We need a new term to describe places like Pastuso. Restaurant doesn’t cut it. It’s not just that it’s equally a bar, but that the primary draw isn’t really the food and drink at all – as good as much of it is. It’s the sheer user-friendliness and atmosphere that makes this new Peruvian-flavoured venue shine like a well-buffed dollar.
Head left as you enter for pisco central – the glowing bronze bar where Peruvian brandy, lime and egg whites are being frothed into a million Pisco Sours. It’s here you might order up a plate of croquettes filled with shredded, cumin-y beef, raisins and olives. That’s a 30-minute business meeting, first date, or pre-gig snack all sewn up.
Beyond lie pockets of tables with a luminous backing of technicolour street art. There’s a bright marble ceviche bar, and a grill station where you’re front-and-centre as crimson cubes of beef heart are charred over the giant grill. But then you can also slink into the deep, dark leather banquettes up the back. Anything’s possible – Time Out even held our Food Awards here.
So what are you here for? To uncover the wonders of Peruvian cuisine? There are discoveries to be made. Pork belly cubes are coated in crunchy quinoa like meat Lamingtons, freshened up with pickled daikon. Peruvian also has some Japanese influences. From the ceviche bar, you’ll find prawns marinated in white miso then laid on a big cake of salt and torched till they curl up, beautifully charry, seasoned and sweet. And then there’s the ceviche itself – big jewels of snapper tumbled in the traditional ‘tiger’s milk’ (lime juice, coriander and chilli), and laid over thin slices of sweet potato.
Head chef Alejandro Saravia is delivering a modernised, Melbourn-ised Peruvian menu. That means small plates (citrusy, charred whitebait on a cornbread crisp are a one-bite wonder – and $5, which stings) and they have a tendency to deliver everything at once. We’ve learnt to order in waves. This is food best served hot and fresh off the grill, such as those rare beef heart skewers, joined on the plate by tender grilled swordfish, all dressed in a sweet-piquant salsa of aji amarillo chillies, with a rubble of diced zucchini, potato, eggplant and corn. Meat-wise, the rotisserie chicken is a smoky, salty and tender heap of bird. The roasted alpaca shoulder is interesting to taste – like a cross between beef and lamb – but sadly, it’s a little bland. Same goes for the quinoa cooked in almond milk with pine mushrooms.
In truth, how much you love Pastuso will depend on what you come here for. There are standout dishes, (see the scorched tres leches cake soaked in condensed milk with roasted pineapple ice cream) but for us, Pastuso’s charm lies more in its beauty, and energy. It’s in the feeling that you’re at the party everyone wants to be at.