"I want my guests to feel alive!" says cinematographer turned restaurateur Jose Alkon, when asked what he wants for his newly landed Marrickville taberna, Pepito's.
For him, the alivest place on earth is the Barranco precinct in Lima, Peru, a seething mass of street art, coffee shops, colonial mansions, restaurants and secret bars fuelled by pisco, the clear, brandy-like spirit distilled from wine grapes that is to Peru what whisky is to Scotland.
The heart of Pepito's is the stool-lined bar, and the heart of the bar is, of course, pisco. Pepito's pisco sour ($19) uses Pisco Quierolo, a pure single-varietal distilled from the quebranta grape. Served in a dainty glass coupe, frothy with egg white, tart with lime and dotted with bitters, it's dangerously drinkable.
The El Capitan cocktail ($20), a Negroni/Manhattan gone wild, uses Pisco del Parral Italia from Peruvian Distillers along with Rosso Vermouth, Campari and bitters. There are 10 piscos listed, including the Inquebrantable #6 from Pepe Moquillaza.
"He ages his piscos, which is unheard of," says Alkon. "It gives them an ethereal elegance I have never experienced before."
Yes, well, I'll be feeling the opposite of alive if I don't eat something soon. The short blackboard menu lists taberna specials from anticucho to causa – the sort of middle-ground, comfort food Peruvians know as criollo.
There's a smashable, crisply toasted roll filled with porchetta-like ham, lettuce, salsa criollo (like vinegared onions) and chilli ($9) that would make a good office lunch.
Those who know what they're doing order the leche de tigre ($21), a glassful of chopped prawn and Hiramasa kingfish ceviche marinated in "tiger's milk", a feisty mix of lime and chilli, topped with a handful of fried calamari rings. You snack on the calamari, eat the seafood, drink the juices, move on.
Another popular Criollo dish is causa ($18), often served as a moulded tower of cold mashed potato sandwiching chicken or tuna. Chef Jeffrey Forrest's idea is less-structured and more enjoyable, the base of mash topped with avocado and a chippy-chop of prawn, awash in a loose aioli.
It comes alive (Alkon would be thrilled) with a glass of the crisp and vibrant 2018 Astobiza Txakoli ($14/$56/$70), that whisks me back to the pintxos bars of its Basque homeland.
The two anticucho skewers are small, snacky grills – the streetwise staple Corazon ($16) is ox heart with a bit of a chew, while a more considered codonoz (quail), done in the Peruvian/Japanese Nikkei style ($19), has been marinated in ginger and sake and is as sweetly glazed as Peking duck.
Alkon has turned his cinematographer's eye to the interior of what was, and is still identified outside as, Phuoc Hai.
One wall is covered with a banquet of small framed photographs of Peruvian bands, mostly punk and garage rock; another is all music posters, as if it's a laneway leading to a gig.
The golden light, the music, and the pisco combine to create a seductive party vibe that makes you want to get up and dance (not currently allowed).
There's a meaty main course and even a dessert, but Pepito's is best treated as a bar with food, rather than being forced into providing the conventions of a three-course dinner.
Alkon agrees, having felt pressured to put arroz con leche with pisco-soaked sultanas ($10) on the menu to appease those conventions.
Madeline Gale runs front-of-house with a cheery, welcoming air, and Dan Cramsie and Molly Stubbs shake things up behind the bar.
And for someone who has never run a restaurant before, Alkon is a natural. For him, there's clearly more fun in capturing the energy and electricity of being in a cool Peruvian bar than being in a traditional Peruvian restaurant. Same goes for us.
Address 276 Illawarra Road, Marrickville, 02 8668 5479, pepitos.com.au
Open Wed-Sat 5pm-late; Sun (five-course set menu) noon-5pm
Dining window Two hours
Protocols Well-spaced tables, hand sanitiser, downloadable menus, wine list and tracking procedure
Vegetarian A handful of options and dedicated Sunday lunch menu
Drinks Craft beers, South American spirits, a dangerous pisco list and a concise, engaging list of natural wines compiled by Marrickville's Where's Nick bar
Cost About $95 for two, plus drinks
Score Scoring is paused while the industry gets back on its feet