Morena offers Latin American fine dining with a strong lean towards Peruvian.

In Australia, South American food is no longer an unknown quantity. Actually, I'd say Chilean and Peruvian joints are popping up all over the place. Whether you opt for the humble La Paula, the gangsta El Capo or the jazzier Porteño, there's a few options on your plate. Morena, however, is another quality entirely.

Sitting at the fancier end of the spectrum, Morena offers Latin American fine dining with a strong lean towards Peruvian. Perhaps the nicest part about this restaurant is that fancy doesn't come at the price of fun. The dishes are playful, particularly in their presentation, and plates are generally served up with a cheeky grin.

Nestled in one of the newer corners of Surry Hills, the space feels open and fresh, shaded with subtle cool. This is the result of partner/architect Sumedh Kataria who worked with Metalab on the design. Think recycled timber, hints of hand-woven fabric and glass terraria hanging throughout. Surrounding the dining room with glass also has the unexpected advantage of immersing you in the aura of twilight as you work your way through the courses - if you time your meal just right.

While South American food doesn't quite feel unfamiliar, this menu is still a bit of a challenge for first-time diners. We take our waiter's advice and opt for the six course degustation menu, titled 'A Taste of Peru', available with ($140) or without ($110) matching wines. It turns out to be a good choice, with the double advantage of education and degustation, as the design of the menu brings chef Alejandro Saravia's passion for particular Preuvian ingredients to the fore.

The amuse bouche is a mandarin ceviche - an appropriately juicy and fresh way to begin. This is followed by the real thing: a ceviche of pink snapper which is beautifully cured and marinated using aji amarillo, made from the fresh chillies that observant visitors will have spotted in the entrance. Also in the mix is caramelised sweet potato and cancha (toasted corn), which delivers a satisfying crunch.

The green tamal (more recognisable in its plural form, as 'tamales') is a treat, particularly when paired with the confit duck. The 2008 Plantagenet Chardonnay is a surprisingly good match for this dish, bold and toasty. Next up is the barramundi fillet, pan fried and served with chalaca salsa, papa seca (a Peruvian potato), green beans and sautéed baby spinach. This perhaps wouldn't have stood out if ordering a la carte, but is a nice addition to the menu. The grass-fed charcoal beef striploin is the weakest point in this menu, though the yellow potatoes and huancaina sauce are intriguing.

The final plate is about as Peruvian as one could hope for: a tres leche cake with incaberry compote. Despite how lovely this is, the star is its partner, Morena's own emoliente. A digestive infused with just the right degree of medicinal herbs, it's the perfect bookend to the tour.

This visit, however, was only a first taste. Morena justifies many many more - one to the pisco bar alone, which is Australia's first and features the restaurant's own infusions.

Published on March 22, 2012 by Trish Roberts

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