Samantha Brown – Southeast Asian-based journalist and editor

Top 10 romantic things to do Valentine’s Day on Bali

01.02.2010 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Travel ::

Sunset cocktails and candlelit dinners might all be very well for Valentine’s Day — off the island of Bali. But here, on the island, dear Don Juans and Mae Wests, you’ve really got to show a little more imagination: Cocktails and candlelight are de rigueur every day of the year here, after all.

Woo your lover with your mind by thinking up something a little out of the ordinary to do. If something below isn’t actually on the day itself, give a little hand-made voucher pledging to redeem it when the time is right; and then, of course, offer cocktails and a candlelit dinner.

1) Set sail while the sun rises

Hire a colourful local sailing boat from one of the bowl-helmet clad boatmen along sleepy Sanur beach to enjoy the pastel-coloured sky as the sun peeks behind distant, white-cliffed Nusa Penida. Pack a thermos of coffee and a few croissants to munch on as you and your beloved enjoy the views. The insect-like traditional boats will use sail if there’s enough wind, otherwise you’ll chug along using the engine. Another fine spot to watch the big sky’s baby pinks and blues melt away is from Amed. With Lombok in the distance, watch your boatman trawl for fish as you tell your lover you’ve already snared the catch of the day. Wherever you head, organise the boat the day before, so you can be sure your boatman will be there right before dawn. Negotiate the full price and length of time you’ll be out beforehand, too. For Sanur, expect to pay around 200,000 rupiah per hour, though of course it all depends on your negotiating skills. Amed should be slightly cheaper.

2) Get physical while the sun sets

Impress your beau with your knowledge of Bali’s best beaches and head to Balangan on the Bukit for a sunset walk, heart-to-heart and a back-to-basics beer at one of the half-dozen or so bamboo warungs. This excellent surfing beach has long been on surfers’ maps but it still feels like an adventure to get here. These days it’s quickly changing. You’ll be able to head back one day, say after your first child is born, and reminisce about back-in-the-day. Alternatively, ride into the sunset along Batu Belig beach on a couple of horses booked ahead of time from Umalas Equestrian Resort. The pounding of hooves into the volcanic sand, the vivid sky, the thundering surf… you get the idea. A 2-hour beach tour will set you back $72 per person.

(http://www.balionhorse.com)

3) Have a “whirl”wind romance

Bali is amazing at ground level, but even more so viewed from above. To really knock the socks off that someone special, charter a helicopter to whisk you both away into the big blue. Get a completely different perspective on those dramatic volcanoes, enamelled lakes and paddies, beaches, ancient temples in impossible locations and towering white cliffs. Air Bali has charter flights starting at US$990 for a 30-minute flight down to Uluwatu, for a maximum of four people. At that price, you may want to make it a double date, but either way you’ll be conjuring a priceless memory to last a lifetime. You may want to progress to one of the quieter suggestions on this list if you’re thinking of popping that lifetime question though, as it’ll be a little too noisy on board for whispering sweet nothings. And of course, make sure ahead of time that you check on whether the object of your desire is afraid of heights.

http://www.airbali.com/

4) Learn about the birds and the bees

Lace up your hiking boots (or not – the boss does these walks in bare feet) and head to the breathtaking hills of Ubud with Victor Mason and his eagle-eyed sidekick Wayan Sumadi. Binoculars and lover in hand, wander with the pair on an enlightening walking tour through the paddy, wetlands, plantation and remaining old-growth forest jungle, pointing out birds, butterflies, dragonflies, interesting plants and all sorts of intriguing natural oddities. Revive along the way by sipping a young green coconut via a hand-fashioned straw. British-born Victor and Balinese Su have been running the offbeat walks since 1993 and their banter and exhaustive knowledge of the area will impress, well, whoever it is you’re trying to impress.

(http://www.balibirdwalk.com)

5) Listen to the sounds of silence

Yes, you’re in love: Gaze adoringly into each other’s eyes, not even murmuring words of endearment but simply, silently floating on air… well, maybe you’re floating in water. Buddy up with your beau and take the plunge diving for a date with a little drama. You’ll need to have appropriate certifications to go on a scuba dive to any of the truly interesting dive sites, so either take an entry level course if you haven’t got your card or try an introductory dive, which allows you to glimpse the underwater world under the watchful eyes of instructors. If that all seems like too much effort, consider snorkelling — when that big scary fish glides past you’ll have the perfect excuse to hold hands. Scuba Duba Doo offers snorkelling safaris, introductory dives as well as the PADI open water course.

(http://www.divecenterbali.com)

6) Scream and shout and then make out

Bali Treetop Adventure Park at Bedugal is set amid towering – you guessed it – trees. Corporate groups use the Park for team building exercises but individuals can also strap on the safety gear and get high – as high as 20 metres. You’ll flit from tree to tree using suspended bridges, spider nets, flying foxes, swings and other tortuous looking devices. It looks a lot easier than it actually is, so you’ll probably have a few arguments working out how to get to the end of the course – think Amazing Race, without the cameras – but then you’ll have the rest of the evening to make it up to each other. Walk-in cost is US$20 per person. Too daunting? Sedate strawberry picking at one of the Bedugal farms might instead bring out your best inner Jane Austen character.

(http://www.balitreetop.com)

7) Picnic in the park

Pack a picnic hamper of wine, cheese, breads, dips and pastries (a one-stop shop such as the Bali Catering Company or Bali Deli will do the trick) and dine al fresco, sans sand. That’s right, forget about the beach and head instead to verdant Bedugal Botanical Gardens for a spacious spread of lawn as well as an array of exotic plants. A world away from paddy and surf, this cool spot is popular with picnicking locals but is so sprawling you’re bound to find a quiet corner to yourselves. If you do insist on a beachside picnic, hire an open-air VW with a driver, don scarves and sunnies and zip over to tucked away Whitesand Beach (Pasir Putih). Volks World offers full day trips for 450,000 rupiah, including driver.

8) Get wiped out

Of course, your lover already metaphorically wiped you out when you met, but how about experiencing the real deal together? Surfing after all is at heart all about the romance: the romance of the ocean, the romance of the crashing waves, the romance of being all alone when you catch that perfect tube… Rip Curl School of Surf offers a range of learn-to-surf classes, including private lessons you could arrange for two (one 75-minute class costs US$100 for one person). An alternative wipe-out might be white-water rafting on the Ayung River in Ubud. You’ll need to join with others for your adventure but amid the scenery – slicing through volcanic foothills draped with rainforest – and the adrenalin rush, you’ll only have eyes for you-know-who. Sobek organises two-hour class 2 expeditions costing US$79 per person.

(http://www.schoolofsurf.com, 0361 735 858) (http://www.balisobek.com)

9) Beat a retreat

Ingredients: One small bag, one lover and one cleansing, spiritual hideaway. Directions: Mix for several days, with dashes of yoga, swimming and massage. Recipe for: A truly reconnected couple ready to face the world united again. Magical Desa Seni, an array of individual houses shipped from around the Indonesian archipelago nestled in the rice fields of Canggu, offers regular yoga classes as well as an array of spiritual classes and retreats listed on their website. Their food is mostly organic, mostly vegetarian, and much of it comes directly from their garden. Spend time unwinding, retuning your bodies and getting in touch with each other again. A lower budget option but in the same vein is mountainside Prana Dewi, which offers regular yoga and meditation retreats along with organic food.

(http://www.desaseni.com) (www.balipranaresort.com)

10) Let the love flow free

Forget boring old ordinary sensual massages at spas overlooking the sea… Take an intelligent approach to massage and use it to unblock any energy bottlenecks in your body, helping not just your romantic life but your holistic self. Ketut Arsana, a Balinese Mahatma therapist, is the founder of Ubud’s renowned Bodyworks, where physical, mental and spiritual healing is the order of the day. Book well ahead of time for consecutive half-hour massages including chakra healing with the master himself for 550,000 rupiah. Chakras are energy centres in the spine, with each of the seven chakras representing major areas of life as well as physical reactions in parts of the body. Chakra healing will clear any blocked energy, allowing the chakras, and therefore the person, to function as completely as possible. Read between the lines, people!

(http://www.ubudbodyworkscentre.com)

Wines of Karma

01.01.2010 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Food ::

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

01.01.2010 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Food ::

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.”

Dava delight

01.12.2009 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Food ::

Zipping across the island in a hunt for fresh tomatoes was not something William Gumport envisioned lying ahead when he jetted into Bali last July to head Ayana Resort’s upmarket Dava restaurant.

But he has found himself making a mad moped-dash for them, along with a sprinkling of other items, as he settles in to life as a chef de cuisine on the sometimes unpredictable island. While Bali offers plenty William was expecting, tussling with suppliers was not one of them.

“That’s one thing I had no idea about. I got over it pretty fast — I’m okay with that challenge,” says unflappable William. We’re chatting at an intimate Dava table jutting into a pond punctuated with lotus flowers shuttered against the dusk. A breeze from Jimbaran Bay below stirs the leaves of surrounding trees.

The chef, who has served time in eateries in Las Vegas and New York, jumped at the opportunity to work in Indonesia, despite never travelling here before. William’s Asia experience extended to living in China for a few months when he was younger with his family and a trip to Japan.

“I had never thought of Indonesia until the opportunity y came about and I’m very happy I made the leap,” he says, adding that he had been passively looking for work in Asia for two or three years.

“My concern honestly was with the people and attitudes and what I would be running into, basically because I didn’t know any Indonesians… I came with an open mind and these people have totally won me over.”

On arrival, William decided to eschew the usual Bali expat ghettoes and set himself up in an apartment at nearby Kedonganan beach.

“I definitely wanted to be able to immerse myself a little bit more into what’s going on around here and down there is mostly Hindu. It’s very representative of the Bali population so I’m happy with it.”

In the name of research, William has stuck his nose into Denpasar’s main market as well as a slew of local ones, he’s popped into the fish market at Kedonganan and even swept through the aisles of Carrefour, which does a good range of produce from around the archipelago.

Essentially William seeks to use the “incredible” local fruit, vegetables and seafood along with imported products such as beef, lamb, vinegars and olive oils to create a menu international in flavour, but not technically fusion.

“If I do something Asian, I kind of stick to those flavour profiles. If I do something European, I kind of stick to that profile,” he explains. “I do believe in classics, in classic combinations. I respect tradition.”

William’s next challenge is to source more interesting produce from Bali’s smaller farms. He has a series of meetings lined up in Bedugal in the days ahead to get to know some of the key suppliers there.

“They have all these resources. You just have to go out and kind of adjust a little bit but it’s all there for the taking,” says William. “I really am trying to use as many Indonesian things as possible but I’m trying to put them into a context that Westerners and Japanese would be familiar with. Using those ingredients just makes sense.”

The local market is already providing rich threads for the fine tapestry the chef weaves into his six-course degustation menu, which William aims to change weekly.

The menu follows a standard routine: Amuse bouche, followed by an appetizer, a seafood, a red meat, then two desserts. “I kind of think in a traditional Western way about how to fill those in. It could be the ingredients, something that I’ve seen, it could be a technique or a dish that I’ve done before that is inspiration — it could be a number of things.”

The amuse bouche on tonight’s degustation menu—the most European one William has done so far—is a case in point for both local sourcing and using a technique William has been experimenting with: local beetroot gazpacho with Dijon mustard ice cream and a drizzle of hazelnut oil.

“Basically I wanted to do a cold soup, ice cream sorbet combination because I’ve been doing that with a couple of things, and this is a combination that I know and I like. We found some beets that were grown here and Dijon mustard is a flavour that is not indigenous to here, but it’s similar to Japanese wasabi, if you can understand that, so it’s something that [Japanese guests] can relate to,” he says.

The appetizer of calamari is also local, and amazingly tender, served julienned after being marinated in preserved lemon, parsley and herb oil, alongside potatoes crushed with a touch of mayonnaise and garlic and romanesco sauce.

The warmed-till-rare yellowfin tuna up next is another local item, and delectable—“Tuna is like a luxury item in the United States so I was excited to see that”—and the beef following allows William to use two local ingredients he’s loving: ginger flower and tamarind.

It’s slow-cooked wagyu cheek, glazed in tamarind with wilted spinach, mango chutney, white radish and the flower, which William had read about but never used before coming to Bali. Traditionally the Balinese use it in a sambal, chopped and mixed with chillies and shallots, served alongside meat and fish.

“I use it more in like a Western way, where you cut it really fine and you sprinkle it on things, or use it to infuse broths,“ William says.

The plentiful tamarind on the island has also captured William’s imagination.

“You can get it in the United States but here you walk outside and it’s on the tree, and it’s like, wow! I need to think of some things that I can do with this!”

Dessert begins with a beautifully caramelised pineapple tart tatin served with banana ice cream subtly flavoured with rum. And Dessert Number Two—William concedes that a “pre-dessert” is really just another dessert—is a parfait of chocolate mousse, coffee gelee, chocolate streusel and rum cream.

How does William keep his work exciting day in and out? “For one, it’s exciting driving my moped every day — near death experience keeps you alive. But it’s searching out these places. Meeting these people. Meeting other food professionals. It’s learning a new language. You’re only bored if you’re lazy.” It looks like Dava is going to be kept exciting for a long time to come.

Simon Blaby at Karma Resorts (profile)

01.12.2009 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Food ::

It began with two weeks of peeling prawns at a restaurant for no pay a quarter of a century ago, give or take: Now the sparkling culinary career of Australian Simon Blaby has brought him to Karma resorts in Bali, where he’s shaking up menus and adroitly steering esteemed Di Mare, Nammos and the Steakhouse into the future.

Blaby once aspired to be a graphic designer, but work experience placements for that particular career were filled, so he was asked whether he might be interested in going to a restaurant instead.

“I had no idea what I was getting myself in for,” he admits over flat white coffees at Karma Jimbaran’s airy poolside Steakhouse.

It was 1985 and his mother decked him out in an oversized chef’s jacket to turn up for work at the restaurant.

“I got there and basically stood in the corner and peeled prawns for two weeks for 12 hours a day,” he says.

On his final day, the chef asked what he was doing for dinner and Blaby confessed he was going to eat at a renowned fast food restaurant again, as he’d been doing on his breaks for the two weeks.

“He said, ‘You can’t eat that garbage!’ He sat me down in his office, at his desk, and cooked me the most amazing rump steak I have ever had in my life, with French fries and salad. And that was it for me. My career path was set.”

It wasn’t just about the steak, but also the sense of camaraderie that came with working in a restaurant that appealed to the then-schoolboy, who soon attended a six-month pre-apprentice course before winning an apprenticeship at Adelaide’s Sebel Townhouse.

Two years there were followed by two years at a “gastro pub” – it was the beginning of that era of gourmet food in gleaming, refurbished pubs — where Blaby completed his apprenticeship. Then travel started to work its way into his bones. Blaby headed to Alice Springs, in the heart of Australia, to work a stint at the isolated Sheraton for a year.

Memorable events included setting up for a five-course degustation dinner at a telegraph station outside Alice Springs, with white tablecloths, silver cutlery and French glassware on a red desert floor, with wandering kangaroos, wallabies and lizards stopping by to visit charmed diners.

“They would bus in French and German tourists who would walk over the rise and you’d hear a collective gasp of amazement rise up.”

After a period at an eco-resort in Queensland, Blaby headed back to Adelaide to work at riverside restaurant the Jolly Boathouse, which collected a swathe of awards as Blaby worked his way up to head chef.

With itchy feet again, Blaby headed to the Sunshine Coast to work at The Spirit House, a Thai restaurant in the hinterlands of Noosa. The owners sent the up and coming chef to Thailand on his first overseas trip to get a feel for the kingdom’s cuisine. His trip took in the capital Bangkok, former royal capital Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai and Ko Samui.

At the time Thai cooking was becoming very in vogue in Australia – “a culinary lantana”, he quips – but he and his team read obscure Thai cookbooks to research more unusual dishes, and ran a cooking school as well.

“Thai food is very much a discipline and not so much a cuisine… That was a huge learning curve — it was like another apprenticeship.”

Then Blaby’s Balinese fate was sealed.

He met a hotel manager who asked whether he’d be interested in working at her resort, the then Serai and now Alila Manggis. She flew Blaby up to take a peek around, including a browse through less-than-touristy Klungkung market.

“That was my first exposure to an open-air Asian market – we didn’t see any in Thailand – and it was pretty mind blowing, that’s for sure. That was it for me.”

Blaby called his wife, Saffron, to ask her to start packing their bags, and they arrived in 2002. While experimenting with the menu at the Serai, Blaby got an intensive training in Balinese cuisine when he asked his staff to each bring in three recipes each for a starter, main and dessert.

“Some of them were great, some not so great, some were brilliant,” he said of the experiment.

The Blabys returned home briefly after Bali’s first bombing but the lure to return was too strong: “Saffron sums Bali up best: ‘It speaks to your soul.’ ”

Blaby had met the owner of Bali’s iconic La Lucciola who regularly ate from his menu at the Serai and that was where Blaby headed next, taking the helm there for five years during which he sought to create a menu that pushed the boundaries of the usual Italian fare on the island.

Then, last November, Blaby started afresh at Karma as executive chef and was soon promoted to food and beverage manager, a move that pushed him outside of his comfort zone to do different things, from designing wine and cocktail lists to training waiters.

“Chefs have a use-by date,” Blaby explains. “It’s physically demanding work. All of a sudden you have 25 year old guys running circles around you and you think ‘Oh, might be time to step out now.’ "

His ambition for the restaurants he oversees is to provide, quite simply, the best food possible. He sees the menus’ focus tightening in on light, healthy food, with a bit of comfort food thrown in and some celebration food.

“At a hotel you’re always going to have things like a club sandwich on the menu, so if you’re going to have a club sandwich, make it a great club sandwich: Make it with great bread and really nice smoked chicken and fantastic home-made mayonnaise and crispy bacon.”

As far as overall trends go, Blaby predicts a shift away from the fussier foams now all the rage back in the vaguely macrobiotic direction with an emphasis on healthy, green cuisine, and on sourcing local products.

The latter have flourished on the island in recent years, with for instance a local maker now producing mozzarella, which Blaby uses on Karma’s pizzas, though a Caprese salad will still see the traditional Italian cheese used for its unique flavour. Blaby also seeks to source sustainable fish. Swordfish, coral trout and grouper are off Karma’s menus as fishermen will smash reefs to get to them. Barramundi, snapper and fish caught in open water is okay, along with large scampi which are usually farmed.

“I’d hate to put food out that had been somehow ethically corrupted for whatever reason, by whomever,” he says. “That’s what I see the future of food being, really… Food that doesn’t cost the earth to put on the plate, for the consumer or the creator.”

Blaby has also shaved prices to encourage people to eat at Karma, and get rid of the general stigma often still attached to hotel dining.

“We deliver value for money and we have good quality food and service… You can swing on down to the beach and have a great Asian meal at night time at Nammos or you can go to Di Mare and have a degustation menu. Or you can stay in your room and have a burger — which is what I like doing.”

Kind of like right back at the start of his career?

“Yes, but now I eat Wagyu burgers!” he jokes.

Victor Mason Bird Walk

01.12.2009 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Travel ::

Victor Mason, clad in an open floral shirt, hands me a list of the names of 53 birds that I might spot on our ramble through Ubud’s patchwork of paddies this morning.

“Yes, you can tick them off, if you like! Twitchers, we call them, the ones who like to tick.” Victor speaks in the sort of British accent you usually only see on TV.

Five other birdwatching enthusiasts are heading out with us, along with Victor’s eagle-eyed sidekick Sumadi. The loquacious pair have been running these walks since 1993.

“Shall we?” Victor asks. Someone mentions Victor’s lack of shoes. I had been worried that my flipflops might not be sufficiently hardy for today’s hike, but Victor, a resident of Bali for some 40 years, is still not wearing any at all.

“Oh! I never wear shoes. Except when one must – hospitals, for instance, or airports, that sort of thing. Is that alright?”

Binoculars swinging round our necks, we stroll down Ubud’s main street over that old rusting Campuhan bridge, stopping every few metres to exclaim over a bird, butterfly, or indeed plant. I’m reminded of how I learned during snorkelling that you don’t really need to move very far at all to see a lot. Be perceptive and you’ll see a lot – especially when you’re with Victor or Sumadi, who can’t help but regale you with fascinating facts, stories and colourful opinion.

Victor mentions that the bird we’re really after today is the magnificent Javan kingfisher – and once we’ve seen that, he jokes, we may as well head home.

At last, we are off the main road. Rounding a bend, paddy stretches before us. Sumadi gives a little cry.

“What do you have, Sumadi?” calls Victor.

It is, of course, a Javan kingfisher (um, that would be number 20 on my list), its blue feathers shimmering in the mid-morning light, sitting preternaturally still on a bamboo pole in the far distance. We need our binoculars to see it. None of us have any idea how Sumadi might have managed to spot it.

“Ah one suspects she’s been out with her glue pot again!” Victor mutters. “Fantastic!”

It is, even to my untrained eye, a gorgeous bird, but there’s plenty more to come.

In fairly quick succession we see a white-bellied swiflet (number 17), a scaly breasted munia (45), and an olive-backed sunbird (41).

“Co-op-er-a-tion, please!” Sumadi rallies us back into a tight group if we’ve spread too thin and she’s spotted something worthy – it could be a nest, or some eggs.

“Look, if she can’t see it, there’s no point any of us trying to have a look,” Victor confides at one point.

The paddy paths we are following, for the most part, are little thoroughfares for villagers, tourists and even cyclists.

“I say chaps! Lovely hats you’re wearing!” Victor calls out to the half-dozen Indonesian cyclists who scoot past on their own little adventure.

What’s amazing to me is that in such a completely agricultural and reasonably bustling area so many beautiful birds, butterflies and wild plants can still be seen. You just need to know what you’re looking for – or you just need to look.

We stroll down what Victor calls “Butterfly Pass” and indeed, it’s alive with flitting yellows, oranges, browns and blues. Sumadi adroitly captures the insects, noting that she is not crushing their abdomens so they will be quite alright once she lets them fly off.

Plenty of dragonflies also dart around, but Sumadi says she’s still in the process of learning about them.

“I don’t know their species yet. Nature’s got a lot to teach and one year is nothing. Every day, I learn just a little bit,” she says.

We pass wild yellow orchids growing on the edge of one paddy – Sumadi says she’s tried to grow them at home, but with no luck. Victor points out a paddy that is old-style Bali rice, a green slightly paler than the vibrant ones we’ve otherwise seen. Then we reach an open vista stretching down into a deep gully and back up again on the other side.

“There’s Bali, in a nutshell!” Victor explains that right where we stand is wetlands, where rice is cultivated, a little further below is plantation – coconuts, bananas – and further down still, maybe 30 metres below us, stretches old growth forest, harbouring amazing birds, monkeys and other wildlife.

We stop for a drink of young coconut before traipsing down into the “jungle” – Victor says he’s being slightly facetious when he calls it that — but it is a different sort of flora. A vertiginous drop is shielded only by enough foliage to make you think you could keep walking straight over it.

Four hours after our initial departure we are ejected back onto Ubud’s main road, metres away from where we started. As Victor might say: “It was marvellous!”

See http://www.balibirdwalk.com/ for further information about Victor and Sumadi’s walks.

Ku De Ta Sundays

01.11.2009 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Food ::

The picture looks a little something like this: Ku De Ta’s iconic red diamond umbrellas are vibrant against an impossibly azure sky, a light breeze swirling wisps of white cloud on the horizon. Sprawling daybeds beckon you to stretch out on this sunny morning, sip a smoothie and get mesmerised by the rolling Seminyak surf as the occasional horse trots past and colourful kites tethered to the volcanic sands flap and swoon.

There’s just one hindrance to a few hours spent browsing the papers or chatting with friends over brunch: Your children. Unless it’s Sunday.

Welcome to Ku De Ta’s Family Dayze, where a team of cheerful staff are on hand to occupy the smaller members of your family, so you might actually have a chance to drink your latte while it’s still hot or indeed eat your ricotta hotcakes without having to share with Ms Sticky Fingers.

On this early Sunday morning, a jumping castle complete with slide has been inflated to one side of Ku De Ta’s pool, while a canopy across the other shades an array of activities to keep creative hands busy. A gaggle of kids are filling tiny bottles with lemon, lilac, aqua and vermillion sand, bubs are lining up for their KDT helium balloons and all manner of crafty items are unfurling on the tables. A minigolf ramp is being set up and other activities you might find include facepainting and temporary tattoos, while on occasions such as World Clean Up day, the activities on offer will be related – think arts and crafts focused on recycling.

Later a barbecue will be fired up, with hot dogs, burgers, chicken wings and ice cream served to the kids – this in addition to Ku De Ta’s children’s menu, which chef Phil Davenport says was freshened up three or four months ago after an internet survey on what kids like to eat.

“We’re a venue that caters to every walk of life. We’ve got seven or eight different menus, about 160 things you can choose from — it’s a lot of food,” says Davenport, who has just returned from Singapore having seen Ku De Ta snag number 9 spot for the 2009-2010 Miele Guide to Asian restaurants (Bali’s Mozaic came in at number 6.)

As your kids are distracted, it means you can browse the brunch menu. All the standards are there, along with standout items including heurvos rancheros with a fried egg, red cumin beans, avocado, sour cream and rancheros sauce and the poached eggs on toasted sourdough with a mushroom ragout, ricotta and lemon butter dressing.

Phil says he and head chef Ben Cross sometimes adapt old classics to bring them up to date. “We don’t try and change the base recipe too much, we might just change the way it looks. We want to be able to present some old classics but done a little bit differently.”

It seems a shame not to ask for Phil’s suggestions just in case you linger on through a Sunday and into dinner. His picks? Start with the Scandinavian-style scampi skargan.

“It’s like a mayonnaise mix, some fine fish roe, some chives, some shallots, lots of lemon juice and diced scampi through it. It’s really tasty. It’s served on little hash browns… with some creme fraiche and some dill and some trout roe.”

As a main, among Phil’s picks is the sweet Alaskan black cod marinated in miso for two days, served with a really light pickled daikon salad – “a beautiful dish.” Or the roasted lamb rack, another classic that’s become a Ku De Ta signature. Dessert? “The macademia nut tart has been another classic that we’ve kept on and it’s one of my favourites, but I’m liking this mango parfait, and the double chocolate tart is pretty insane if you’re a chocolate head.”

But back to Family Dayze. The concept began six years ago, explains Donni One, Ku De Ta’s marketing and creative director. “As you know Ku De Ta has a wide range of clientele and families are a very big part of that. We decided to create an actual day for them, which would be Sundays, where families could come in and have their brunch or lunch and allow their kids to have some activities too for the day,” he says.

Now the Sundays are augmented on special occasions such as Christmas and Easter with bigger family days, with even more activities and entertainment. These days can attract 100 to 200 kids, while busy Sundays draw in around 80 to 100 children. Asked about whether the children might annoy other patrons, Donni emphasises that there’s room for everyone.

“But generally it’s really early Sunday morning — up until 1 or 2 o’clock. I mean some people stick around but we’re not talking like they’re running around spraying people with water guns!”

Overall numbers at Ku De Ta have held well over the past few years, despite the shocks of the 2002 and 2005 bombings on the island, Donni says.

“We’ve been very lucky, very fortunate. We’ve also got very good security here. We try to pride ourselves on having that. We outsource to people who come in here and train our guys and make sure that they always have the correct and up-to-date information on what’s going on as far as intel is going,” he says.

For large events, “we can get up to 100 personnel from the air force to police to banjars, and you don’t see them necessarily but they’re there, they’re there. And we need to do that so people feel safe to come here.”

Ku De Ta’s main market, Donni says, is very diverse. “We’ve got everyone from CEOs to fashion designers to just families and surfers. Especially having a beach club, it’s very, very casual during the day and as you move into night it’s a little more upmarket in a sense. And it’s good to see that when people come here they do want to dress up a little more.”

Jasper Manifold meanwhile is the man to talk to if you’ll be needing a cocktail as Sunday morning blends into Sunday afternoon and the kids are still happily making picture frames under the marquee.

Ku De Ta’s cocktail forte, Jasper suggests, are their fresh twists on old favourites.

“We’ve got cocktails here that at first glance people may –cringe isn’t the word – but find rather surprising at a venue that is offering five-star food and cocktails,” Jasper says. The pina colada may not be looked upon very well, for instance, but the original recipe was a very well balanced cocktail, Jasper enthuses.

“What we’ve done here is we’ve made maybe not the original recipe but we’ve definitely made a beautiful, refreshing cocktail — and then what we’ve done is put a roasted coconut foam on the top. And that is an amazing drink. It’s not too creamy, not too coconuty.”

Along the same lines he says is their long island iced tea. “A lot of the time I’d say it’s probably drunk by people who drink the drink because it’s the one with all the alcohol and it gets you drunk very fast. Whereas here what we do is we make a long island iced tea with all those spirits but the total amount is no more or less than a standard drink — but then on top there’ll be a coca cola and a lemonade foam.”

Then there’s the cuba libra, originally a rum and coke with a squeeze of lime. Ku De Ta’s take is a large measure of rum, served with a frozen ball of coke with a flower-cut lime – the ball nestles into the rum and slowly melts. “There will be a dark, beautiful rum that is very slowly softened out by the coke and the lime.”

The cocktail trend into next high season looks set to revolve around molecular mixology, Jasper predicts. Expect to see more items such as the bacon Manhattan.

“This is going to sound pretty weird but it tastes really good!” Jasper promises. The bourbon is infused with bacon fat, served in a martini glass garnished with a piece of bacon.

Now that might just go well with your eggs on a perfect Seminyak Sunday.

Karma Wine Dinners

01.10.2009 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Food ::

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

01.10.2009 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Food ::

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.”

Brandon Huisman at The Bale

01.09.2009 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Food ::

Chef Brandon Huisman is hungry. He wants to know whether I like pizza, and do I eat pork? I do, and I do.

“The chorizo flatbread, please,” he orders as the final dish for our lunch. We’ve a table at sleek-lined Faces, the in-house eatery at The Bale in Bali’s tranquil Nusa Dua. All wood and stainless steel and gleaming glass, airy Faces is the kind of restaurant that makes you want to eat food for the soul.

Indeed it’s a “Wellness Corner” menu that Brandon has most recently introduced, and his passion for organically-grown and locally-sourced food is what he’s known for.

“We always had a spa menu but it was only for the spa and in-room dining, so it was the one thing I hadn’t put my stamp on,” says the accomplished chef of the menu.

“I wanted to do something special so I spent quite a bit of time researching it, and I’ve incorporated it on the lunch and dinner menu as well,” he explains, noting that the complete nutritional value of each dish is listed on the menu, something people who are carefully watching their cholesterol, for instance, will welcome.

“It was a little painstaking to get that information,” he confesses.

The light, summery dishes – think rice paper ravioli, think golden gazpacho — are a complete departure from the cream-laden cuisine Brandon was trained classically to produce in Paris.

“Pretty much anyone who goes to school, you get a foundation in that. You don’t really go to culinary school and learn how to do vegan cuisine. So I took it upon myself and just researched it.”

So first up we split two dishes from the Wellness Corner menu.

The organic quinoa salad with nashi pear, papaya relish, toasted almonds and curry vinaigrette (95,000 rupiah++) is light, yet flavoursome, the curry flavour a startling but delicious collision with the crispy greens from the mountains of Bedugal. The dish is subtly sweetened by the pear and given substance by the delicate spirals of quinoa. Orange edible flowers flecked with black lift the presentation well beyond the ordinary.

“I guess my philosophy would be to look at what’s in season, what’s organic, what’s grown by the local farmers and then form my menu and recipes from that,” Brandon says, adding that only when he can’t find an ingredient at the quality he demands will he then use an imported product.

Beef, for instance, is sourced from abroad, but all the fish is locally sourced, including the spiced rare tuna, our second selected dish. Served with enoki mushrooms, pea shoots, citrus vinaigrette and carmelized pomelo gastrique (115,000 rupiah++), it’s a riot of freshness, and the tuna is melt-in-the-mouth. Red radish sprouts from Australia garnish the plate, adding more colour to an already vibrant presentation.

These concoctions are also set to feature at a second restaurant The Bale will manage from August. Bamboo, at the Amala in Seminyak, will be just four or five tables with a similar health-inspired theme.

“The focus is on the wellness and holistic, so we’re going to basically take what we have here, shrink it and put it over there,” Brandon enthuses.

He looks forward to shuttling between the two properties. He and his wife, a pastry chef, spent time in Bhutan managing the food in four lodges, so he’s used to being on the prowl. “When you’re in the same place for a few weeks at a time you kind of get in a rut. But when you can go to a new property, you see things again with fresh eyes. It stops it becoming stale.” Our health kick is over.

Next up from the standard Faces menu comes our chorizo flatbread (175,000 rupiah++), its heady aroma heralding its arrival. It’s a meat-lover’s nirvana, slathered in sliced chorizo, chunks of pork belly, salty bacon, arugula, dabs of blue cheese and a sprinkling of chilli flakes.

“Kind of like going to McDonalds and getting your Big Mac and Diet Coke,” Brandon quips.

It seems doubtable that this American would be frequenting fast food joints very often and he admits that he eats well at home. (“You’d be surprised! I offset it with the Bintang,” he says with remorse, patting some very negligible padding.)

He cooks four or five times a week at home, dining with his wife and their 13-month-old son. The couple met at culinary school in France. Brandon was following a passion for food he developed while working in the industry to support himself at college, where he studied business management. His wife, who has a degree in environmental engineering and had been working for GE for a few years, had decided she wanted to open a pastry shop, so she dropped everything to follow her dream. And they’ve worked together ever since.

While he’s cautious about eating out – there aren’t too many places in Nusa Dua to begin with and he’s wary of hygiene, MSG and the amount and kind of oil restaurants use – Brandon admits to enjoying regular Sunday forays to the Nusa Dua Beach Grill, a local warung and a local Japanese restaurant. And now he’s spending more time in Seminyak, he’s tried more restaurants there, with Warung Italia and Mannekepis getting his stamp of approval.

I’m curious as to whether the meat-eater has tried Ibu Oka’s legendary babi guling (suckling pig) in Ubud. He has – but a take-out version his manager brought to him.

“I can’t go to Ubud without going past Naughty Nuri’s.” He confesses that he has to have a plate of their famed succulent barbecue ribs when he’s nearby. And while he’s sussed out that the sauce is based on Indonesia’s kecap manis, there’s a mystery ingredient he hasn’t been able to put his finger on, he says with some disappointment.

Guests invited round to the Huismans’ for meals are typically treated to a joint effort, a grill with maybe some steaks, barbecue ribs and chicken wings, along with home-made pizzas and salad. A wood-fired pizza oven is in fact currently under construction at their house, along with a home-made barbecue grill made with a 50-gallon drum.

What would he whip up for a vegetarian popping over? “Ah, they wouldn’t be invited!” he laughs, before conceding that, if he had to, he’d probably do a platter of grilled vegetables, particularly of local asparagus if it was in season. And if he really wanted to impress, I imagine he could probably pull a few strings and get some Faces take out.