Diced blue-eye trevalla ceviche at Piqueos. Photo: Eddie Jim
SHEEPSKIN BOOTS. MEAT PIES. Mateship. Russell Crowe. The Australian habit of claiming foreign-born things as our own defines us as a nation.
The barbecue, for instance. It's the very crucible of a national identity. Yet share it we must with a host of other nations, including Argentina, a country with which we share a hemisphere, a climate and a passion for red meat married to the joys of a big red (on which point we must diverge into the ''us'' and ''them'' of shiraz and malbec).
It's horribly unpatriotic to assert, but if barbecuing was a national sport - International Olympic Committee, take note - we would make the dais but the Argentinians would take gold. Sorry, but it's true.
Team Piqueos (L to R): head chef Blair Williams, sous chef Daniel Salcedo, and owners Shaun Burke and Dave Mills. Photo: Eddie Jim
Is that why Argentina has become a favoured newcomer to the dining landscape? Shared obsessions make the going easy indeed at Piqueos, a new Carlton North restaurant from two local lads (Shaun Burke and Dave Mills) who picked up the Argentinian food bug working in London. You could safely say it's trending globally.
Piqueos is an accomplished little place for two first-timers keen to show their knowledge goes deeper than ''we took a two-week holiday and this is what we ate''. They certainly know their aji amarillo from their aji rocoto (types of chilli peppers, grown for them in the Yarra Valley), and the wine list is a punchy one-page primer in the increasingly popular wines of Argentina, including torrontes and bonarda, as well as their beloved malbec.
The interior is a Buenos Aires-Melbourne co-production, the tables and bar topped in sheets of copper, masculine red brick hinting at the meaty good times to come, but enough naked filament globes dangling on cord to make any inner-suburban dweller feel quite within their comfort zone.
Piqueos is an accomplished little place. Photo: Eddie Jim
The most important bit of equipment at Piqueos is hidden from view: the parrilla, a charcoal grill that takes the base fuel of melaleuca and turns it into glowing embers by the start of service each day to the betterment of all kinds of foodstuffs that cross its path.
How good does char taste? Seriously: the almost-burnt bits pack in so much flavour and give a smoky depth to the meat without any compromising bitterness. The pop as the juices spill from expertly cooked octopus is one of those inexplicable joys. Salty olives knocking the edges off its sharp citrus sauce is another. Good stuff.
The Piqueos menu has a sub-major in Peruvian - another cuisine looming large on the horizon, of which the ceviche will be the best known. Opaque pieces of diced blue-eye trevalla, ''cooked'' in lime juice, owe their 10 tonnes of taste to a chilli paste made with the fiery aji rocoto, red onion, finely sliced coriander, sweetcorn kernels and sweet potato puree sweetly spiked with cinnamon and star anise. The cloudy liquid surrounding it (tiger's milk, they poetically call it) is tongue-curlingly zesty and totally drinkable, with or without a hangover.
Peruvians are also rather fond of beef heart, and Piqueos respects its street-food origins. The unabashed chunks marinated in vinegar and chilli before meeting the parrilla are nicely spongy in texture and a lick of chilli mayo makes an excellent sidekick.
The magic of the coals also laces sliced wagyu skirt steak, the boldly coloured, flavour-packed crust giving way to sweet pink insides riven by soft fat. It's very good - something to give the growing band of wagyu apostates reason to believe again - and the house chimichurri keeps authentically subtle on the chilli to emphasise the herbal notes.
This is more than a one-dimensional festival of meat. The menu has enough light and shade to make a properly rounded meal, kicking off with little tastes, including a single grilled scallop topped with chilli paste on mustardy mayo, and the straightforward charm of fried provolone soldered deliciously to its cast-iron pan.
Empanadas are the new baccala (discuss!) and equally vulnerable to abuse, but these are ridiculously tasty - braised beef with egg and sultanas has the perfect pastry-to-filling ratio. And there's more pastry fun with small and simple desserts. The alfajor is like a shortbread dulce de leche sandwich. The caramel-like concoction is another Argentine obsession, somewhere between Maradona and tango. It's surely only a matter of time before we start claiming it as our own.
The best bit The joy of barbecue
The worst bit Two sittings - but at least they take bookings
Go-to dish Ceviche, $15
Wine list Punchy all-Argentinian list organised by altitude, backed with good advice
Vegetarian Four starters; a couple of salads
Service Easygoing but professional
How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.
12 Reasonable 13 Good if not great 14 Solid and enjoyable 15 Very good 16 Capable of greatness 17 Special 18 Exceptional 19 Extraordinary 20 Perfection
Restaurants are reviewed again for The Age Good Food Guide and scores may vary.
- 03 9349 2777
- Prices - Typical starter, $15; main, $27; dessert, $4
- Features - Licensed, Gluten-free options
- Chef(s) - Blair Williams
- Owners - Shaun Burke and Dave Mills
- Cards accepted - Visa, Mastercard, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Tues-Thurs, 5.30-10pm; Fri-Sat, noon-11pm; Sun, noon-10pm
- Author - Larissa Dubecki