Wines of Karma

Workmen unobtrusively scurry between the old Karma Kandara wine bar and the new lounge just a few metres away, to be completed by the time you’re reading this. Below, an uninterrupted view of the Indian Ocean and vast blue sky stretches into the distance, a light breeze stirring the tropical humidity.

It takes no effort to imagine whiling away a decadent afternoon sipping a chilled glass of white wine at the new bar, perhaps moving on to a bold red as the sun dips into the horizon and one mulls ordering dinner at adjacent Di Mare restaurant.

Wine is a passion of Karma’s owner John Spence, and it’s his philosophy, encompassing the idea of the road less travelled, that drives Karma Kandara’s entire approach to wine, says wine curator Maria Lurighi.

It’s a philosophy that will see Karma blaze a trail in Bali, with the island’s first Enomatic wine serving system poised to be set up here. This system, which uses argon gas preservation to protect wines from oxidation, allows bottles to be opened and served over a period of more than three weeks, with the wine still tasting as if the bottle has been freshly opened. Most connoisseurs wouldn’t keep a wine bottle open for longer than one to two days, even stored using technology other than the Enomatic.

What it means practically is that Karma will be able to offer the world’s finest premium wines without fear of wastage, with guests able to sample wines they would otherwise never dream of trying, says Raymond Saja, Karma Kandara’s former executive chef, who has just joined Karma Samui as general manager.

“We’ve got a bottle of 1998 Penfolds’ Grange in there which – I don’t want to be assuming, but probably none of us around the table here gets to drink that often – you’ll be able to get a taste of for whatever it is, 25 or 30 bucks,” he explains.

Aside from that, the eight-bottle system will allow particular kinds of promotions to be planned, say for wines of the Rhone, or Tuscany, or New Zealand.

“We can run the gamut, whether it be just whites or reds or both,” Raymond says.

Robert Ring, Karma Kandara’s general manager, says the move to buy the Enomatic was “a good business decision as much as a wine consuming decision.” Karma currently has two reds and two whites on their house by-the-glass list, with perhaps one of each set to be used with the Enomatic, he says.

“There’s really not a lot of life in wines once you open them and in the tropics of course, as much as you want to air condition things, a lot of the environment is unairconditioned, which is not kind to wine,” he ventures.

Karma’s full wine selection is constantly changing, thanks to the difficulty of importing the wines you want into in Indonesia. The import duties on wine run close to 400 percent and there is only one wine importer working in Bali, with a couple of suppliers, making it a challenge to import small quantities of wines from select vineyards.

What Karma wants to offer to its guests are the products of small, up and coming winemakers, like the Australian “Young Guns” who were showcased at the fourth and most recent of Karma Kandara’s renowned wine dinners.

“We try to get things that are a lot more boutique-y, smaller houses, the smaller chateaux… Chances are the owner is the winemaker and they get into it because there’s a lot of passion behind it,” Raymond says.

“It’s always ongoing,” he says of the wine list. “The one thing about the wine in Bali and obviously Indonesia is that you can’t get anything with great consistency and great regularity. So in a way, that will be a good thing for the Enomatic, because we’ll just keep rotating through wines.”

It’s a challenge, but one can rise to the occasion, he adds.

“It’s a Muslim nation, and we live in a den of iniquity,” Raymond quips, referring to the freewheeling reputation the Hindu enclave of Bali has in the rest of Indonesia. “It is what it is and we make the most of it – it can still be spectacular.”

One of the spectacular aspects of wine and Kandara are the extraordinary wine dinners, where a series of wines following a theme are matched with a menu specially designed by the executive chef.

Such pairing dinners can be a challenge behind the scenes, says Raymond, who points out that he usually doesn’t get to taste the wines before designing the menu.

“I was always under the impression that there was this painstaking process of having all the wine open in front of you and the kitchen just produced different things and you’d sit there, tasting the wine and tasting the food and then alter it, and try again,” he confesses. “That’s not necessarily entirely true.”

The chef needs to refer to the extremely subjective tasting notes of the wines, as well as draw on their knowledge of the typical characteristics of the varietals, which can vary somewhat.

“Then you kind of depending on how you want to do it… you can build on that and you either build on the tastes in the wine to reinforce them, or to counterplay them. It has happened where what I was expecting a riesling to be was not even close to what I thought it was going to be.”

Simon Blaby, Karma Kandara’s new executive chef, chimes in with a tale about how sometimes it just doesn’t matter what the chef thinks.

At one of his previous restaurants in Bali, a minister from a Southeast Asian nation ordered the final two bottles of two precious cases of 2004 Grange Hermitage that had been gradually consumed by patrons over four years.

“And he ordered barramundi with it. He enjoyed it thoroughly. He really enjoyed it. If someone’s ordering a bottle of Grange, I’d say order whatever you like – if you want a bowl of French fries with it, knock yourself out!”

Nevertheless Simon will be carefully planning the next wine dinner menu on January 5, when Australia’s Peter Althaus will be presenting a series of Bordeaux wines. Musician Peter Tanfield will play Bach D Minor Sonata for Solo Violin during the dinner, adding that touch of magic for which Karma’s wine dinners have become renowned.

“It’s exciting and daunting at the same time,” Simon says of his wine dinner debut. “It’s good to be getting the small boutique-y wineries as opposed to the larger scale stuff. It’s pushing me out of my comfort zone, that’s for sure.”

For Maria, it’s the focus on the up and coming winemakers that makes the affairs so special.

“Working with small single vignerons means that the stories that are told are genuine and sincere, and we try to respond spontaneously on the night to our guests in bringing them together at this extraordinary site,” she says.

“The event programmes are truly a commitment to the cultural landscape of life in Bali.”

Metis Magic

Said Alem sits behind a desk at the nerve centre of the new Métis Restaurant and Gallery, but it doesn’t look like a pose he strikes very often: He’s tall, fit, casually clad in a T-shirt and bursting with an energy that can’t possibly allow him to remain immobile for long.

This energy, no doubt, has been tapped into repeatedly as he and his business partner have worked relocating their old restaurant, the Bali institution of Kafe Warisan, to spacious, modern Metis. Perched on the paddies of Jalan Petitenget, it’s poised to become another must-visit restaurant on the ever-shifting island scene.

Outside the office doors, workers scurry to put finishing touches to areas of the new restaurant, a stylish U-shaped building with an Indonesian-inspired roof soaring overhead. It’s all sumptuous browns and beiges, golds and bronzes, the decor understated yet exuberant.

Along one side of the 160-seat restaurant is a hip lounge-bar, with sleek wooden tables and chairs and geometrically inspired cushions. The feel is ever so slightly Mad Men-esque – vodka gimlet, anyone?

But Said has not even heard of the US series, set in a New York City advertising agency in the 1960s, joking as to whether I’m asking if he’s a mad man when I inquire whether it was perhaps a source of visual inspiration.

Perhaps it’s a question he’s been asked many times, business being what it is in Bali, but Said is apparently quite sane. The chef came to the island some 17 years ago after earlier starting a cocktail bar at a ski resort in France from scratch, so entrepreneur is a hat he’s often worn with his chef’s toque.

Said worked as a chef at the Bali Bird Park when it opened back in the day, before helping others start a few restaurants, and finally took over Kafe Warisan with his business partner Nicolas “Doudou” Tourneville. They ran Warisan for almost 13 years, its clever marrying of fine French cuisine with classic Balinese paddy views becoming legendary.

Warisan’s lease, however, was up in October last year and though they could have stayed, the deal offered “was not very interesting for us,” Said says. Renovations were required on the too-small kitchen, which on top of four or five years’ rent in advance, made starting from scratch somewhere else financially appealing.

They found Métis’ new 85 are location about two years ago, negotiating to lease two pieces of land with – of course – paddy views, some of which they pay farmers to continue using. The pair did not own the Warisan name – the old restaurant is being renovated and will reopen under the same name in 2010 – nor did they own the gallery at the old Warisan, itself a well-known antiques store. So they decided on a new name, and to open a gallery themselves, along with a patisserie, currently stocked with delicate pastel-coloured macaroons and glistening chocolates, as well as a jewellery store, with the works of five or six designers on display.

The concept, in a nutshell, of this ambitious development? Similar to Warisan but more modern?

“Exactly!” Said exclaims. “We wanted to keep the U-shape because it really worked – the terrace, people really liked it. And we wanted a nice bar/lounge, so we wanted to expand it and have a chill out space with sofas, because that’s what people are looking for now.”

Métis also has a private function room upstairs – it’s being prepped for a glamorous looking event tonight – which is something Warisan did not have, making it awkward sometimes when trying to mix a large group into the restaurant.

“I’m very happy with the look,” Said says, which he describes as “Warisan, updated.”

Food-wise, things are mostly staying the same.

“We have some items we couldn’t take out – like the escargots, the fois gras, the duck confit,” he says. For the opening, about 40 percent of the items have changed, with more alterations on the agenda for early 2010. The fois gras menu has been extended, while a completely new menu has been devised for the lounge which Said says is more like a tapas menu – think freshly shucked oysters or a cheese plate. Dessertarians take note: All the desserts have been changed because a French pastry chef is now on board.

Still, Métis is a work in progress, Said says. The entire Warisan team of 70 moved here and the overall team now numbers at around 110, but more staff still need to be hired. There’s a larger bar, a different floor configuration and larger tables, which all conspire to leave the staff running around a lot more, so more runners are what’s particularly needed. An upstairs terrace area is yet to be opened, waiting for more staff to be on hand.

Any dishes one should try? “All of them!” Said says. “We have a nice selection of fois gras – so our fois gras dishes. The meat too especially is really good quality — of beef, of lamb.” Bali is seeing more fabulous restaurants opening, so why should people come here?

“Good food. And we are working hard to have good service – we are not there yet – and of course the atmosphere, the paddy field views – there are many things!”

The 250-square metre kitchen – six times larger than Warisan’s old facility – is just as impressive as the restaurant patrons are meant to see. The kitchen, infused with the sweet scent of roasting capsicums when I peek in, is air-conditioned. The wine cellar is a similar size to what Warisan’s was but Said says he wants to double it.

“I want to have one of the best wine cellars in Bali – and I will,” he pledges.

Said seems like the right person one wanting to head into the restaurant trade in Bali should ask for advice. What would he say?

“Have a strong character and passion… I like what I do, first of all. I’ve always been in the restaurant business, I mean as a chef before, but I really like what I do. I’m having fun. And I love working in Bali with the Balinese people.”