In between easing slices of fuchsia watermelon onto his flaming grill, warming a roast tomato soup and popping a pappadum, Nutmegs’ chef de cuisine Philip Mimbimi at Nutmegs, the in-house restaurant at Bali institution Hu’u, has a few secrets and tips to share.
When he’s dining out at a new restaurant, for instance, he routinely likes to order the Caesar salad and the carbonara. “That’s like my test of a restaurant. If you can’t make a decent Caesar salad, then that shows the quality of the rest of the kitchen,” he says, adding that a restaurant needs to put its own unique twist or touch to the dish.
“It’s like bread: If you don’t serve a good bread then the rest of the dinner isn’t really going to go anywhere.”
And on Mimbimi’s new 30-plus dish menu, about his fourth redesign in the near two years he’s been at Nutmegs, the Caesar take is highly innovative.
“I do it as a grilled romaine. We take the baby romaine head and split it in half, grill it and serve it with a dressing of lemongrass and chilli,” he says. White anchovies and shaved pecorino romano complete the dish.
The focus on Balinese ingredients on his menu is deliberate, with Mimbimi particularly proud of the tuna dish he’s about to assemble.
“This is one of my favourites because it’s all local,” he says as he eyes smoke wafting from a cast iron pan.
“Cooking is: You’ve got to smell it, taste it, touch it, and you gotta hear it. When the tuna goes in the pan if you don’t hear that noise of searing, you’re a shoemaker, as I call it, which means you’re not cooking right.”
The thick steak of tuna, plucked freshly from the waters off Bali, has been marinated in fish and oyster sauces, salt and pepper, speared with lemongrass and tied with a pandan leaf. “I actually don’t carry imported fish on my menu. Salmon I usually don’t run, I run tuna, swordfish, garupa, barramundi. These are all fish that are swimming five minutes away from here.”
The tuna is done in a matter of minutes and plated over mashed Balinese purple potato and alongside wok-seared Asian greens. It’s served with a warm passionfruit vinaigrette which features a touch of saffron and uses local Hatten wine. A sprinkling of lemongrass salt, made by Mimbimi using Balinese crystal salt, sits to one side.
“The nice thing about this is there’s really only one ingredient in the whole dish that’s not local and that’s the saffron,” he says, garnishing the plate with a snap of fresh basil and a few careful drizzles of chilli oil.
Mimbimi believes one of the best things about working in Asia are the unique ingredients it produces. “The herbs are quite incredible and if you just talk about just Indonesia itself, the spices of Indonesia are just amazing,” he says. Chef friends back in the United States plead with Mimbimi to take them back organic pyramid crystal salt and Javanese comet’s tail peppercorn.
Watermelon, ubiquitous in the tropics, takes centre stage in another dish on the latest Nutmegs menu. The bright pink and yellow of the fruit become even more vivid as the sugars slowly caramelise over the grill, and Mimbimi, gliding around his kitchen like a captain in control of his ship, explains that he takes his inspiration for dishes such as this largely from the seasons.
“We’re moving out of the rainy season, we’ve gone into the end of it, so I think it’s the weather… That’s pretty much what normally inspires me.”
One of the watermelon slices are spread with a sundried tomato tapenade, a mixture of in-house prepared tomatoes, garlic, parsley, balsamic vinegar, capers, black olives and fresh herbs from Bali’s cooler mountainous north. Topped with the second watermelon slice, this is another dish almost completely local.
Mimbimi, who has worked in Singapore, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Las Vegas, Jamaica’s Montego Bay, Thailand’s Phuket, St Thomas in the Caribbean and his home town of New York, typically gets inspired to create a particular dish by beginning with a single ingredient.
“I challenge my suppliers a lot to bring me new items. My seafood suppliers really don’t like phone calls from me!” he quips.
A supplier must have delivered the calamari we sample only hours earlier: the polenta-crusted flesh is exquisitely tender. It comes nestled on a bed of Thai-style spicy salad with a bit of a kick, a great compliment to the calamari.
Seafood makes another appearance in the form of tandoori prawns locked together on a plate, then surrounded by a lake of luscious curried tomato soup, normally plated at the table for diners. A crunchy pappadum completes the dish.
Beef is one item Mimbimi notes isn’t quite up to scratch in Indonesia, and “oxtail soup is different to a sirloin steak.” “A few things you can’t source locally, so you have to be flexible, and you have to be willing to adapt to your surroundings,” he says. “In my experience I’ve been fortunate enough to work in places like Kuala Lumpur where no pork or pork products are allowed in the kitchen, or even cooking with wine, so you learn how to work without an ingredient.”
His beef take sees braised boneless short ribs served with a beetroot mash, vegetable stack and a shiraz wine reduction. It’s a plate of rich, seductive colour, with the meat melting in the mouth as its flavour melds with the scrumptious beetroot and wine.
Vegetarians will be pleased to hear that for two years, Mimbimi was a vegetarian after being underwhelmed by the quality of meat in the Caribbean. He went back to eating meat when he left the Carribean… to go and work in a steakhouse.
“Now I have vegetarians come in and I have a thousand different things I am able to do for them.”
Finally, those seeking a dish whose recipe is of local provenance should go directly to Mimbimi’s nasi hu’uduk, which comes in lunch or a more exotic dinner form: sambal lobster tail (prawns at lunch time), coconut rice, wagyu beef rendang (drop the wagyu when you’re in at midday), chilli omelet, and condiments such as crunchy veggie pickles.
Who could possibly order carbonara at a restaurant like this?