It seemed only right to follow up our recent blog post on London’s hot opening of 2012 – Lima – with a look at Piqueos. Just as the former has formed part of a growing interest in South American food over in the UK, we are sure this intimate Carlton North venue is going to finally signal the start of Melbourne’s much anticipated exploration of Peruvian, Argentine and Chilean cuisine. For a look at what is happening over in Blighty, this great post by The London Foodie will bring you up to speed.
Now, I have to confess, we got so excited at the thought of an evening of tangy and frothy pisco sours and large glasses of malbec that some memories of the evening are a little hazy. The martinis at Gerald’s Bar just down the road probably didn’t help, but we know and love our South American staples well enough to know the food, ambiance and fit out was spot-on perfect. It just means we have to head back here as soon as possible with our responsible hats on.
We perched at the bar to get a good look at the action and were immediately presented with a regularly replenished bowl of paprika and chilli-spiked popcorn. Good bar snacks, the salty hit making the pisco slip down all too easily – Chile and Peru might argue over who invented this spirit, but after a few, you will be happily raising a glass to both parties – let’s all just agree to get along.
Looking for a little bite to get you started? The ‘piqueos’ section provides just that. Humita – corn husk filled with grilled corn puree – resembles baby food but tastes creamy and fresh, and at $6 is a satisfyingly different taster of what is to come. Earthy and authentic flavours.
Hamburguesa de Milanesa – mini hamburger with veal schnitzel, lettuce, pickled zucchini and aji amarillo mayonnaise – seems to be an attempt at a South American slider. It is tasty with its tangy zucchini and a nice crumb on the schnitzel, but not sure it is a necessary addition to the tight menu. Is veal really a South American meat? At least the aji amarillo (hot yellow pepper) added an indigenous flavour.
Then there are a selection of empanadas – dense, buttery pastry filled with rich and tasty goodness. Think a South American take on the Cornish pasty. Carne – beef, olive and hard-boiled egg – and queso – cheese, potato and grilled onion. At only $4.50 we quickly snapped up another beef one. Loved that they were served on photocopies of peso bank notes. Nice touch and reminded of us seeing what looked like money (sadly, just replicas) fluttering in the wind at various festivals across the continent.
Food came out at considered and sensible intervals, and we promise that next time we will take a healthy stance and opt for one of the two tasty-looking salads – probably the super- food studded red and black quinoa with pomegranate and radicchio.
Raciones are next, and cebiche is a must. Today’s locally caught fresh fish is blue-eye trevalla – small cubes of which are mixed with red onion, rocoto chilli puree, sweetcorn and lime. Zingy with a satisfying meaty bite to the macerated fish.
Hot off the parilla (charcoal grill) we go for the churrasco: 300g Little Creek grass-fed sirloin, marinated for 24-hours in chimichurri – Argentina’s beloved herby and garlicky blend that is used as a rub or mixed with oil and vinegar to make a marinade and sauce.
The side of chargrilled eggplant and chunks of roasted sweet potato once again offers up a humble simplicity that demonstrates you don’t have to do show-off cooking to make an impression. Cloves of roasted skin-on garlic scattered about the plate make this a winner in my mind.
We get chatting to the super-amiable and very knowledgeable Shaun Burke who, along with Dave Mills, owns the place – both hailing from London’s Gaucho and Floridita. With this food pedigree, it’s easy to see where they learned their love for all things South American. Ex-Rockpool chef Daniel Salcedo is in the kitchen and is achieving great things – after only a few weeks of business this place already runs like clockwork.
We didn’t think we could do dessert, but then spotted the suspiro Limeno (the sigh of a woman in Lima, yes really, this is what it is called). Meringue gets a Peruvian makeover with this glossy plum pisco version. It is a dream, a cloud, a sigh sitting on top of the dulce de leche – sweet and whipped into a fluffy frenzy (like the pisco sours that are whisked using a milkshake maker) it tastes like candyfloss for grown-ups. We are impressed, and it only costs $5.
Piqueos is just the right amount of rustic – we especially like the wine barrel service stations – and just the right amount of innovative. An accessible taste of South American cuisine for Melbourne’s city slickers.