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New restaurant Bacata explores Colombian food and what it has in common with nasi lemak

Bacata is the latest concept from chef Fernando Arevalo, who shuttered Preludio and is now championing the produce and flavours of his native Colombia. Calling Singapore home, however, puts a cosmopolitan spin on his cooking, which even features subtle local touches like salted egg sauce and kueh pie tee shells.

New restaurant Bacata explores Colombian food and what it has in common with nasi lemak

Pescado y arroz con coco, on Bacata's a la carte menu: Sea bass, arborio coconut rice, plantain. (Photo: Bacata)

Chef Fernando Arevalo readily acknowledges that the impression most people have of his native Colombia doesn’t go very far beyond coffee, Netflix drug lords and Shakira. And yet, the 38-year-old, who’s called Singapore home for the past 10 years, has opened a restaurant serving modern Colombian cuisine.

Named Bacata after the indigenous area from which Bogota derives its name, it’s located at Frasers Tower in the CBD and supersedes Preludio, where Arevalo had rolled out a Colombian-inspired menu in the season before it closed, to favourable reviews.

Bacata, in the heart of the CBD, offers an a la carte menu and an executive set lunch, in addition to the chef's tasting menu. (Photo: Bacata)

He isn’t daunted by the thought that most diners don’t have the slightest clue what Colombian food is like. “You're talking to the guy who opened a restaurant serving black-and-white food. That ship of fear has sailed,” he quipped.

That said, what’s really being served here at Bacata is Arevalo’s elevated impressions of the flavours he grew up with, seen through the lens of his attachment to Singapore.

Chef Fernando Arevalo (Photo: CNA/Aik Chen)

For example, “I love nasi lemak”, he told me. And “we have a dish that’s very close to nasi lemak” on the menu called “arroz con coco”, which is Spanish for rice with coconut. The dish features grilled sea bass and plantain, with arborio coconut rice.

“We use coconut water instead of coconut cream” to cook the rice, he explained, and it’s sprinkled with cranberries, which, in Colombia, would be raisins, not unlike biryani. It’s served with aji, which is “our Colombian equivalent of sambal – there are many different types”.

If you take it from him, there are many observable parallels between our local and regional cuisine, and the food he grew up eating in Bogota.

Lengua: A re-imagination of a traditional Sobrebarriga or flank steak, veal tongue is braised until fork-tender and seared, and served with roasted white and red beetroot, blackberry sauce and a garnish comprising preserved lemon and herb salad. It is cooked in a banana leaf, like a tamale, for added flavour. (Photo: May Seah)
A dish on the tasting menu called Arroz Caldoso, featuring arborio rice in a seafood broth with uni cream and smoked eel, is “like porridge”, he announced, and will have you scraping your bowl in enjoyment of its comforting textures. It’s inspired by a very typical home-cooked Colombian one-dish meal that makes use of rice from the day before, to which soup is added, much like the traditional Chinese dish of broken rice.
Arroz Caldoso: N25 caviar, arborio rice, smoked eel, uni (Photo: Bacata)

Here, however, it’s gotten a cosmopolitan upgrade: The rice is cooked with kombu and rice wine vinegar, sushi-style. There’s also some granadilla, a South American fruit from the passionfruit family, in the bottom of the dish, to lend a hint of sweetness and acidity. Growing up, “My mum would put one in my lunch every day.”

Snacks (from left): Tiradito (sarawa, cod liver, tiger's milk), Chile (shishito, potato, St. Nectaire), Sardinas (fig, walnut, vanilla). (Photo: Bacata)

Other plates at Bacata have elements that are definitively local. For instance, one of the meal-opening snacks, the Tiradito, sees Spanish mackerel, smoked cod liver cream, whipped tiger’s milk and lime vinegar pearls nestled inside a kueh pie tee shell, made in-house, infused with coriander seed.

Chipiron: Cuttlefish, 'Nduja, salted egg, chimichurri. (Photo: Bacata)

And, because “I’m obsessed with salted egg”, Chipiron, a dish of grilled cuttlefish with chimichurri, floats on a sauce of 'nduja and salted egg that Arevalo has cured himself. “First, I put spices in the yolk to regulate it, and sugar. Then I stop the process before it becomes too dry, controlling the texture of the yolk so it emulsifies well. I’m a salted egg nerd,” he proclaimed with pride.

Langosta: Boston lobster, Andes potato, white corn, capers. (Photo: Bacata)

Still other things on the menu pilot diners gently into the world of Colombian cooking, like the Langosta, a soup of three types of potato featuring poached Boston lobster, which is based on perhaps the most quintessentially Colombian dish: Ajiaco.

“My mum would make this at home. It’s a soup served in a clay pot with shredded chicken,” Arevalo said. “It has the flavours of a typical Colombian dish. I love watching Colombians when they have it. It’s a Ratatouille moment. The smell and flavours connect them.”

Platanitos con queso (Photo: Bacata)

Then there’s a dessert of sweet grilled plantain, rum, dates and burrata ice cream, which is inspired by a Colombian side dish of plantain with cheese and guava. No, you didn’t read that wrongly. “We grill the plantain, put a bunch of guava and cheese on top, melt it, and put it back on the grill,” he said. Not fresh guava, that is, but cooked, dried guava, a speciality from his home that he let me sample; it tasted very much like haw flakes.

Our region and Colombia are on the same latitude, so “imagine we have the same ingredients”, like guava, soursop, mangosteen, but cooked and enjoyed differently, he said. “I want the diner to feel familiar and feel connected, yet new.”

Now that “I have a family here and I feel like Singapore is home”, the time is right for him to devote himself to showcasing the flavours of Colombia, said the father-to-be who’s married to a Singaporean. It helps that “it’s a good moment for Latin American cuisine, which has been growing exponentially all over the world.” And, “Every time I look back at Colombia, I cannot help but be amazed at how beautiful and amazing it is. The country’s culture is so special. That's why I want Colombia to be front and centre.”

Bacata is at 182 Cecil Street, #03-01 Frasers Tower.

Source: CNA/my