At this new Peruvian restaurant in the St Margarets Complex, you can eat alpaca. That’s right: those cute little mini-giraffes are good for more than chunky knits. The trouble is, here the thin, raw shavings of meat are hidden under a passionfruit sauce, golden beetroot and artful blobs of avocado puree. You could be eating Jabberwocky, Lorax or Bunyip.
This site has had many incarnations. It has been the ill-fated Beluga (home of the blue Curacao oyster – we still wake up screaming sometimes) and the excellent-but-sadly-short-lived fish-and-chip spot the Battery. Morena, however, may well have a longer run – they certainly have the goods to back it. Service here is friendly, smart and funny. And it’s an attractive-looking place, with little glass terraria hanging throughout and Peruvian patterned banquettes. They’ve gotta do something about the Café del Blah music, though.
Drown out those chilled beats with a Pisco Sour – a light, sharp and frothy shake-up of Peruvian brandy, lemon juice, egg white and bitters – and get down to business with an amuse-bouche of pickled tomato and quinoa. The little spoonful of tart pickled tomato and surprisingly filling pseudo-cereal could almost be breakfast. We say taste it, but don’t finish it, lest you fill up before trying the calf’s heart. Chef Alejandro Saravia slow-cooks the organ, grills it then finely slices it. The result is silky folds of beef brightened with chimichurri. Speaking of that South American sauce of vinegar, chilli and herbs, check out the bread rolls spiked with the stuff, and served with an olive oil infused with coriander seeds.
Saravia is very proud of his heritage, using Peruvian techniques and ingredients wherever possible. A ceviche of raw, pink snapper is cured in a traditional Peruvian sauce of aji amarillo (a paste of Peruvian yellow chilli), eschallots and fresh-squeezed lemon and lime juice (“Australian limes are too acidic and the lemons are too sweet,” Saravia says). The dish is topped with a crunch of corn nuts and bejewelled with sweet potato. A side of chips is served with two different sauces: huancaina (fresh Andean cheese, evaporated milk, aji Amarillo and a drop of lemon juice) and green ocopa (Andean cheese, black Peruvian mint, roast peanuts and evaporated milk). And yep, they’re very good – no surprise, really, given Peru invented the potato.
There are plenty of big-game meats on the menu (did we also mention you can have your alpaca in cutlet form?) but it’s not all chimichurri bread for you, vegetarians: there’s an excellent dish of creamy braised barley accessorised with cubes of house-made queso fresco (a fine, set white cheese that tastes not unlike a mix between tofu and feta) with little heirloom carrots jutting out of it like soldiers standing to attention.
And there’s also the tres leches – probably the best one you’ll come across in town – which we could easily have eaten two of. Here, a cube of sponge cake is soaked overnight in a mix of evaporated, condensed and full fat cow’s milk, then pan-fried until all crisp and golden on the outside. The whole thing sits on a little puddle of dulce de leche accompanied by blob of icy pineapple sorbet. Outstanding.
Atmosphere-wise, Morena is a little wanting. And we’d really like to try that alpaca sans passionfruit. But here is a restaurant that’s really committed to showcasing Peruvian produce, cooked by a chef with talent. We’ll be back.