Chef Matt McCool is at the centre of a special dining experience at Capella Ubud.
Lush decision-free dining coupled with heavenly cocktails is Ubud’s hottest culinary experience at Api Jiwa. The brilliant Australian chef Matt McCool is on the grill and delivers the full Omakase experience that does not disappoint.
Omakase is a beloved style of eating in Japan and the words loosely translate to “I’ll leave it up to you” and hands over the culinary journey to the chef. Being liberated from the hard choices dinner morphs into an exciting and suspenseful trip through Asia. There are no menus or dish descriptions.
Chef Matt chats with every group who comes to each of the two nightly sittings and talks desire. While he explains the Omakase notion of shedding control and how the kitchen is ruled by the ancient Japanese barbeque technique called robatayaki. He is on a fact-finding mission where he gleans the culinary preferences so he can make 10 dishes to suit.
“I work with a core plan and the best ingredients and then branch out to cook for individual tastes. I really enjoy cooking on an open fire using charcoal. It takes a lot of skill to manually control the temperature,” says Chef Matt, who uses a bamboo fan to prevent flames from burning meat while infusing them with smoky flavour.
While 10 dishes may sound hauntingly like degustation, it is not. Each Omakase plate delivers bite size pieces of deliciousness. An eggshell half is filled with a delicate crab and shitake mushroom chawanmushi with a ponzu gel. This is paired with a plum-infused gin and tonic. Next up is a skewer of chicken yakitori sprinkled with white sesame seeds and placed over an espresso cup of the broth made from the water used to poach chickens, creating a rich and clear soup.
“The portions are small so they have to be packed with flavour,” he says.
House-made XO sauce spices, a warmed oyster and soft tuna sashimi topped with a sliver of crunchy daikon and a drop of Thai nam jim sauce is excellent. A skewered chicken meatball, dipped into an egg yolk cured with soy, dashi and citrus juice, is a taste bomb and paired with a passion- fruit gin cocktail sprinkled with black tea leaves. Chef Matt aims to engage as many senses as possible with the delicious smells occasionally rivalling taste. Thai-style curry over a juicy scallop, finished with coconut powder that had previously been oil until Matt worked his magic on it. Together with a yuzu cocktail; mixed yuzu, vodka and jasmine foam made from processing tea leaves.
“Our cocktails are a result of many nights hanging out here with mixologists from Locavore and Indigo. They come for dinner and we talk about food and how best to pair the dishes with cocktails. It’s really on another level,” says Matt.
The feast swings from cocktail to dish and back again.
The beef rendang delivers a slice of perfectly pink wagyu beef with deconstructed curry and coconut cream. The babi guling is cooked outdoors for six hours and comes in a steamed bun and a sweet hoi sin sauce.
Watching the action and chatting casually with the chef has a homely feel, albeit a home with a stunning interior.
Matt McCool is a thoroughbred who sharpened his skills in Michelin-starred kitchens including Gordon Ramsey’s Maze and Tom Aitkens’ namesake restaurant in London. More recently he was in charge of the kitchen at Aria – China World Hotel’s fine dining establishment in Beijing. As a young chef, he caught the attention of Time Out magazine and won 2011 Chef of the Year. He has been on the stoves at Bali’s W hotel and Sydney’s Shangri-La and is now the Culinary Director of the utterly chic five-star tented camp Capella Ubud.
The Api Jiwa kitchen is a small place surrounded by diners watching the action while the team of three performs a dance that allows them to serve 10 dishes to 38 people a night.
While he is at the grill, painting, brushing and turning meats, we discuss salt farming in the north of the island, the future of Australian cows being partly raised in Indonesia, the quality of Lombok oysters, Bali slipper lobster and the spices used to enhance their natural flavours. It is casual and fun.
Matt is naturally generous with his insights as he is with food. He believes that most cultures love to share food. “The Chinese always share, Italians love it and it is a beautiful act. I really enjoy interacting with our guests, who come from all over the world and the island. I speak a little Chinese, which is always a good way to open a conversation,” he says.
It is more than conversation that Chef Matt opens. At the end of the first sitting, one of the groups had to be photographed with the man himself.
Api Jiwa is on the lower level of the amazing Capella Ubud tented camp, which is designed by the iconic and visionary architect Bill Bensley, and the night view is of tall palm trees, gardens and the enormous former water tank turned swimming pool. Candles twinkle to create an insanely romantic destination.
The restaurant is claiming its rightful place on the itineraries of globe-trotting foodies, expats and locals who are searching for a cool new way of exploring culinary delights. Check it out.
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