This is the man who introduced me to Peruvian food back in 2009. It was the first time that I tasted many exotic ingredients that I have never had before and also never thought I would, including quinoa, Andean purple corn, chia seeds, beef heart and of course, alpaca meat. He had travelled around the world, honing his chef skills at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck, Sydney's Pier Restaurant and also Sails at Lavender Bay. In October 2011, this man has finally opened his first Peruvian restaurant named MORENA, in the heart of Surry Hills. He is going to seduce Sydney with exquisite Peruvian food that reflects the natural Latin passionate charm. And his name is Alejandro Saravia.
Our little GBSC was way overdue for another dinner outing together. To organise and get all the boys to come out for a gastronomic adventure is seemingly effortless. I grabbed the opportunity and suggested Morena for our 3rd dinner outing, something a little bit more sophisticated than deep-frieds. The anticipations from the boys speak louder than words. I think when Johnnie Boy rocks up at the restaurant with his Chuyo Inka hat made from alpaca wool that he bought in Lima rather give it away.
The word 'Morena' in Spanish is used to describe women who are brunette, dark skin and brown eyes, perhaps that's where the inspiration comes from for the decor of the restaurant. Designed by co-owner of the restaurant and architect, Sumedh Kataria, the L-shape restaurant is painted in shades of dark brown, recycled timber screen to keep the open plan kitchen less obtrusive from the dimly lit dining area, a framed picture of Machu Picchu is hanging on the wall right above us, banquette seating along the wall is upholstered in inca-patterns fabric for that Peruvian touch.
Everyone who works in Morena has that Latin American passionate warmth. Our waiter is extremely friendly and helpful, he explains every single detail on the dishes as they arrive at our table, with a smidgen of his personal life story back in Peru.
We kick off the evening with a round of cocktails mixed with Pisco, a national grape brandy produced in Peru and Chile. Pisco Sour, the ubiquitous Peruvian drink is a refreshing sour cocktail, a simple concoction of Peruvian pisco, sugar syrup, lime juice and then finish it off with an inch of egg white foam on top and a drop of Angostura bitters. It is like a mojito for the Cuban but without the mint. We also try the Coca sour, the cocktail is more or less the same as the pisco sour except this time the pisco used is infused with Coca leaves that gives the cocktail a herbal tea flavour. Coca leaf is best known as the medicinal agent to beat high altitude sickness in Peru by chewing the leaves or brewed as tea.
Let's be honest, when I think about Latin American food, I am thinking street food, home cook stew, grilled, fried, food that you like to eat with both hands and let the juices run down the forearms. There is nothing like that here at Morena, it is a formal fine dining experience, a lot of the dishes are Peruvian classics but being vamped up to be presented on white porcelain plates.
Amuse bouche of mandarin sorbet with aji amarillo dressing are presented in front of us as soon as we placed our orders. The yellow chilli is considered a staple in Peruvian cooking, it has a pleasant fruity heat level but not enough to make you sweat, it gives you a slight burning sensation in the mouth but soon washes away by the sweetness of the cooling mandarin sorbet.
Our waiter is back with a woven basket of warm bread rolls. These house baked bread roll are as soft as the fluffy clouds, happily soaking up the delicate extra-virgin olive oil infused with coriander seeds and black peppercorn. But it is the attention of details with the egg wash glaze and a sprinkle of quinoa on top just make these rolls a tad more special.
As there are quite a number of dishes we like to try on the menu, so we decide to only order the entrees to start and see how we go before we decide the main afterwards. The Peruvian ceviche is a simple, elegant, refreshing dish to start our meal with, cubes of raw pink snapper is cooked in the citrusy lime and lemon juice with a hint of Aji chilli for a little heat, sweetened by the tiny orange pearls of sweet potato, a few kernels of cancha (toasted corn) add a nice crunchy contrast to the fish.
These golf-ball size croquettes disappear just as quick as they arrive at the table. The croquettes are made with cassava, which gives it a starchier texture, it is also sweeter than those made potato or flour. But it is the Manchego cheese that dominates the flavour of the croquette, it is strong, creamy and with a subtle tartness of the sheep's milk. They are served with Huancaina sauce, I do find the Peruvian yellow chilli and cheese base sauce is a little mild.
Tonight's meal is accompanied by 2009 Rio Mendoza Malbec from Argentina. It was a unanimous decision because the word "chocolate" on the description is the magic word. The Malbec has a great dark reddish maroon colour, it is pretty smooth with a velvety texture and not much tannins, but this particular Malbec has a slightly smoky aftertaste which is rather unique.
This is Morena's interpretation of a popular Peruvian street snack food, Anticucho de Corazon, which is calf heart on a skewer. The calf heart here has been slow cooked for 24 hours and the thin crispy bread sticks resemble the skewers. The thing slices of calf heart has the texture of a liver, but incredibly tender from the slow cooking, served with kipfler potatoes, and Andean corn that is lot chewier then sweet corn. This is a must order dish.
Alejandro had been playing with Alpaca meat and tried many different methods. This is a relatively new dish on the menu, the Alpaca meat has been brined and dried to make pastrami, and has also been stuffed into sausages. The 30 days aged Alpaca pastrami taste almost as good as prosciutto but a lot leaner hence it is not as velvety smooth. The alpaca sausage I believe has also been cured and dried, I find it very dry and tough once cooked, possibly will go well with beer and treat it like a snack. The dish is served with pickled salad and quinoa on the side.
We order our mains only after we finished our entrees, which is a little gamble as it can take a long while to prepare before we are getting served again. But the kitchen is efficient, and we only have to wait no more than 20 minutes before the dishes start to arrive at our table. We can't help but requested to have our waiter explains each dish in Spanish... oh so sexy... everything taste better in Spanish...
First main we share is the bonito fillet, it is simply steamed to just cooked through, the delicate flesh is not as dry as tuna, the soft texture is contrasted with a coat of crunchy toasted quinoa on top. The fillet is balancing on a baked press potato stack, surrounded with a touch of winter baby vegetables.
Before serving, the waiter pours a clear broth of quinoa consomme as the finishing touch.
We can't dine in a Peruvian restaurant without tasting the alpaca. Alejandro told us that the alpaca is sourced directly from an alpaca farm down south in Berry, NSW. I don't remember we were asked how we want our alpaca cutlets, but the two alpaca cutlets are cooked to a perfect medium rare, the red juicy meat is tender and most of us agree that it tasted just like lamb. The cutlets are served a filler of northern Peruvian style rice with pea puree; a few small Malagueta chillies are powerful and deadly, they hould be handled with care.
Despite lomo saltado is a Peruvian dish with Asian influences, the Morena version is nothing like it and definitely looks more sophiscated than a stir fried beef sirloin in soy sauce and capsicums. On a black slate tile is 300g grass fed beef sirloin cooked to medium rare, the lomo saltado style here is a simple sweet and vinegar onion jam. The velvet texture of the sirloin is to die for, my knife cuts straight through effortlessly and the beef simply melts in the mouth. It is served with papa amarilla, the Peruvian yellow potatoes are imported all the way from Peru, of course.
These are the cutest potatoes I've ever seen, the flesh inside is as yellow as butter, it is dense and grainy in texture. Good thing that they are tiny, they are actually quite filling.
A side of handcut chips is always popular at the table, batons of potato are stacked up neatly like Jenga, served with huancaina, a yellow cheesy sauce and ocopa, green dipping sauce made of peanuts, herbs and chillies.
We also ordered a simple Solterito salad to accompany the meaty dishes. Traditionally a Solterito salad is consists of lima beans and choclo corns, here the salad is a colourful mix of green peas, choclo corn kernels, dry olives, homemade queso fresco cheese, two soft poached cherry tomatoes and finish it off with a subtle heat of aji amarillo dressing. I find the queso fresco is very similar to fetta, soft and salty. I love nibbling on the corn kernels as they are much starchier than sweet corn, it gives the dish something to chew on.
Three bottles of Rio Mendoza later, we are definitely getting rowdier, if not the loudest in the restaurant. (Sorry!) I blame the Latin American air that I am breathing in at the restaurant.
It will be a lie if we aren't full by now, but there is always an emergency stomach space for dessert. We all have a round of Emoliente, a dessert wine specially hand crafted in Morena. It is a refreshing digestif, served with a cube of ice, the amber colour liquid is very sweet with herbal tea flavours, if I didn't know it is a dessert wine, I probably wouldn't think there is any alcohol content in it.
We order two dessert platters to cover all 6 desserts on the menu to share. I do like the novelty of table service, as soon as the dessert arrives at the table, our waiter gentle pours an orange syrup onto the dessert right in front of us, I can't wait to taste them.
Three small pillows of Ecuadorian chocolate and cheese dumplings have the texture of jelly, the vivid orange consomme is intense and tangy which sadly overpowers the subtle chocolate flavour, I can't really taste any cheese.
Pretty as a picture is the Marshmallow de Incaberry, cubes of soft marshmallow made with Incaberry gives it a sour tingling flavour, the purple corn jelly reminds me of the purple flavour jubes; all the sour components on the dessert is balanced with a quenelle of silky smooth white chocolate mousse, which is more like a light ganache.
The crocante de Pecanas is a favourite at the table. Again, the mousse is as rich as a ganache, the dark chocolate is velvety smooth, served with a shard of pecan snaps, but everyone is loving the cchocolate ice cream spiked with rocoto, another type of chilli pepper from South American.
All other fabulous desserts make the Milhojas looks tame and doesn't get as much praise as it deserves. It is an interesting combo of creamy rice mousse with crispy pastry, then served with a scoop of cinnamon parfait that is creamy and spiced like Christmas. A small spoonful of macerated tart strawberry salad on top is a nice addition to the sweetness.
The best of the best hands down!
Morena takes the classic Tres Leches to a whole new level of awesomeness. The block of yellow cake has been soaked in "three types of milk" and then it seems like has been toasted to form a caramelised skin on the outside. The extra toasty bit does give the humble cake a nice caramel toffee flavour. And the best part, the sweetness is balanced beautifully with a scoop of tangy pineapple ice cream, it is a killer combo! It is my favourite dessert of the night.
The four hours meal was absolutely a memorable one. We are slowly easing into the night with some petit fours of the purple corn jellies again and also some lemon shortbread with dulce de leche filling. No one seems to want coffee, but instead we get two Kuntsmann ale from Chile to sample, very malty, very much like a Belgium beer.
Alejandro comes to our table for a chat, we learn more about the ingredients used on the menu and where they are sourced from. But sadly Alejandro confirms that the fat rodent, guinea pig will not make it on the menu. He emphasises Morena is about using the best ingredients in the country but stay true to Peruvian flavours. "If people want guinea pig, they simply have to go to Peru, they are nice and fat there."
Morena 15/425 Bourke St.
Surry Hills, Australia 2010
P: 0405 902 896
Lunch Fri - sun 12.00pm - 3pm
Dinner Tue - Sun 6pm till late