Upon my last visit to Barrafina Tapas, I had been informed that they were in the process of building a restaurant downstairs from them. The details were tantalisingly vague: a mysterious Latin restaurant with roast meats like suckling pig and salsa dancing. It sounded like an unusual idea for the quieter part of the Sydney CBD on Bent Street, but my interest was piqued and it was with great anticipation that I attended Contrabando within a couple of weeks of it opening.
The entrance for the restaurant is at the heavily graffitied front of the Noble House building, which according to my research, previously housed a Chinese restaurant. It’s quite an inconspicuous entrance, if you weren’t looking for it.
Once you push the heavy door open and proceed down the dimly lit staircase, follow the soft amber lights and you’re greeted at the bottom of the staircase by your gorgeous maitre’d just you walk out into the expansive basement area.
The equally good-looking waitress came to our table to greet us. Just like their sister tapas bar Barrafina, the wait staff are all easy on the eye and have genuine accents that make whatever you’re ordering sound ridiculously good. Luckily in this situation I was spared the embarrassment of incorrectly pronouncing Spanish ingredients, instead told that a selection from the menu would be brought out to us. I had asked two good friends to accompany me on the evening, being Brother Bear and Dancing Queen – both keen to sample the menu over the course of the night ahead.
Contrabando has an extensive wine list, with wines by the glass or the bottle, and a cocktail list. I asked our waitress (who also turned out to be the resident salsa teacher) to bring us each a glass of whatever she thought would match best with what we would be eating. We had a white to start and she later brought over a pinot noir to accompany our asado (barbequed meats).
Our first dish was a classic: Mazorca, being chargrilled corn, with chipotle mayo, lime and house-made queso freso ($4 each). I knew there was a reason for the toothpicks at the table!
One of my dinner guests had pulled out her knife and fork and asked me how she would eat it, but the other two of us had already picked up the corn with our bare hands. That’s what napkins are for! Juicy, crunchy and liberally slathered in the chipotle mayo, this is and always will be one of my all-time classic favourites.
The Empanadas ($12) tender shredded spiced duck was an interesting accompaniment to the soft pumpkin puree, encased in the crispy empanada pastry. It came with a sumac yoghurt, adding another level of flavour and texture to this small share plate.
The Choripan ($7 each) was a mini chorizo hot dog, with pedro ximenex onions, habanero mustard and salsa criolla. The kitchen had also been very generous in taking into account that one of our parties didn’t eat pork, and so had provided us with a lamb equivalent. The chorizo had been cooked so well that the skin fairly burst with a crispy crunch as soon as I bit into it. It was a spicy and meaty mini hot dog that provided more than enough kick to have my nose start running.
The next dish was the Ceviche de Carita ($18): Hiramasa kingfish, pickled baby cucumber, vanilla and apple puree.
This was a fairly unique flavour combination, with the cucumbers adding an acidity to the mild flavour of the fish, and a fruity creaminess from the vanilla and apple puree. Because the fish had such a light flavour on its own, the mixture of tastes and textures worked together quite harmoniously.
The Ensalada de Cangrejo ($23) was a healthy and flavoursome combination of pulled spanner crab, quinoa and char-grilled corn. It had a very generous amount of pulled crab meat, and the whole dish tasted extremely fresh, literally “popping” with the char-grilled corn and quinoa grains.
The Zanahorias ($13) was the last of the share plates, being roasted heirloom carrots, goats curd and spiced pumpkin puree. I enjoyed this dish more than I thought I would; the carrots, once roasted, were very sweet and I’m not sure what the dish was topped with, but it was amazingly nutty and crunchy – like a roasted rice or something similar.
By this stage I was already full but our mains hadn’t even come out yet… I couldn’t help but give a shaky exhale when the first of our Asado arrived, the Ancho & Coffee Wagyu Beef Shoulder ($29/$44):
And then came the Bangalow Suckling Pig ($35/$50):
Both came with a small tomato salad and two types of salsa, both quite subtle in their heat. I loved the crisp, shatteringly crunchy crackling with the suckling pig, but there was a smooth smokiness to the beef that had me reaching for more. It was even better with the sides, the Patatas ($9): wagyu fat potatoes, and Tomates ($16): Heirloom tomatoes, queso fresco, tequila and lime vinaigrette.
Few things taste better than good Spanish patatas, and these were no exception. It was good to balance them with the freshness and acidity of the tomato salad, which had come to our table with high praise from our waitress. I could have easily eaten much, much more of this tomato salad.
All of us were straining at this stage and my eyelids were involuntarily shutting with the combination of excess food and my glass of red.
Then we were brought the Postres (dessert) menu….
We were brought out one of each, the first being the Chocolate Soil, Banana Creme, Salted Caramel, Toasted Peanuts ($10).
All three of us found the ice cream in this dish absolutely divine, but it was a little inconvenient with the ice cream on the slate, meltingly good but oozing everywhere. The contents in the glass really needed the ice cream to tie it together.
When the Sweet Potato and Pumpkin Doughnuts, Caramelised Pineapple and Spiced Syrup ($10) arrived I couldn’t help but laugh as they reminded me of the packet cheese chips I used to take to primary school in my younger years. The churros were fluffy and light, and it was interesting to compare the texture once they had been soaked in the accompanying aromatic syrup. I could imagine this dessert would be perfect in the upcoming colder months, had with a glass of red or a coffee liqueur.
The Spanish Cava and White Chocolate Semi Freddo, Berries & Peaches ($10) was more of a summery dish with its abundance of finely chopped fresh peaches.
The semi freddo was delicately flavoured with a contrasting crisp yet creamy texture, and the fresh peaches added a beautifully floral perfume to the dish. This probably would have been my favourite out of the three desserts.
Not wanting to waste delicious food, I had asked if the leftover succulent slices of meat could possibly be taken away with us, and they were more than happy to accomodate my request, packing it into two take away boxes. I arranged with Brother Bear to bring in crusty bread rolls into work the next day, while I would bring some salsa, to have a little picnic at work with the delicious leftovers.
It would be unfair (and near impossible) to select my favourite dish of the evening; as our dinner at Contrabando was so phenomenal. Its so much more than the well-executed small share dishes packed full of flavour and freshness, followed up by smoky and tender charred meats. You have not yet even taken into account the urban, gritty street view, inconspicuous dim entrance stairway, and the wait staff who greet you in their oh-so-seductive silken accents with a little dark smile; it’s all of these elements that give the restaurant such a sense of extreme mystery and flair.
Who can say if this secret will stay hidden for long…
21 Bent Street
Sydney NSW 2000
(02) 9231 0049