The first rule of Peruvian ceviche is that it must be drowning in sauce.

“A dry ceviche is no good,” the server at the CBD’s new Latin American restaurant Morena says as he pours leche de tigre from a small glass jug over diced snapper and octopus. The flash-cured seafood topped with crunchy corn kernels, sweet potato and red seaweed is opening night’s tableside ceviche.

It’s just one of four ceviche and aguachile dishes in the Renascence Group’s first Sydney venue. Morena is in Martin Place’s grand 150-year-old GPO building, and is the sister restaurant to Melbourne’s Farmer’s Daughters and Victoria by Farmer’s Daughters, where executive chef (and a major force in Victoria’s dining scene) Alejandro Saravia celebrates the vibrant food culture of Latin America.

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“We want people to recognise and enjoy our cuisine not just as street food or casual dining,” Saravia tells Broadsheet. The chef will split his time between Sydney and the group’s Melbourne venues. “We’re offering a formal, refined experience without taking away the colourful characteristics of our culture. It’s important to have the right balance of formality and also make sure people feel warm and welcomed.”

Dishes inspired by Saravia’s native Peru feature heavily, such as robata-grill-charred ox tongue anticuchos (skewered meat dishes) and lomo saltado, a Chifa (Peruvian-Chinese) dish. “Lomo saltado is a Peruvian staple. It’s beef with onions and tomatoes stir-fried in a succulent sauce with plenty of wok hei [smoky wok flavor]. We’re using eye fillet, which isn’t traditional, but we wanted to elevate the dish and use the best quality ingredients.”

Dishes from across the region are on show: Argentinian swordfish Milanesa (breaded cutlet) with a yerba mate sauce; fried Venezuelan eggplant arepas; a wobbly Bolivian goat’s cheese custard with colourful potato crisps; and a crisp-skinned Kaloola suckling pig fore quarter finished with a spiced jus and a tart, herb-packed Cuban mojo sauce.

The wine list is the biggest collection of Latin American wines in Australia. There are over 200 bottles across Old and New World varieties, including plenty of natural wines. “It’s not just Malbec from Argentina,” Saravia says.

Morena took over part of the space once occupied by Intermezzo, and the new fit-out pays respect to the history of the building. The floors are rich herringbone timber, and checkerboard tiles surround the marble-topped bar. The long room with windows overlooking Martin Place is flanked by an open kitchen to one side, and a private dining room to the other. Gilt-framed paintings from Saravia’s grandmother’s collection in Peru adorn the walls and dramatic, original, white-frosted glass pendant light fixtures hang from the ceiling. There are postcards (and stamps) on hand if you’re inspired to send a note, which staff will post for you in the bright-red box just outside Morena’s dining room.

The restaurant offers diners a piece of Latin America in Sydney, but Saravia is not trying to be truly “authentic”.

“I strongly believe traditional cuisines are only pure in their country of origin. You can try to bring back memories with food, and to create a sense of home, but it’s very difficult to replicate that in a new country. If we can have people closing their eyes when they taste arepas or suckling pig and imagine they are experiencing a part of Latin America though, we are winning. That’s the biggest accolade we can have as a restaurant.”

Morena
Sydney GPO, No 1 Martin Place, Sydney

Hours:
Mon to Sat 11.30am–late
Coffee window from 7am

morenarestaurant.com.au
@morena.sydney