South American cuisine became a little hotter with the opening of Pastuso. Whilst there has been a steady emergence of restaurants honouring South American cooking for some years, it is by no means the strong theme of recent times.
San Telmo has been my main education on Argentinian grill; I’ve travelled to Brazil earlier this year for the World Cup and experienced some of what South America has to offer in Salvador; but I haven’t been to a Peruvian restaurant so this is a first, and my only anchor on flavour is my experience today which has nothing to do with expectation or prior experience. Yet, sitting here in this very cool looking restaurant, I don’t feel out of my comfort zone. Many will with offerings such as alpaca meat, beef heart and a ceviche bar, which would put fear into some, and excite just as many!
At night, the name of the restaurant is brightly lit and can be seen down ACDC Lane from Flinders Lane, which has to be the hottest street for restaurants in Australia, if not the world. Something draws you in to this wide fronted, airy and modern restaurant, that has a particularly long bar to the left and an open kitchen along the length of the back. It is extremely well thought through with private intimate spaces, interspersed with many tables where you don’t know which direction to look given the natural movements in the bar, kitchen, on the floor and in the entry.
I’m with a couple of mates and with a focus on catching up we put ourselves in the hands of the chefs with a several course tasting menu for the very reasonable price of $59. To begin we are presented with two ceviches. One seems quite familiar, albeit flavoured with aji amarillo sauce and rococo jelly; and one is quite unfamiliar even though it has snapper as the protein. It is at this stage that the glossary on the menu starts becoming handy. The swordfish loin has a surprisingly delicate texture, but the strength to defend against the aji amarillo which is a yellow Peruvian chilli pepper and rococo which is a spicy red pepper. So really swordfish with some cucumber and some mild and hot spice. Makes sense right? The snapper on the other hand is flavoursome at first, but the leche de tigre traditional Peruvian marinade of citrus, chillies, coriander, garlic, scallops and fish, is really, really tart. I recommend it for a taste or two because the fish was amazing. However, probably best to stop there and go on to the next dish because it is full-on.
The next taste was the low point of our meal. The “el choro chalaco” black mussel served on a seaweed crisp, just did not appeal. It is not a textural issue for me because I love mussels, but the combination lacked any punch or flavour. Instantly the mistaken mussel was rectified with oomph and heart. The “anticuchos” are beef heart skewers with sliced potatoes, grilled corn, huacatay (Peruvian black mint) and amarillo sauce. To say they were delicious is an understatement and there were almost battles for the fourth skewer. The “yucas” cassava (Amazonian root vegetable) chips are fantastic too. The pendulum had swung.
While the chicken was indeed marinated, it was also fried, making the next dish quite indulgent. The Peruvian yellow potato, avocado and cherry tomato base combined beautifully with the chicken and the aji mirasol (sun dried yellow chillies) brought it all together. To finish the savoury courses we were brought “pierna de cordero”. The slow cooked lamb covered with seco sauce (coriander and beer sauce) is decadent. The lamb we were served fell apart like a dream and the taste was just that. The Peruvian rice served with the lamb is great too but the lamb just stole the entire show. It was at this stage that we were all getting pretty full and satisfied and dessert was still to come.
The staff are fairly well drilled here on the dishes but some need to speak more clearly when explaining them because of the lack of familiarity of most diners to this cuisine. Service on the whole was fair to good in a semi-busy Friday lunch period. It was lucky that the teething problems in the fitout (a leaking water pipe one table away from where we were initially seated) did not affect us besides moving tables. Overall, there is a lot to like here, and many of the staff seem energised by being able to educate Melburnians about Peruvian food.
On to dessert and it was really tasty but a bit of an odd dish to share between the three of us. The “suspiro a la limenas” creamy Peruvian caramel with port meringues was playful, tasty, but awkward as an ending. To begin, you crush the meringue and mix it through the caramel. The meringue achieves both an aesthetically pleasing presentation and a nice texture through the caramel. The caramel itself is rich and luxurious but I really would have liked one for myself!
As I think about the Peruvian style food I shared with mates a week ago I find myself wanting to go back and try several other parts of the menu, including the alpaca. Forget some teething problems with the restaurant and the quite legitimate steep learning curve for the staff, there is plenty to like about Pastuso and it should be on everyone’s list for its diversity, uniqueness and intrigue.