A Lusophone-leaning tour (de force)
Claim to fame: Meticulously prepared small dishes breaking new ground in ingredient-quality consciousness
Reason to go: Anything hidden away on a secret alley is always bound to be good
To look out for: Go for an early dinner (or for lunch) if you want to enjoy the view from indoors; at night the reflected lighting obscures the view through the floor-to-ceiling windows
Superb and discreet, the building that houses Café Colonial is not visible from the street, requiring you to enter through a narrow passageway and skirt the aptly named Lost In bar before seeing it below you. It’s a good start as it adds subtly to the sense of exclusivity. It is not immediately clear what the ‘colonial’ in the name is intended to invoke, but an Angolan friend said the interior was slightly reminiscent of chic hotels in that Portuguese colony during the 1960s. The menu reveals an ambition to tour the Lusophone, or Portuguese-speaking, countries–but the Japanese and Chinese-inspired dishes make this seem an excessively inclusive category.
Never mind: on the table, and in the mouth, many of the dishes show an attention to detail that would get an approving nod in both Japan and China. An example of this is the first-round starters, croquettes made with shrimp and oxtail, respectively. Croquettes are one of the staples of traditional Portuguese over-the-counter food, and are frequently rendered with a bullet-proof, heavily breaded coating that, once breached, gives way to a gooey or pasty interior with only a passing semblance to the claimed main ingredient, usually shrimp or meat. Not so here. A thin, crisp but barely oily crust easily surrenders a succulent filling: shrimp with a touch of lime peel, or silky strings of the most tender oxtail. The latter is served with a delicious pineapple and chili chutney punctuated with coarsely crushed coriander seeds and a hint of clove. These are croquettes reinvented with considerable finesse.
Other items on the menu are no less elegant and tasty. Lamb köfte (they don’t speak much Portuguese in Turkey, either), wrapped around thin wooden skewers and served with a plain mint yoghurt, taste cleanly of lamb, though a touch of cumin wouldn’t have been amiss. A bacalhau salad with chickpea purée is a successful reinterpretation of another classic Portuguese dish, albeit missing the original version’s sharpness of raw onion (and here, too, a touch of cumin would not be unwelcome).
Desserts include the Brazilian but decidedly pan-Portuguese quindim, usually an eggy confection of coconut. Here it’s served with lime foam, passion fruit ice-cream, preserved guava and crushed spices, giving it a new balance. The wine list is short but representative of what the ex-colonizers are capable of.