Photography: Lucky 8. Words: Sara Douglas.
ASIAN culinary cultures are the roads much travelled for foodies around the globe. Of all the Asian cuisines though, Indonesian is the least familiar and dare we say, fashionable? Why is that, we often muse?
Some suggest it is the lack of formal plating which means it doesn’t translate well. Others suggest that food around the archipelago is so varied that no single cuisine can be identified. Others, still, suggest that for many Indonesians, dining is a solitary thing and not easily shared.
Trying to raise the bar on local food as a culinary tradition worthy of a world-class restaurant has presented challenges for some of the most talented local chefs and restaurateurs with varied success. The latest to take the dishes most loved across the archipelago and present them in their authentic form, yet plated to appeal to a modern diner, is Bambu on Jalan Petitenget.
Bringing all the elegance and experience of the La Lucciola team to a more urban setting (albeit just around the corner) has resulted in a destination that has captured diners since Bambu opened.
The entrance to the restaurant is off the street where handsome men in beautiful batik sarongs and crisp jackets greet diners as they arrive.
A few steps over a smoky blue pond leads you to the bar and a full view of the restaurant. Part of the restaurant is created under the roof of a central joglo, the wood pale and beautiful to offset the grey and white hand-made tiles.
Surrounded by a massive pond, it is reminiscent of an old pavilion and speaks more of the sophisticated culture of Java than its Balinese location.
The bar extends around the central pond to allow for more tables and a softly lit restaurant area.
The menu is homage to Indonesian cuisine – some of the finest dishes from the archipelago have been thoughtfully recreated without making the mistake of “dumbing them down”. The flavours are authentic and locally sourced.
Each item has a tag, which identifies where it comes from and many of the dishes can be ordered mild, hot or fiery.
As La Lucciola never courted the tourist, although plenty go there, Bambu also hosts a nightly mix of well-heeled Indonesians and expats. Reservations are recommended as the beautiful dining room fills easily.
Cocktails are derived from the classics, yet also feature local flourishes supplied by the tropical ingredients that perfectly complement the menu and set the tone for an evening of culinary travel.
Front of house is Denise French, whose reputation in Bali has grown since she first arrived as pastry chef at Four Seasons Jimbaran before heading up the hill to take on executive chef duties at the Amandari. A stint in Sydney at the Ritz Carlton Hotel preceded her return to La Lucciola . . . and now to Bambu.
In the tradition of many restaurants, an amuse bouche is served first – generally something that will entertain the palate in anticipation of some of the tingling dishes to follow. The menu is divided into entrées and mains and some wonderful desserts that rise above what you will find at the local warung.
Denise and our waiter guided us through our meal and the result was a sublimely evocative feast that was perfectly balanced, spiced to perfection and featured ingredients that will be surprising to the uninitiated.
To begin a giant grilled blue river prawn was served with a lemon basil sambal – a tribute to the sophisticated flavours of Java. Beside it a mellow wok-charred mushroom salad, also a Javanese dish, was tossed with baby coconut in a ginger dressing – nutty and mellow with just the right hint of herbs and spices.
For mains we chose a trio of dishes that included meltingly tender pork ribs braised to perfection with the flavours of Timor singing in accompaniment. Served with a banana blossom salad, it is a meal worthy of the talk on the street as diners are raving about this one. We also enjoyed a dish from Sulawesi featuring barramundi baked in bamboo with spicy green mango salad and tossed fiddle-head fern tips. The fish was tender and beautifully presented, the fern tip salad was exotic and fresh.
Another dish that has been swooning diners is a Sumatran lamb and date curry that managed to be deeply spiced in a peppery sort of way without the jarring heat of chili, offset by the sweetness of both the dates and the lamb, it was a savoury highlight of the evening.
The staff decided we needed some perkedel jagung – crispy little corn cakes that were as delicious as they were wicked, deep fried and brilliant.
Despite the many dishes and the confounding variety of dips, sides and sambals that placed alongside and described in detail by our wait staff, we still had room for dessert. While the flavours are big, the portions are perfect and there is a lightness that one finds in the hands of an accomplished cook.
We ventured into local territory once again and chose pancakes that were dressed with coconut and citrus, and black rice balls that were a creative expression of black rice pudding. Indonesian desserts are characteristically very sweet. Overseen by Denise, the desserts were far lighter and less sugary than the street-side versions and were a wonderful surprise.
Bambu is open for dinner only. The prices are very reasonable, the ambience is gorgeous as we have come to expect from the understated and stylish team from La Lucciola. It has taken them a long time to open a second venue and this one has the potential to prove as popular as their first.