So, it was with a pleasurable shock that I opened the menu at Balinesia Asian Bistro recently and was unfamiliar with almost every item on it. There are very few restaurants in town that would attempt such an authentic rendering of a cuisine that is so little-known to most Americans.
Perhaps not surprisingly, we were the only Caucasians in the restaurant one recent Monday evening. Yes, many Westerners are familiar with satay, those grilled skewers of meat served with a spicy peanut sauce. But move beyond that, and we’re lost. Well, I was, anyway. Fortunately, our very pleasant server recommended a typical meal for us to sample.
You can venture into exotica as soon as you sit down in the high-ceilinged room, which is accented with tan walls and bamboo blinds, and order drinks. You could have a soda, but why do that when you can try kopi jahe (ginger coffee) or soda milk? The soda milk ($2.25), a hit of sweetened condensed milk in mineral water, was a big hit with the kids. The kopi jahe ($1.50) was interesting, although I would recommend it only for those who really, really like the bite of ginger, which dominated the somewhat weak coffee.
The influence of other cultures is evident in the menu, including the Indonesian take on Indian rotis (which the waiter described as being like a quesadilla, served with a curry sauce) and a version of Filipino lumpia (eggrolls). We opted to try the risoles ($3.95), a relic of Indonesia’s Dutch colonial heritage. Balinesia’s version of this deep-fried turnover is a crispy rice-flour coating enclosing a mix of finely chopped chicken, carrots, peas and more rice flour, served with the ubiquitous spicy peanut sauce. I found them slightly too sweet, but my son powered them down—a feat, because they contained actual identifiable vegetables.
The Dutch also left behind the name for rijstaffel, or rice table, considered Indonesia’s national dish. The concept behind rijstaffel is to serve rice with a number of small dishes with contrasting textures and flavors. My 1964 edition of The Joy of Cooking says the dish is referred to as a “22 (or whatever number) boy curry, each boy representing one dish.” I suspect more current and politically correct editions have eliminated this bit of trivia.
Balinesia offers a scaled-down version of the rijstaffel, with eight different rice plates. I was tempted to try nasi goreng pete, which was described as having a combination of meats, vegetables and stinky beans. But, following the waiter’s recommendation, I ordered nasi uduk ($6.95) instead. The dish is named for the heaping mound of coconut rice that dominated the center of the plate. Though some may consider rice to be nothing more than a blank palette, jasmine rice steamed in coconut milk achieves a commanding and delicious presence in its own right.
The rice was topped with scrambled eggs and came with a piece of fried curry chicken and a helping of fried spicy beef with chili sauce, as well as fried anchovies, peanuts and shrimp crackers. There is definitely a learning curve here. Do you eat each item separately? Try to combine different textures? Do you eat those little shrimp crackers on their own or as a crunchy topping? This is not a concept that is overly familiar to Western palates. The beef, though slightly overcooked, was mouth-wateringly spicy-sweet and worked well with the spicy condiments. The fried chicken, however, was overcooked to the point of dryness.
My husband tried bakmi ayam ($4.95), noodles topped with chicken, garlic and chives. The dish was tasty, with Chinese-style noodles, but the chicken pieces tasted as if they had been cooked separately instead of being integral to the dish. The noodles came with an optional soup, a clear broth with greens and meatballs. Here again, our Western palates tripped us up. Although the forced-meat balls were tasty, they were imbued with an amazingly rubbery firm texture that caused deep suspicion in my husband.
There’s a fascinating array of desserts we were too stuffed to try, including a durian shake and something called pisang bakar, a barbecued banana topped with cheese, chocolate and sweetened condensed milk.
Balinesia provides a culinary glimpse into a culture unfamiliar to most locals. It’s well worth taking the plunge; just check that Western mindset at the door.