Karma Wine Dinners

It has to be a special moment for glasses to be stilled at a Karma Kandara wine dinner, and this is one of them: wine curator Maria Lurighi breaks into the Cherubino aria from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, serenading a couple who became engaged at the resort earlier in the day.

Her voice powers out across the Indian Ocean lapping below the cliff we are perched on. It’s an unexpected and romantic swerve that the evening takes, and murmurs of appreciative surprise ripple through the rapt audience.

It’s a full house at Karma Kandara’s Di Mare restaurant for the Young Guns of Winemaking dinner tonight, the fourth in a series of specialty wine dinners hosted monthly here. Magic dances in the air, a certain conspiratorial buzz buoying the mood. Repeat guests whisper about how Maria, a seasoned raconteur, entranced them at the previous dinner with her tales from the intrigue-laden world of champagne making.

For those who have travelled from elsewhere on the island, the special atmosphere is enhanced by the adventure of getting to this glorious location on Bali’s Bukit, along narrow and meandering tree-lined roads and finally, on foot, down a long rock-lined corridor, strewn with purple-tinged flowers. It’s an approach that lends drama to arrival at the open-air restaurant entrance.

The evening begins a few glasses of wine earlier than the impromptu singing, with Di Mare’s New York chef Raymond Saja taking us completely through his menu and Maria introducing the first wines in the stable of risk-taking Australian winemakers we’ll be sampling with our meal.

Among them is a 2008 KT and The Falcon Peglidis riesling. The wine exemplifies what the selection for Young Guns is all about. Kerri Thompson, known for crafting some of Australia’s best rieslings and one of the country’s top female winemakers, hand picks the fruit for this wine, crafted from pure free-run juice and following organic principles.

“It has ‘schist’,” Maria declares, referring to the signature slate of the Clare Valley soil in South Australia that has made it perfect for riesling production.

The delicate acidity of the fruity wine marries superbly with the ahi tuna now presented to us – “It’s almost candied if you like,” explains chef Raymond.

Flavoured with summery hints of gomasio, citrus and ginger (and declared by a former fisherman sitting next to me to be about the freshest and best tuna I’ll ever see) the delectable flesh demands and gets an honest partner in the riesling. The seafood theme continues. Roasted Alaskan scallops, served with leek and prosciutto in a mushroom froth, is paired with a 2006 Mac Forbes ‘Wooli Yallock’ Chardonnay from Victoria’s Yarra Valley. It’s a classic white burgundy style wine from organic grapes, Maria says – no irrigation is used, and neither yeast nor acidity are added. The fruit used in this wine comes from young vines, so it shows the potential of what is to come from the site.

“It takes courage to make wines like this wine,” Maria declares.

While the focus on the wines might be on those who like to take risks, on the food front it’s time for some tried and true comfort: Next up is Muscovy Duck.

“This is a classic pairing with pinot noir,” Raymond says. “It’s very floral.”

The melt-in-the-mouth duck, plated as an enticing rectangle of shimmering pink, has been ever so slightly smoked. It’s served along a second rectangle of thinly sliced celeriac infused with cherries and thyme. It’s a wonderful full-flavoured assault, matched with a “young, soft and silky” Stonier 2007 pinot noir from the Mornington Peninsula, made by another Young Gun, Mark Webb.

Is the evening starting to accelerate? It seems that way now, as Di Mare’s discreet waitstaff glide across the subtly lit restaurant floor, endlessly whisking away and replacing gleaming glasses. Conversations crescendo amid the laughter that great wine and food foster.

At our table there’s chat about the funky Million Dollar Disco at Nammos Beach Club here a week earlier, when a crowd gathered till the early hours on the white sands below. Then talk turns to the cheeky Balinese monkeys that habitually steal inside villas on the island if given half a chance, and lope away with whatever they can grab.

“Mine took two apples, one in each hand!” someone says, incredulous. Another recounts how she saw a monkey dashing out of her villa with a jackfruit.

Conversation also turns to Bali and alcohol.

It’s a brave hotelier who plans wine evenings on the Island of the Gods these days. A corruption crackdown that began in 2008 has meant that a wine tax of a whopping 370 percent is now strictly applied across Indonesia. Prices have skyrocketed almost as high as eyebrows do when they glimpse wine lists.

Hoteliers are in an awkward position as they seek to explain to guests why the Indonesian government — which earns crucial revenue from the tourism industry in Bali — seems to be intent on maintaining the crippling charge. Hopefully the hospitality industry here will see some success with their lobbying to reduce the rate to a level that keeps Bali competitive with those destinations it competes with internationally.

The wines for tonight have all of course been imported legitimately and, most crucially, stored at proper temperatures while lengthy customs procedures were followed, Maria says. Even special bottles of some surprise wines served during the dinner and brought to Bali in hand luggage were declared on arrival, to be safe.

Although the 1.2 million rupiah price tag on tonight’s dinner is already more than competitive by global standards, knowing the difficult context Bali faces makes it seem a downright gift. Indeed these dinners are all about fostering a love of good wine, says Maria, who has attended all four of them.

“I enjoy very much bringing to a reality the dream of our chairman John Spence, who wants to profile wines and estates that have a small production, show a great sense of the place from where they came and have a story to tell, and also to bring wines to Bali which have not been shown before,” she tells me.

“He wants the dinners to be fun and interactive and deliver something special in this incredible place!” she adds. And then we’re interrupted by some more wine and another course to wax lyrical about.

“This is amazing beef from Australia,” says Raymond, who serves the finely-marbled wagyu with Italian onions and porcini and a sprinkling to one side of the most delectable crunchy cocoa nibs. The texture of the nibs highlights precisely how tender the beef truly is, lending a grounding earthiness to the dish.

It’s a worthy complement to the 2007 Larry Cherubino cabernet sauvignon from West Australia’s storied Margaret River, a year that was low producing so yielded grapes with very concentrated characters. The wine was fermented naturally and spent 10 months in a mix of new and old oak.

We also sample a surprise: Domaine A’s 2003 cabernet sauvignon, which has just been given 95 points by Australian wine authority James Halliday. The classic wine was produced by Peter Althaus, who was also a guest at one of Karma’s earlier dinners.

Raymond’s swansong tonight is a selection of cheeses: pere toinou from the Pyrenees, Manchego from Spain’s La Manch region (also the home of Don Quixote) and crumbling chunks of Italian parmigiano reggiano. The tiniest squares of fruit in a spiced chutney – the nostalgic and warming essence of Christmas is somehow infused right here – paired with the parmigiano in particular explode with incredibly intense flavour when sipped with the 2007 Standish ‘Relic’ Shiraz Viognier uncorked next. A man at my table is quite literally swooning.

Dan Standish, the producer of this wine, is a sixth generation Barossa Valley vigneron seeking to produce wines that exemplify their local terroir.

“I am simply trying to convey to the wine drinker what the vineyard has seen during the past year with a message in a bottle,” he says according to our notes for the evening. And that, Maria echoes, is what all the winemakers presented here have really been about.

“These wines are all about integrity,” Maria tells me later. “These wines are real. They are not filled with fake tannins or anything else you see in mass produced wines these days. Trying to compare the two groups is like trying to compare tonight’s food with McDonalds.”

The next event on the Karma calendar will be focused on Bordeaux, with a date yet to be finalised.

“Hopefully we will be bringing in some wines from different parts of Bordeaux, including perhaps a white wine. It will be a journey through this wonderful land,” Maria says.

Virtuoso violinist Peter Tanfield, who was a student of Menuhin, will play unaccompanied Bach by candlelight, with Australia’s Peter Althaus presenting the wines to guests for the second time and Raymond again designing a complementary menu.

Magic, music and probably a few myths… There’s no doubt that at Karma, such an evening will again be an escapade of swirling delight.

Richard Millar at Rin

Richard Millar darts around his tiled-and-stainless steel kitchen, asking the four chefs kicking off service tonight when various items will be ready. Crisp replies cut through steam curling from bubbling saucepans. As products appear, Richard assembles plates of his unique cuisine, which he struggles to define in a phrase but essentially takes Japanese produce and style as its inspiration.

“Has that been steamed?” I ask of a brown-ceramic bowl being uncovered, its enticing aroma swirling under nostrils.

“Thirteen minutes,” Richard says.

In fact it’s chawan mushi, the famed Japanese steamed custard. Richard’s take? The velvety custard, almost more not there than there when you take a mouthful, is subtly flavoured with foie gras and studded with tender chicken and moist king crab morsels.

Richard’s no-words-wasted reply reflects the exacting precision and discipline that goes into all of the food that he and his team prepare at nearly one-year-old RIN, the breezy poolside eatery tucked next to the Conrad Suites at Bali’s resort beach of Nusa Dua.

The story behind RIN goes back around another year longer than that. Initially the idea was for the space it now occupies to be a traditional Japanese restaurant catering towards the Japanese guests who are the Conrad’s main market. Given the plethora of decent Japanese restaurants already around and the Conrad’s contemporary brand, however, the team decided to create something a little more 21st century – and that’s where Richard came on board.

He had been working for several years as a chef cooking Western-style food in Japan, picking up the language and becoming entranced with Japanese cuisine.

“Now it’s my life,” he says of Japanese food. “When I’m not working, I eat it, all the time.”

What is it that makes it so alluring?

“The first side is that I love the art to it, the artisan style, the way that the Japanese are very methodical and very attuned to details. There’s a lot of purity in Japanese food,” he enthuses.

“Sometimes with Western food it gets over-refined, with too many flavours, too many colours, too much going on the plate. I think over the years chefs have tried to pare that back a bit and concentrate on the essence of the food or the ingredients, the purity of them – but that’s something that Japan has been doing for hundreds of years.”

Japan’s cuisine that has been long shrouded in secrecy, though this is slowly changing, Richard says.

“The only way you could learn was you really had to speak Japanese and then it’s still very difficult to learn – you don’t have recipes… you have to go into a very long-term apprenticeship.”

The other appealing aspect for Richard is cultural, and with a son to a Japanese woman, he’s been brought closer to that perspective, he says.

Working alongside Japanese chefs at a resort in Japan gave Richard an opportunity to try to learn about their cuisine.

“And that was a challenge because they don’t easily teach you. You’ve got to earn it.” Devising the concept at RIN gave him an opportunity to build on the minimal basics he did manage to pick up, he says.

“And that’s what I set about doing. A lot of it was self education, studying, reading books, eating in Japanese restaurants all the time, asking questions, testing… RIN is not a Japanese restaurant and I am not a Japanese chef,” he emphasises.

One of the Japanese chefs from the Conrad in Toyko spent a month at RIN at the outset, helping to develop recipes and source ingredients – and with about 90 percent of the produce imported, many products only being labelled in kanji, this was a major task he helped with.

If it’s not Japanese, how would Richard like to see it described?

“Some of my food is really, if you were to look at the menu, fusion, but fusion has such a bad reputation. To me, it’s eclectic, a difficult word to use as a tagline, but that’s what it is.”

The menu is driven by Richard’s passion for food, he says. “I’m trying to not necessarily capture Japanese food because I’m not trained in that area, but to to capture some of the essence of it, some of the flavours.”

A lot of Richard’s focus has been on training his staff of 15, only two of whom have worked in Japan. He gets his staff to taste their food, to learn about flavour as well as technique.

“It’s about being a chef rather than just being a pair of hands chopping… A lot of them are good cooks. I would be proud to work with them in any kitchen I work in around the world.”

RIN’s menu is inspired by kaiseki-style Japanese menus, with dishes divided by how they are cooked – in RIN’s case, pickled, simmered, fried, grilled and sweet – and dishes taking into account the five basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami.

I ask Richard to describe one of the dishes he would most want to show to another chef.

He selects the tuna chutoro – the lower part of the locally sourced fish’s belly – accompanied by shoyu, or soy sauce, jelly, tamago yaki, or Japanese omelette, and an apple-mustard vinaigrette. A tiny poached quail egg garnishes the dish along with wispy garlic chips.

Richard explains that the chutoro is a classical Japanese ingredient, usually served as a sushi or sometimes sashimi. It has a high amount of fat marbled throughout – indeed the flesh looks somewhat like wagyu beef – so it is warmed with a blow torch to melt the fat slightly and tenderise it.

The careful preparation of the very simple omelette again showcases Richard’s attention to detail. Prepared daily, the omelette is left covered in the cool kitchen, so it’s cool, but not hard.

The second dish he nominates is a dessert, pannacotta flavoured with sakekasu, a byproduct of the sake-making process, topped with sake-braised strawberries, and Australian hand-made saffron pashmak, a sort of adult fairy floss. It’s served in a glass cup resting in an arc of elegant glass – as with all the flatware, it was purposely designed by Richard in conjunction with two local designers.

The sakekasu, traditionally used in nabe or hot pots, was an ingredient he asked a supplier to source – with success.

“When it got here I thought, wow! What am I going to do with it?”

He thought the flavour would work well in a pannacotta – and it did, he says, adding that this he would call fusion.

“Although it hasn’t taken a recipe, it’s taken an ingredient that is very traditionally Japanese and it’s been blended into a very Western recipe, Italian pannacotta.”

And diners can expect RIN to keep evolving.

“It’s interesting because the more that I learn, I realise the more that I just don’t know… It’s evolving as I become more educated.”