'Cheers, to Eduardo our favourite chef in Shanghai!’ squeals a bronze-skinned woman in red pantaloons. It’s Azul’s second night of opening and Eduardo Vargas, owner and Shanghai restaurateur-at-large is working the crowd. Instead of the thinly veiled chaos that usually marks this determinative day, the mood is convivial and the crowd admiring. So far, so Latin – and a promising endorsement of the menu on offer at Azul’s new incarnation.
The original Azul opened on Dongping Lu in 2003. However, the Latin tapas restaurant and expat brunch favourite had been on the slide for at least a year prior to its closure – an all too familiar decline, which seems to set in whenever Vargas strays too far from the kitchen at one of his numerous ventures.
The new location atop Ferguson Lane’s new extension has a few notables that the old Azul did not. These include two glorious roof terraces which are intimate perches ideal for moon viewing and cocktail sipping, and an all new tapas menu that takes flight from South America and lands in Greece, Morocco and Spain, before returning to Vargas’ native Peru with a stellar drinks list featuring many of the Pisco-based favourites from the old Azul.
New faces join the team, too. The chef de cuisine, Gabriel Rodriguez, comes directly from Venezuela via the Cordon Bleu in Paris and stints at Arzak, El Bulli in Spain, BLT and Nobu in New York. Front of house is trilby-topped Diego Ferro, an Argentinean restaurateur with experience in Montpellier, London and Montreal, whose task it is to claw back Azul’s lost service standards.
On our visits, service is less than snappy but given the rate at which we guzzle the delicious margaritas (60RMB) – easily one of the best in town – the heat is on. The effort is there and things can only get better as the team consolidates.
The all new food menu draws from a deeper well of tapas traditions than before, with Moroccan style chickpeas, fruity relishes and Iberian classics, while keeping its roots in the chef’s Peruvian heritage.
The Ecuadorian ceviche
with tomato, spring onion and popcorn (75RMB) overflows with coriander, red chilli, lime juice and raw prawns. Vargas’ modern twist on a South American staple delivers a citrus volt directly to the taste buds, though the shallots could be softer and the dominant chillies drown other flavours toward the end.Patatas bravas
(45RMB), the benchmark of any tapas bar, are here deconstructed into curls of gently spiced reconstituted potato, coiled around seductive blobs of saffron aioli. The overall effect is mouthwatering but they don’t quite topple El Willy’s more traditional version, our longstanding favourite.
The meatballs (45RMB), however, are divine. Served with Italian gremolata
, a thick tomato sauce with lemon zest, garlic and parsley, they are possibly better than mama used to make. Lamb chops with fruity relish (75RMB) are not to be missed either, the sherry-infused sticky sauce is worthy of potting and taking home (it would go well with a nice Manchego cheese). Try the beautifully buttery mushrooms a la plancha
Dessert-wise, Eduardo’s flan, made from a jealously guarded family recipe (40RMB) is incredible. The chocolate crostini with olive oil (40RMB) are also moreish – fat blobs of fudge-y Nutella complement the crunchy toast.
Shanghai has no shortage of restaurants that serve quality tapas, but it still lacks genuine tapas bars – not smoky bodegas
with a hunchback Flamenco guitarist, but bars that serve great drinks, where people stand around chatting with or without food. And while Azul still places food at its centre, it’s a step closer to this time-honoured model than most. If the old Azul won admirers for its menu, then the new Azul is building on, and perhaps surpassing, this legacy.