I don’t know a great deal about Peru. In fact I know nothing about the South American country. Thankfully, an episode of Maeve O’Meara’s Food Safari about Peruvian food aired the week before I dined at Morena in Surry Hills, giving me an idea about the culinary delights and traditions of the nation.
Head chef and co-owner Alejandro Saravia certainly has an interesting story to tell. Having worked in marketing, he decided to embark on a trip around Europe working in some of the top restaurants on the continent. Oddly enough, he ended up in Australia in 2006 and set up his own shop in Surry Hills.
Although Peru is running through Morena’s veins, it’s not a “traditional” restaurant per se. Saravia borrows from other Latin American cultures to serve a very modern offering, leaning towards the fine-dining scale of the spectrum. As he explains in his interview in the April edition of Feast magazine, if Saravia tried to do traditional Peruvian food in Australia, it wouldn’t be truthful to the cuisine, so he calls his food modern Peruvian.
Situated on the buzzing Bourke St, Morena is almost directly opposite the Beresford; a decent option for pre and post-dinner drinks. Inside, the décor is contemporary, simple and very minimalist. White tablecloths, dim lighting and wooden furniture are prevalent here. We have an early booking at 6pm and we’re the first ones to be seated.
Today, we choose to indulge in the five-course degustation ($85). The first dish to arrive is the manchego and cassava croquettes served with Huancaina sauce. Manchego is a cheese made from sheep’s milk, while cassava is a type of woody shrub native to South America. The crispy and fresh batter of the croquette is enjoyable, as is the filling. With the sauce smeared on the bottom, your tastebuds begin to ask questions about the intricate tastes of the food. The sauce is smooth but not quite a puree. I really liked this creation.
Already I begin to notice the beautiful presentation of Morena’s food. Served on a dark grey tile, the food doesn’t look like something to be eaten, but more of a work of art.
Next to come is the Peruvian ceviche – I wasn’t sure about the type of fish used in the ceviche (snapper or sardine) but it was as fresh as they come. The ceviche was combined with cancha (roasted Andean corn) and caramelised sweet potato. Although easily the most picturesque offering of the night, the ceviche wasn’t my favourite. It was slightly too tart and sour for me, but the freshness of the produce was a small victory. I liked the crunch of the roasted corn.
Our proteins were next on the degustation. First was the 12-hour braised beef brisket with creamy Lima bean puree with tamarind jus. Although cooked for 12 hours, the beef didn’t collapse as easily as I would’ve liked, but it was still very good. Combining this with the puree and jus, the beef was very enjoyable. Brisket is one of my favourite cuts of beef. When slow-cooked, it’s a winner.
When you eat a degustation, I find the ones that become permanently etched in your memory are those that begin strongly, maintaining a high level before crescendo-ing to the dessert. The grain-fed Latin America–style roasted chicken with chips and red cabbage and apple salad to finish the savoury courses was certainly good but not enough to take it to soaring heights of gastronomic euphoria. I enjoyed the aroma of the chicken with Peruvian spices but it was slightly too oily for me. The chips were cut like polenta, looked like polenta but indeed, were not polenta.
I really enjoy trying new cuisines and it’s even better when a total curveball is thrown your way. The one square foot of a dessert dish of traditional sweets was like nothing I’d ever had before. Served on a beautiful one square foot tile, a wonderful array of sweets were placed in front of us to devour. These included a type of cake, sorbet, ice cream, raspberry and passion-fruit purees and a Peruvian-style donut: all made in-house. Because all of the sweets were sprawled out onto the tile, it was up to the diner to pick up the spoon and explore all that was on offer. So much fun, incredible presentation and such a fitting end to an enjoyable meal.
On Food Safari, one of the dishes Saravia demonstrates is the slow-cooked alpaca, which I didn’t get to try. That gives me an excuse to come back to visit Morena.