Contrabando: It’s Spanish for Speakeasy

Given that the current regime running the show in NSW Parliament House is – with the help of its various aiders and abettors in the press – trying to make having that third glass of wine about as socially acceptable as molesting puppies it is not surprising that those still looking for a good time in Sydney are going underground. Literally.

Which is why it is ultimately not surprising to see the likes of Contrabando enter the game down at an end of town that is slowly but surely becoming an alternative late-ish night precinct for those not wanting to brave the tides of drunken over-titled “managers” on the make at the George Street Hemmes compound. Occupying the old underground Noble House restaurant in Bent Street and run by the same people behind that long-time Prick favourite lunch joint, the street-level Barrafina upstairs, Contrabando carries on the Latin theme but twists it up with a certain slightly seedy (but not at all unpleasant) American Hustle chic. Found via a hard-to-find doorway marked with some very Melbournian graffiti and down a staircase that feels a bit like heading down the back entrance to the Copacabana, Contrabando is a basement bunker that time forgot. In the best of ways.

Food is big and bold and more substantial than all but the biggest bits upstairs, with some real winners: a bright kingfish ceviche and a simple dish of tomatoes let the produce sing, though our table suffered menu envy at our neighbours’ miniature chorizo hot dogs. A prawns and quinoa salad is refreshing and sweet, and is the perfect way for anyone who thinks “ancient grains” are bit … you know … to get over any such complexes.

Skewers of ox heart – shaved thinly so squeamish dates don’t know what they’re getting – taste as all beef should, echoing the great offal chef Fergus Henderson’s near-mysticism about the organ being “the most expressive muscle in any animal”. If there’s any let-down, the accompanying mushroom salad was just screaming to undergo a bit of a quick pickle. Sweets come up trumps, unfussy but cleanly executed without being cloying, and encourage sitting around and extending lunch just that much later.

There’s also plenty of good and interesting booze on tap and, whodathunkit, a really popular El Salvadorian beer (“…you can get it any viejo tiempo…”). And while of course the Prick encourages responsible consumption this really is a place to go for a proper session: Without any giant windows for passing bosses or clients to see through it wasn’t surprising to see a couple of businessmen next door work through some beers, a bottle of wine, and conclude a lunchtime deal on a couple of cognacs. Not sure how much got done back at the office, of course.

Not that Contrabando is just a daytime hideout. Apparently Contrabando has a license to trade until midnight, further solving one of Sydney’s great problems, namely that there is no place to get a decent meal after about 9:30 or so in much of what considers itself to be a “world city”. (One of our great memories of last year’s European bacchanal involves being the only two foreigners at Al Timon on the Cannaregio Canal in Venice and watching locals rock up at nearly midnight – on a Tuesday – for vast platters of bistecca Fiorentina and noting that despite the hour and the booze no one felt the need to drop a “cowie” on anyone else. Politicians never take the right lessons from their European “study tours”.)

Good food, good booze, malas chicas. It’s enough to make a Prick wish he worked in the CBD again.  

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6 Responses to Contrabando: It’s Spanish for Speakeasy

  1. It is very civilised to eat late isn’t it! When travelling in Europe we often are worn out by the end of the day and like to have a snooze and then go out late to eat when the crowds are out and about. My beef is about trying to eat anywhere decent on a Sunday night in Sydney. Living nearly 2 hours away and finding Sundays about the only day of the week we can get out and about it’s such a shame so many places are closed.

  2. Dr Duck says:

    Walked past there at about 7:00 last night after going to the Sydney Institute talk by Louis Nowra. I thought about going in, but decided not to as I had a three hour drive in front of me. I’m now kicking myself after re-reading your review and looking at the menu on line. Oh well, I’ll have to get there one day for a long lunch and some cognacs.

    By the way, Mr Prick, did I pass you earlier in the evening (around 4:45) in Martin Place? I thought I saw you pulling along a case on wheels, and by the time I put a name to the face it was too late to say hello!

  3. Dr Duck says:

    Pretty interesting, but a better writer than speaker. The book on Kings Cross is well worth a read if you are interested in that area.

  4. Peter McK says:

    I took my daughter here last week for a birthday dinner during a flying visit to Sydney. The meal was great, lovely roasted meats and tasty extras. A sublime Argentinian Tempranillo went down well too.
    I do wonder about longevity, given its low key signage and underground venue, but glad to have tried it.
    Followed up with the obligatory Sydney night out of live music at the Opera Bar and a palate cleansing ale a thing the crowds and the scenery.

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