Smoke, mirrors and creatures large and small are all part of the dining experience at Salazon, one of Bali’s most ambitious new restaurants.
You have to be brave, or crazy perhaps, to stand up every night in front of a full dining room of high-flying patrons and put it all out there. There’s nowhere to hide for this kitchen crew and chief conductor, Australian chef Paul Lewis.
Dishes that are a sum of their intricate parts are as courageous as the team. Smoke, time, fire, fermentation, marinades, dehydration and animals sourced from land and sea, all mix and mingle on a decidedly masculine menu. One that can change at a moment’s notice.
Dining at Salazon is an event and the extensive bar opposite the kitchen counter plays its part in this theatrical experience. A mobile bar drives drinks right to your table, often mirroring notes of the menu. Fire, coffee, wood, herbs and spices add depth and warmth to signature cocktails like the Old Fashioned and the Salazon Negroni. Classic cocktails are twisted and tweaked to add flamboyant flavours that stand up to the robust dishes.
A startling moment arrives with our very first plate. Dry-aged tuna is a restrained dish by Salazon standards, in that it looks very pretty. Thankfully being so close to the chef allows me to check that it’s in fact OK to let your tuna hang out in the fridge for a couple of weeks before roughly chopping its tender flesh, mingling it with lively herbs and serving it raw on top of a buttery potato scone, a little sea urchin action giving it extra impact. As if it didn’t have that already!
“That’s how the Japanese do it,” explains Chef Paul in the almost languid way he has. He adds that it’s important to know what you’re doing. I bet! He is all over this kitchen and for the most part is the calm in the storm. Until, that is, a chef puts a step wrong. Gordon Ramsay moments happen here. It’s all part of the show. The former culinary director of W Maldives is in his element here.
The glowing dining room is large, so it’s perfectly acceptable to grab a table removed from the kitchen encounters. Personally I love a bit of action with my dinner so the counter is my favourite spot. Large and small tables dot the glamorous dining room and sofas line the wall, providing options for couples or groups.
We hardly have time to stare longingly through the rear window, where birds, beasts and sea creatures hang out absorbing time, smoke and flavour, before our next dish is served.
This time featuring baby squid that has been flashed over the fire, retaining its firm freshness and the depths of its koji marinade. Tentacles are tumbled in the centre of the plate beside a quenelle of sour cream, a smear of smoked tomato yoghurt and sea herbs. The divide between mind and mouth becomes wider as you realize the best course of action is to simply enjoy it. Don’t try to understand it, there’s no point. It’s another delicious and engaging dish and that’s all you really need to know.
The amount of preparation that goes into each dish can boggle the casual cook. This is a chef who brings a bundle of experience and personality to the kitchen. He’s on a constant search for new ingredients and ways to heighten the natural flavours.
Without taking great leaps, brilliance can never be achieved, and flashes of it show up regularly on the plates at Salazon. It’s not without its missteps but when you go out on a limb like this, there are bound to be some scrapes. Flavour, big and bold, is the ambition that drives every dish.
Take our duck. This local, organic duck has been through numerous processes, before it is flash roasted in the massive fiery wood-burning oven. It’s been dry-aged, smoked and roasted, and these are just the steps I remember. It’s full on. Almost black on the outside, the crisp skin reveals meat that falls from the bone. The smoke has permeated every fibre. The side of fermented pumpkin mash is almost as interesting as the star of the dish. The duck fat whipped with green pepper and cumin leaf is absolutely sinful, while the burnt honey sauce somehow makes its presence known regardless.
My partner and I thank ourselves for choosing to share. It’s a full frontal assault on every level and plays to every sense. It’s also incredibly rich.
There’s a definite MOFO element to sitting at the kitchen counter. Stracciatella cheese melted over burnt pears and caramelised walnuts with fine slices of lardo under brilliant green chervil oil, was lying in wait for another diner when I spied it. A couple of innocent slices of raisin toast sat on the edge of the plate, crying out to scoop the messy loveliness. I had to have it. Thinking that I could fit this in as an aside was sheer madness, but who among us can resist a plate of oozing cheese? Not me. Salazon takes no prisoners.
Wine has to feature in a dinner like this and the waiters are absolutely on top of this, educated in the finer aspects of pairing. A lovely Spanish Malbec proved too rich for me so I softened the evening with a delightful Australian Pinot Noir. My partner was having none of it, she wanted the full on flavor and to be sure, the duck required it.
This isn’t my first time at Salazon and each time has been an experience. There is enough on the menu to satisfy a more conservative diner, including some excellent dry-aged steaks and even a burger. Naturally it is no mere burger and it reads very well on the menu.
Making a choice is one of the most challenging things at Salazon, the menu is loaded with interesting dishes, and you can easily eat here multiple times and never have the same thing. If you think it won’t spoil your dinner, try the sourdough bread as well. It’s served warm and crusty with house-made whipped butter and pork rillettes, or bone marrow jus, depending on the evening. That and a salad would suffice in a pinch.
Although meat is the star here, Salazon plays very nicely to the seafood crowd as well, and I was sorely tempted by a whole Canadian lobster, baked and served with pistachio and green tomato pesto, finished with beurre blanc. The heritage pork leg, a local beast, was another close call, while the tomahawk, 28-day aged pork chop is definitely on my list.
Vegetables of interest are included with most dishes, while additional sides include a bloody good Hasselback potato with smoked sour cream; a butter head lettuce salad with walnuts and grapes; and a spring onion confit in beef tallow with salmon roe.
Desserts are simple but continue the theme of the main courses, including a mind-blowing smoked pineapple number that isn’t the prettiest dish but punches well above its weight.
Designed by the celebrated and distinctive Caroline Usher, who also designed the interiors at Mama San, the dining room is vast and impressive. It’s safe to say that a restaurant of these proportions hasn’t opened outside of a five star hotel in recent memory.
The location, in the middle of Oberoi Road, places it well above its more casual neighbours, going some way to restoring ‘Eat Street’ to its former glory. Come armed with an appetite, an open mind and a reservation, Salazon aims to impress and it certainly does that.