Hot Plates: Bodega 1904, Sydney
Author: Pat Nourse
Photography: Nikki To
Blood and yoghurt. Not your standard rallying cry, and definitely fairly out there as a corporate mission statement. But then Team Bodega has always carved its own path. When it first opened on Commonwealth Street in Surry Hills 10 years ago, it was a tapas restaurant, but even then it was only notionally Spanish. Morcilla and white anchovies there were, and the piquillo peppers were stuffed with salt cod, the chorizo splashed with cider (the chefs too, for that matter). But the menu always had as much of South America in it as Spain, and the feel of the place owed as much to the rock 'n' roll (and, later), rockabilly sensibility of chefs Ben Milgate and Elvis Abrahanowicz, of co-owner Joe Valore and style authority Sarah Doyle.
The other businesses they've opened are more readily categorised: Porteño is Argentinian, Stanbuli is Turkish, the Continental is, yes, continental. The arrival of a second branch of Bodega at the Tramsheds, Bodega 1904, prompts the question: what's Bodega all about exactly? The blood and yoghurt goes some of the way to answering the question.
Bodega 1904 chef Joel Humphreys.
The room is the first new-build for the group, and stands in the centre of the Tramsheds, lined on one side with bar seating backing onto the shared space in a manner reminiscent of the Boqueria, the mightiest of the Barcelona markets. In the centre is a small wine shop which sells both the wines imported by Valore from Argentina and other parts of South America and a line-up of smart local names, Jamsheed and Tom Shobbrook among them. It's boisterous, and by no means quiet, but by the standards set by Bodega and Porteño, the noise levels could be called lively rather than raucous.
The same menu serves the bar and the booths and tables: 10 dishes they call tapas, six "large plates", four desserts. Bread, which hasn't previously been a highlight of the Bodega experience, is a must at 1904 - a dark-crusted sourdough served with a highly flavoursome cultured butter. Pair that with a plate of the pickled green tomatoes accented with dill and shallot and open a bottle of sherry and you're off to a cracking start wherever you're sitting.
I'm yet to see a smear, a powder, a quenelle or any dust. Joel Humphreys and his crew's preferred methods of cooking are grilling, frying and roasting, the flavour accents coming from vinegar, citrus, alliums and fine herbs - parsley, chervil, tarragon, dill. Dairy gets its day, but more usually in a cheese than an overt use of butter: sheep's milk feta the complement to smoked eggplant with caramelised onions, a Manchego cream providing the element of surprise binding the classic combination of (grilled) octopus and (garlic and lemon) potatoes showered with toasty breadcrumbs.
You wouldn't accuse the kitchen of subtlety, but the cooking is far from slapdash. The plating has clean simplicity and an economy of construction that recalls Bodega in its late-noughties heyday, the dishes designed around a two-man kitchen and the need to get plenty of food out fast without compromising on taste. Acid and fat are played against each other to appealing effect. A salted lime vinaigrette and some leaves of coriander balance the dairy sweetness of a fried half-circle of fresh cheese. Sometimes the connection is dropped - half a roast duck on white beans wants for both savour and the cumquats that come with it don't bring the contrast it demands. (At $40, the most expensive dish, it's not the best investment on the menu, either.)
A sausage made from pig's head that has been smoked and finely ground, on the other hand, is like a frankfurter that has discovered flavour. The kitchen doubles down on the potato accompaniment - both puréed and fried in shreds - and checks all that richness with a dollop of plum sauce.
Desserts are sweet and simple: pearl barley is the twist in the custard tart, but it's ground and mixed into the pastry, so the result is in no way the rice-puddingy sort of arrangement I had pictured. If you hadn't been told, you wouldn't know the barley was there - it simply presents as a well-made, strongly nutmeg-scented custard tart. No doily, no icing sugar, no whipped cream, no fanned strawberry, no mint. No bad thing. For something more refreshing, the combination of passionfruit granita and coconut sorbet, with the less-usual addition of lime marmalade, delivers on its promise of bright flavours and gentle texture.
Passionfruit granita and coconut sorbet.
Service ranges from the possibility of glazed indifference from the person taking your name and number at the door when you're waiting for a table, to the seasoned warmth and professional welcome you'll get from a member of the family such as the dapper Joe Valore, or the unfailingly lovely Rachael Doyle. Valore knows his producers inside out, of course, but the level of wine knowledge on the floor seems generally pretty reasonable, whether you're looking for a bone-dry fino or a bit of funk in the form of the orangey-pink Poolside shiraz from Tommy Ruff, which proves a splendid all-rounder with this sort of food.
And the blood and yoghurt? It could be said to be Bodega on a plate. A fat square of sliced blood cake tanned in the pan and served with a cool dollop of nicely sour yoghurt topped with a spoonful of genuinely spicy mojo verde, the South American green salsa. Three things on the plate, no wasted movement, but no mistaking the quiet panache or the flavour. A little bit Latin, a little bit rock 'n' roll, and 100 per cent Bodega. It's safe to say 1904 is punching some pretty good numbers.
Bodega 1904, Tramsheds, 1 Dalgal Way, Forest Lodge, NSW, (02) 8624 3133, open Mon-Thurs noon-11pm, Fri noon-midnight, Sat 10am- midnight, Sun 10am-10pm, tramshedsharoldpark.com.au/Vendors/Bodega-1904