26th March 2015
19 ACDC Lane
Melbourne, VIC 3000
When I think I’ve just about seen eaten it all, Melbourne finds another way to surprise me, and this time it’s with Pastuso. Led by head chef Alejandro, who has done his hard yards around the globe, including at Heston’s The Fat Duck, Pastuso is a re-imagining of classic Peruvian cuisine. I find the clash of cultures in this cuisine to be fascinating – European meets Asian, plus a healthy dash of indigenous South African. Tonight however, I’m here to experience the influence of Chinese cuisine on Peruvian food at Pastuso’s Chifa Dinner ($85pp; +$40pp for matching wines), as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.
Pastuso is located at the bottom of the hill, down ACDC (yes, ACϞDC) lane. Though the signage is in lush, gold script, you don’t get a good feel for the restaurant until you actually walk inside. And I have to admit I was surprised – Pastuso was exceedingly lovely, consisting of lots of dark wood and intimate corners, juxtaposed with lurid posters and banquet tables. Tonight however, it’s been given a dose of the oriental with a spate of paper lanterns, and I love it.
To kick off the evening, Alejandro gave a short introduction on Peruvian food, whilst the people who opted in for matching wines enjoyed a tumbler of Iris Vermouth Blanco, clinking and glistening with ice cubes. Though initially sweet and light, it quickly released a burst of warm spices and festive notes of citrus. If this is what all vermouth tastes like, then consider me a fan.
Our first course was the Empanada Achifada. Cutting through the fancy name though, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is no more (or less) than a good fried wonton. Whilst the skin was blistered and crispy, the filling of pork and crab was juicy and succulent.
What I liked the most though was the accompanying ginger and lemon dipping sauce – it gave the simple starter a sharp and memorable kick.
Much more substantial was the Chifa Barbeque Platter, presented to diners with many oohs and ahhs.
The barbeque pork was my first taste of Peru. Not only was it slightly pink and very tender like any good roast pork should be, this one also carried with it a smokiness that was laced with exotic spices. Served on the side were paper-thin slices of house-pickled daikon, its vinegary zest the ideal accompaniment to the rich meat.
On the other side of the board was a serve of traditional Peking duck. Once again, the execution was flawless; the breast showcased the cut’s silken smoothness, whilst the shredded thigh was sweeter and fattier, and topping it off were sinfully crispy shards of duck skin. We ate it the traditional way, wrapped in the soft pancakes with a piece of cucumber. I found the result to be rather dry and wondered why there wasn’t any sauce to go with it. Now that I read over the menu again, I realised that it was supposed to have been served with a pisco, honey and aji panca sauce, so that was a little disappointing. But hey, I got to have some great duck and barbeque pork.
Sandwiched by the more indulgent dishes was the more subtle dish of Sudado de Bonito, which consisted of a slow-cooked bonito fillet, served with rolled up rice noodles and Chinese greens in a subtle broth.
This was the only dish of the night that I didn’t enjoy. Whilst the fish was cooked to pearly, opalescent perfection, everything else was bland. I had expected a stronger stock to impart more flavour to the delicate fish, and although it had a beautiful hint of umami from the seafood and shiitake mushrooms, the lack of salt did it no favours.
So it was just as well that the Lomo Saltado was fantastic. Though it looked very much like a traditional roast dinner, what made all the difference was the spicy soy-based gravy, flavoured with caramelised onions and spices. It was a bold and unique mix of flavours that had me soaking up the dregs with the fluffy potatoes.
And let’s take a moment to appreciate the perfect medium-rare-ness of the juicy, flavoursome wagyu beef.
And to go with the beef was a side of fried rice. Though it went back to being very much Chinese, the ample use of dried shrimp gave it an extra element of briny flavour and chewy texture.
I usually spend my Christmases with Chris’ family, and one of his aunties always makes the most amazing trifle. And although our dessert was called the Ensalada de Fruta, the combination of fruit jelly, pandan sponge, and rice pudding custard sounded like a trifle to me!
We chewed and slurped and crunched our way through the mess of jelly, cream, and lollies. This was a delicious candy-coloured-and-flavoured concoction, and a complete riot of fun. On the side was am odd-tasting plantain spring roll that I didn’t like very much, and a couple of exceedingly sugary and buttery house-made fortune cookies that I liked very much indeed.
According to the master fortune teller at Pastuso (that’s who writes their fortunes, right?), both Chris and I should exercise less.
But wait, I hear you ask, what about the wine? If you read my blog much at all, you’ll realise I’m not much of an alcohol person. Couple that with needing to drive home on my P-plates meant that I couldn’t do the matched wines justice. But I did have a go, and here it is:
Wine 1: Tiattelli Vineyards Torrontes 2013 Premium Reserve – a crisp and citrusy white, but with a surprisingly sweet aftertaste.
Wine 2: Humberto Canale Estate Pinot Noir 2013 – tart but surprisingly juicy.
Wine 3: Bodega la Azul – another red, but this time the flavour was sweet and spicy.
I told you I wasn’t good at wines.
Despite it feeling a little pedestrian, I had a good time at Pastuso’s Chifa Dinner. Whilst I probably wouldn’t be jumping at the chance to have another of what admittedly felt like a mostly Chinese meal, the wagyu beef left me extremely eager to come back and explore Peru some more. Just as soon as I get a job.
Rating: 13.5/20 – keen for more.
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit.
Sweet and Sour Fork dined as a guest of Pastuso.