Pintxos are often accompanied by cider and Ortzi can accommodate you here, or you can ask staff for guidance on matching sherries, like the slightly syrupy El Maestro Sierra Oloroso ($11 a glass).
If you're not totally sated by this point, a massive, glossy dollop of chocolate mousse with salted caramel ($15) is the kind of tried and true classic that Ortzi just nails. The neat architecture of the apple and sherry mille-feuille ($14) is even better though, a winning nod to the region's French influences. It's positively delectable with a dessert sherry.
Basque cuisine has been underrepresented in Sydney but Ortzi flies the flag proudly.
Images: Alana Dimou