When questioned on what Shanghai’s culinary scene is all about, I often say that you can get a great version of nearly any type of global cuisine you can think of. But here comes veteran Shanghai chef Eduardo Vargas (Azul
) and his executive chef Oscar Beltran to show the city something new – a niche it’s been missing. Together they’ve pulled from and pooled together their respective roots in Peru and Spain for what they call ‘Peruvian food with flair’ – it’s not classical, but it plays with the classics, and it plays nice. These are contemporary dishes you won’t have tasted before, and the results are exquisite.
The menu remembers culinary heritage without being limited by tradition, letting Mediterranean flavours kiss the South American. In Colca’s chia tiradito – a style of seafood not far off from Peru’s national dish, ceviche – crisp wafers of fried garlic lend their bitterness to compliment sweet, soft scallop flesh and avocado; while skillet beef pie gets a South American kick from spicy beef tenderloin picadillo roofed in smooth potato mash gratin. Bites of crispy-coated fried seafood in the jalea come already packed with spice, but are further elevated by a spicy amalgamation of romesco and harissa sauces and the creamy Peruvian classic huancaina of aji pepper, sofrito and feta (the second less memorable but still nice). Cocktails are of the same mindset with Peruvian spirit pisco leading the charge but bending to many forms, making its presence known through creative pisco sours and several signature cocktails like the ‘Machupichu’ with olive juice, cucumber and elderflower. ‘Latino drinks’ offer something stronger, like the Longan Old Fashioned with a touch of homemade longan syrup.
There’s a scene in the film Julie & Julia where Meryl Streep, playing the charming chef Julia Childs, is rendered speechless as a roasted fish’s fillets slide effortlessly from the bones into the hot pan’s deep pool of melted butter. She swoons with the first bite, and I have been searching for that swoon-inducing fish ever since. To the benefit of all, Beltran brings to the kitchen Spain’s famous Josper charcoal oven, from which comes a whole halibut that turns out to be the realisation of the very thing I’ve been searching for. And this oven delivers many an exemplary, smoke-imbued dish, bringing asados to nearly the same level as the halibut: charcoal deeply permeates cuts of aged Argentinian beef lomo that after require no more than flakes of sea salt (but come dressed in a welcome blanket of pungent chimichurri). Order it rare – they bring out a hot cast iron skillet so that everyone at the table can have their meat the way they like.
In a dessert ‘ravioli’ that some Colca staff want to call ‘puro sexo’, little dough pockets are overstuffed with orange and chilli pepper-infused thick dark chocolate sauce. But the flan… oh, the flan. It’ll change the way you think about the creamy burnt caramel custard, and that’s why it’s been a Vargas signature for over a decade.
It can’t be said that everything here is absolutely perfect, but it’s on its way. The cod and baby squid is nice, but lacks salt; and like so many a kale salad, the colourful Superfood Salad’s fibrous leaves really need some massaging. But besides a couple of small missteps, Colca’s fare is distinctive and prepared in earnest by chefs who have inserted their whole hearts and fondest memories into these dishes. In a city that has it all, that conscientious execution brings things to a level above the rest.