A fishy tale worth its five stars

17:00, Sep 14 2012
ortega fish shack
THE FABULISTS: Ortega does it all right - excellent service, drinks menu and, above all, food.

Barbieca Ortega (1857-1936) was a prodigious fisherman and fabulous chef who lived on Isla de Pez, an island off the coast of Venezuela.

In 1887 he opened Ortega Fish Shack & Bar in an abandoned fisherman's cottage, the fame of which soon spread among the international yachting community.

Early visitors included Robert Louis Stevenson, Zane Gray and Ernest Hemmingway, but it was Theodore  Roosevelt who really put the place on the map.

As the fame of Ortega's seafood cuisine grew, so did the restaurant itself.

In 1934 a swanky new wing was built, featuring a decorative tiled floor and ample wall space to accommodate Ortega's steadily expanding art collection of paintings, photos and prints.

Then, one fateful day in 1936, Hermann Goering secretly landed in the harbour in a chartered Deutsche Lufthansa sea plane.   His mission was to persuade Ortega to become head chef at Carinhall, his hunting lodge in East Prussia.


Ortega (who was himself partly of Jewish ancestry) flatly refused, and a week later his fish shack was blown up in suspicious circumstances while he was on a solo fishing trip from which he never returned.   

While the initial device exploded and blew the roof off, a second incendiary bomb failed to ignite and the fish shack was saved from burning.

Thus, the floor tiling and many of the precious heirlooms were retrieved, all of which can be seen today in the second Ortega Fish Shack Bar, opened in Majoribanks St by Mark Limacher, Barbieca Ortega's great nephew.

Centrepiece of the collection is a signed oil painting by Paul Gauguin,  painted when the famous post-impressionist visited in 1891.

Despite having been valued by Sotheby's at £20 million, this small painting still hangs beside the stairs at Ortega, enabling customers to admire it on their way to and from the loo.

Oh, and pigs do grow wings and fly.

It's amazing what punters will believe, provided it is written down: parts of the above "history" are posted  next to the fake Gauguin on Ortega's wall.

One thing, however, is absolutely beyond a lie: Ortega is the reincarnation of the dearly beloved Cafe Bastille, judged Cuisine Restaurant of the Year in 2004.

Limacher and Peter Collins are once again co-chefs in the new venture, only nowadays Mark's daughter Anna shares front of house with her husband Davey, the charismatic sommelier.

It was Davey who suggested I drink pinot noir with fish, specifically the Murdoch James 2010 with the pan-roasted gurnard, which came with button mushrooms and a refined yet hugely tasty porcini cream.  Being a seafood restaurant, Ortega's menu is ruled by whatever fish can be sourced that day, and is therefore printed daily.

Just as I'd silently predicted he would, my dear brother chose as his entree "New season seared scallops, pumpkin and ginger tortellini,  Pernod butter" which proved technically perfect and every bit as scrumptious as it sounded.

For my part, I took a nostalgia trip back to Cafe Bastille with the Classic French Onion Soup, in which sweet, tasty stock lurked beneath the obligatory blanket of unctuous bliss - real French gruyere melted over a slice of toasted sourdough.

Thanks to the immaculate freshness of the fish,  "roasted tarakihi, Malaysian coconut gravy, prawn, lime & coriander salad" was probably even better than you'd get at your average Malaysian.   

The meal ended as it had begun, in a swirl of transcendental sensual ecstasy, with "Pear souffle with Poire-William custard, Valrhona chocolate sorbet."

Right across the board, the service was spectacular.


Pear Souffle with Poire-William custard and Valrhona chocolate sorbet.

Perfectly tied to the season, this creamy yet ethereal pear souffle was brought back to earth with a chocolate sorbet - and cleverly matched to a glass of Spanish alvear Moscatel by Davey McDonald.


16 Majoribanks St, Mt Victoria.
Ph: 382 9559
Fully licensed
Open Tues-Sat, 5.30pm till late, lunches by prior appointment.
Mains: $31.90-$38.90
Food: 5/5
Service: 5/5
Ambience: 5/5
Wine list: 5/5
Cost: $104 for two (excluding wine)

The Dominion Post