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Pastuso, Melbourne

Chef and co-owner Alejandro Saravia at the pisco bar

Chef and co-owner Alejandro Saravia at the pisco bar

A sassy laneway restaurant brings the magic of modern Peruvian cuisine to Melburnians, writes Michael Harden.

Pastuso is the original Peruvian name of Paddington Bear. It's also the name of the pumping new Peruvian restaurant in Melbourne's ACDC Lane. But aside from the shared ethnicity, the similarities stop there. There's nothing even slightly rumpled or confused about Pastuso the restaurant. It's a sleek, well-formed creature perfectly at home in its Melbourne laneway habitat.

That Peru is currently one of the world's culinary hotspots has done nothing to harm Pastuso's street cred, as the immediate crowds have attested. But there's more going on here than bandwagon jumping, despite the lurid fluoro presence of the chicha posters and the various forms of alpaca meat on the menu. Sure, this is a restaurant with a theme, but it's also one with its fundamentals in place.

Having Peruvian chef Alejandro Saravia on board as both chef and co-owner is one such important fundamental. Saravia brings an intimate knowledge of Peruvian cooking, a background in modern Western cuisine (The Fat Duck and Sydney's Pier are both on his CV) and, after spending eight years in Sydney, an understanding of how Australians like to eat. He's also become expert in sourcing the kind of ingredients he needs for his modern Peruvian dishes.

To do this he's developed a balancing act - honed at his previous restaurant, Sydney's Morena - which includes mixing imported ingredients (varieties of Peruvian chilli, in particular, that he imports himself) with local substitutes. And so the "modern Peruvian" label at Pastuso speaks more about adapting traditional dishes to Melbourne than any modish culinary sorcery.

Dishes such as his brilliant version of Afro-Peruvian street dish anticuchos illustrate perfectly the way Saravia rolls. In the Pastuso version, swordfish and beef heart, a brilliant surf-and-turf combination, are threaded on skewers and grilled over coals. Tying the proteins together is a paste-like brick-red sauce flavoured with mirasol and aji amarillo chillies - more citric and aromatic than hot - and the aromatic Peruvian herb huacatay. It all sits on a bed of diced potatoes, zucchini and slightly caramelised corn kernels that provides a comforting, homely backdrop to the punchy skewers.

Another dish, meanwhile, las papas y vegetales pachamanqueros, is based on a traditional hangi-like Peruvian technique involving buried and roasted root vegetables. Here, sans earth pit, carrots, pumpkin and several varieties of potato are roasted in paperbark and served with pachamanca sauce, a strongly herbal number that mixes huacatay, Thai basil, coriander and marjoram with corn "beer".

It adds a fermented, light vinegary flavour that works brilliantly with the earthy, smoky vegetables.

Mixing and matching isn't limited to the food. The room also draws on influences from different places, cultures and times, giving the space both a retro and modern feel.

It starts before you're inside. Pastuso sits down the end of ACDC Lane (a covetable address if ever there was one) and faces you as you walk down the cobbled laneway. There's a low-slung, diner-ish quality that makes it feel as if it could have been there for several decades. The large illuminated curling font of the main sign and the clear sightlines through the front windows to the action of the main kitchen create a visual drumroll to accompany the literal drumming that's often emanating from rock dive-bar Cherry, one of Pastuso's neighbours.

Inside, the room is cleverly divided via three separate bars and an assortment of distinct dining areas. One bar surrounds the main kitchen where the char-grill and the coal-fired smokers are fired up. Another is a 1960s-leaning copper-topped number near the front door where bartenders dispense a 10-strong list of pisco cocktails (including a Pisco Negroni where Quebranta pisco replaces the usual gin). The third, in the centre of the space, is the ceviche bar, a quite lovely marble-topped structure with a dining table-like extension on one end that allows a half-circle of punters to become audience to white-clad chefs cooking raw fish in citrus juices.

Add the private rooms over to one side, a raised area at the back that's all dark colours and leather banquettes, and a couple of carpeted and tiled dining areas and you have a space delivering variety and atmosphere in spades.

Given the pedigree of the group behind Pastuso, the success of the room is not surprising. Brothers David and Michael Parker and husband and wife team Renee and Jason McConnell (yes, he's one of those McConnells, cousin to Andrew, Matt and Shaun) also own Argentine grill San Telmo. There they brought an almost unsettling degree level of Buenos Aires authenticity to the place by importing everything from traditional parrilla to antique doors.

They've teamed with architects SMLWRLD this time and the fit-out is less literal, more confident and more successful. It feels as much Melbourne as South America, as much old-school diner as modern restaurant, as much bar as eating house.

There's a less literal take with the wine list, too.

The well-priced list spends time in South America (Argentina and Chile mainly, with the occasional foray into Uruguay), but there's also plenty of stuff from Spain and Portugal and a decent local showing that includes Barossa grenache (2013, First Drop) and Yarra Valley chardonnay (2012, Journey Wines).

It's a list that's in sync with the style of food being served. Its default setting is easy-drinking rather than challenging, a good thing when the flavours coming from the kitchens are so robust.

The ceviche bar in particular offers quite the range of robust. Much on its list is balanced and artfully flavoured, the citrus not trying to shout over the top of everything else and prevented from "cooking" the raw fish too much. The swordfish ceviche, for example, is thinly sliced, topped with baby shiso leaves and a light spicy sauce made with aji amarillo chillies, and is a sophisticated and rational kind of dish. A flamed prawn number (the prawns arrive with charred edges after being flamed on a block of pink salt) also displays admirable balance despite the odd-sounding group of fellow ingredients that include turnip purée and white miso.

Other times, particularly with the traditional tiger's milk marinade, served here in shot glasses filled with three different kinds of "milk" and cubes of snapper, it can feel like being slapped. The citrus seems way out of wack - too harsh and uncompromising and leaving no room for any nuance.

There's no such complaint with the meatier side of the list. Lamb comes via the cilindro, a traditional Peruvian charcoal smoker and slow-cooker. The leg is covered in a seco sauce of dark beer, lamb stock and coriander and is slow-cooked overnight for about 10 hours. The hours do their job. The meat is tender, rich, deeply flavoured and thoroughly satisfying.

Also excellent is the roasted Peruvian chicken that's brined and then marinated in a mixture of coriander, cumin, three varieties of pepper, dark beer, soy sauce, red wine vinegar and sugar for 24 hours. The result, after roasting, is one of the finest chooks in the city: juicy, full of the bird's flavour, but also crazy happy with salty, earthy, umami-marinated goodness.

There are good vegetable dishes, too, like a brilliant combination of silverbeet stems, red-vein sorrel, confit onion hearts and crunchy garlic chips that provides one of those rare life moments when you get to feel virtuous and satisfied simultaneously.

This being a South American restaurant, there's also caramel in the mix. Pastuso's version is a super-sweet number called suspiro a la Limeña (pictured above) combining caramel made from condensed milk, egg yolks and a little glucose with tiny cubes of poached apples and currants macerated in vinegar. It arrives in a jar lidded with a disc of port and Pedro Ximénez-flavoured meringue that you smash and then mix into the caramel, adding texture and further sweetness.

The doughnuts, called picarones, are another Afro-Peruvian favourite. Made with sweet potato and pumpkin, they're fried to a deep brown, sugared and accompanied by a sticky syrup made with pineapple, apple, cinnamon, star anise and cloves. For those in need of a little more sugar, there's a small dish of white chocolate mousse infused with cinnamon on the side.

There's nothing rumpled, displaced or even slightly forlorn about Pastuso. It leaves those moves to its namesake. Instead, this is a smart, sexy restaurant, one where design, drinks, food, service and location band confidently together to create a particular and very attractive frisson. It's a good permanent addition for the city repertoire and will remain so, even after the Peruvian boat has sailed.

19 ACDC La, Melbourne, (03) 9662 4556. Licensed.
Cards AE DC M V EFT.
Open Daily noon-late.
Prices Entrées $11-$18, main courses $24-$50, desserts $10-$20.
Vegetarian Five entrées.
Noise Rowdy.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Plus Sprightly Peruvian cooking in a super-slick setting.
Minus Citric onslaught can overwhelm some dishes.

Online bonus
Pastuso playlist

Looking for more Melbourne dining options? Check out our list of the best restaurants in Melbourne.

19 ACDC La, Melbourne, (03) 9662 4556. Licensed.
Cards AE DC M V EFT.
Open Daily noon-late.
Prices Entrées $11-$18, main courses $24-$50, desserts $10-$20.
Vegetarian Five entrées.
Noise Rowdy.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Plus Sprightly Peruvian cooking in a super-slick setting.
Minus Citric onslaught can overwhelm some dishes.

Online bonus
Pastuso playlist

Looking for more Melbourne dining options? Check out our list of the best restaurants in Melbourne.

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