Sassy and styled, Morena restaurant is giving Sydney a boost in the right direction. It shows a side of South American culture beyond kitschy pre-conceptions; even travelling to South America on a regular basis and being a big fan of South American cuisines, I was impressed with Morena’s particular take on it. Through passionate chefs such as this we take on new culinary challenges. First of all it’s important you go with no pre-conceptions of Peruvian cuisine (even if you’ve been there!). Go with eagerness to learn new flavours and to sit and talk to your friends over a lovely dinner. Yes, you can talk here. The ‘scene’ here is all about sharing with great friends; enjoying together food cooked with passion by a great chef, who is also one of the owners.
Morena is owned by chef Alejandro Saravia and his business partner Sumedh Kataria, an architect, who did the interior design. It is a dream come true for Alejandro, who hails from Peru, which is known for some of the most sophisticated restaurants in the world.
Arriving at Morena, in the St. Margaret’s complex in Surry Hills, make sure you notice the entrance with its lovely herb garden in the front window. This lets you know someone is paying close attention to where the food is coming from. The dining room is small and minimal in its look but has a casual warmth about it. The coloured classic fabric for the banquettes has been chosen to add a bit of splash to the room and give you a sophisticated South American flair.
Service was casual but prompt and efficient on the night we dined here. The music was perfect for the setting; I dreamed I was back in Brazil a few times, hearing familiar female Brazilian singers inviting me to visit another life. It created a bit of sway in the room without overstepping the food, which was the star.
Pisco sours were first to hit the table. They are not to be missed, with their frothy egg white topping and perfect sweet and sour balance. Pisco is a colourless or yellowish-to-amber coloured grape brandy produced in winemaking regions of Chile and Peru. I could have drunk more of these, but was holding out for a South American red.
The meal started with Peruvian ceviche with pink snapper, cancha (toasted corn) and caramelised sweet potato. The tender freshness of the snapper with the crunch of the cancha gave this dish an elegant flavour and texture. (I love ceviche. It is perfect for the Australian summer, made from fresh seafood combined with various ingredients and marinated in lime or other citrus juices thus ‘cooking’ in their own juices. I make one in my Modern Mexican cooking class using mango, tomato, red onion and lime to set it off.)
We also tried the causas three ways. Causas are chilled potato, with wonderful toppings, like octopus. The creaminess of the potatoes against the crunchy toppings made this one of my favourites. (At Rattlesnake Grill, we used blue conga potatoes in a variation of this dish, highlighting the nearly endless variety of potatoes on offer in South America.)
For our mains we couldn’t go past the Escabeche de pato, duck breast marinated in annatto seeds and aji mirasol chillies. Escabeche is another acidic marinade (using, for example vinegar), which gives the meat an intense flavour. This method is used in a variety of cuisines, especially in South America. Asado con chimichurri played well on the tenderness of charcoal cooked short ribs against the punch of the chimichurri (parsley and garlic marinade), ensuring a great combination of high and deep flavours. Morena’s addition of a beet salad and smoked salt flakes rounded out this lovely dish. Finally the Seco de alpaca backstrap hit the table, served with a traditional coriander and beer sauce, celeriac puree and Peruvian style carapulcra (a Peruvian Andean dish of stewed dried potatoes). I am familiar with llama from my travels in Argentina; I found alpaca richer / fattier and a bit more flavourful.
We didn’t have much room for dessert but still couldn’t go past the Tres leches, which seems to jump out from everywhere when travelling in South America. It’s a traditional sponge cake soaked in three kinds of milk, served here with roasted pineapple ice cream. It’s moreish and brings the journey of South American flavours to a pleasant close.
Morena also serves piquedos (share plates) in its outside area, which might include some of your favourites like duck empanadas, cassava and manchego croquettes, baby sardines and 30-day cured Peruvian jamon. Whether for a light snack, with a Pisco sour of course, or a dinner, with excellent local ingredients, you can have a choice of different experiences.
What I love about Morena is it’s chef-owned, passionate, experimental, conscious of what a restaurant should be, trying to bring something new to the Australian palate, and doing an admirable job of it, without the shtick!
15/425 Bourke St.
Surry Hills, Australia 2010
p: +61405 902 896