Courtesy of Le Seminyak
With its unique culture and natural beauty, Bali is Indonesia's undisputed shining star on the international map.
Its cultural attractions are considered second to none, its people are venerated for their friendliness and resourcefulness and its resorts are the stuff that dreams are made of for even the most jaded sybarite.
But while artists, anthropologists and tourists flock to its shores yearning for the exotic, that hunger does not extend to the local cuisine. Part of that has to do with its lack of recognition, except as vaguely understood "food of the Gods" for its special status in religious ceremonies. And save for babi gu-ling (roasted and spiced suckling pig) and satay lilit, Balinese food remains relatively unknown even within Indonesia. In the huge melting pot of Jakarta, there are, of course, Padang, Sundanese and Manadonese eateries aplenty, but it's hard to find a Balinese restaurant.
This is not to imply that Balinese cuisine lacks flavor or is limited in scope. With careful use of spices including garlic, ginger, chilies, turmeric and coriander, and without as much coconut milk as in other Indonesian cuisines, the dishes are a full-on experience for culinary adventurers up to the task.
Writer and restaurateur Janet DeNeefe aptly compares the Balinese cuisine of her adopted homeland to the frenzied kecak dance, boasting sharper, more pungent flavors than the sweeter food of neighboring Java.
"It's really got guts," she told me several years ago. "There's no dilly-dallying, but it's vital, like a shot of energy."
The potential to bring Balinese food to the waiting world was not lost on Novi Kusuma. An avid practitioner of meditation, Bali is one of her favorite retreats. During one meditation course, the fragrant smells of spices being crushed and pounded wafting from the kitchen below inspired her to open a restaurant back in Jakarta.
"We know there is a lot of potential for Balinese food, because while everybody knows about Bali, people don't know about the food," says Novi, one of the partners in Le Seminyak, located on the fifth floor of Pacific Place mall. "Actually there are deep cultural associations with food, and it's very beautiful."
The fear is that any restaurant offering a taste of local food in a high-end mall is bound to be offering half-baked efforts with the spice content toned down for more tony surroundings. Novi says the restaurant, opened a year ago, strives to retain the authentic Bali experience, in keeping with the restaurant motto.
"When it comes to the taste, we've done as much as possible to keep it genuine. We are a bit more moderate when it comes to the use of chilies because few people would be able to stand it if it was just like in Bali."
Chef Nyoman Lother Arsana, who spent many years at the Grand Hyatt Nusa Dua, acts as the quality control for the restaurant, occasionally visiting Jakarta to ensure his recipes are being done right.
"We studied the tastes of Jakartans, and at first we thought that we'd have to reduce the spice or people would get upset stomachs," he says. "But it turned out that many of the people who came here wanted things hot. So now people who come here have to be ready for spiciness."
Good intentions are one thing, but how does Le Seminyak register among Jakarta restaurants promising to serve a genuine taste of the regions?
First of all, though, prospective diners have to find it, which is no simple task. Sandwiched between a pancake house and a Korean restaurant in the South Jakarta mall, and just out of eyeshot as visitors make the turn to the escalators, it's easy to miss, as I did for the past year.
The L-shaped space is surprisingly large, with wooden tables and banquettes in the smoking area at the front, a row of comfortable bale-bale leading on to the dining and bar area at the rear. There are oversize ceramic flowers on the walls, large wooden columns and the main colors of the decor are cheerful orange and earth tones.
It is welcoming, open, bright and relaxed, unlike so many Indonesian "traditional" restaurants which feel they have to wear that tradition loudly on their sleeve. Often they come across as being stuck in a time warp, quaint but stodgy Jakarta restaurant circa 1983, with ethnic elements emphasized to the extreme, from the standard antique furnishings, array of textiles on the walls, tables and, usually, the waiters' uniforms, with dusty china/wooden ornaments at every turn. They are places where you can dine with the older members of your family but would be loathe to hang out with friends.
In contrast, on the two occasions that I visited Le Seminyak - a late Sunday afternoon and last Wednesday evening - the crowd was mostly youngish, 30- and 40-somethings who sat and talked over leisurely meals. In fact, the restaurant is introducing a new menu this week, including more choices of nasi rames (rice and accompaniments), for diners to share (in the same vein of making it a comfortable place to stop by for a while, there also is free WiFi and buy-one,get-one-free coffee from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.)
The waitpeople are attentive, friendly and, very refreshing for Jakarta, they do not push diners along and out the door once they have eaten their meals. They also know their stuff - also refreshing - and can give pointers on the best food to order.
Balinese cooking is home-cooking; DeNeefe quipped that it helps to find a grandma or two who know how to get their spice mix just right. But from my experience at Le Seminyak, nothing seems to have been lost in the more gentrified setting of the mall. The spices were still daringly potent, beckoning diners to take another bite of the hot stuff.
On my two dining experiences, I ate shredded chicken in chili paste, blanched young pumpkin leaves cooked just right, a highly spiced Balinese version of urap (boiled vegetables sprinkled with roasted coconut) and piping hot corn fritters.
It was a delicious meal in a comfortable setting, and good value to boot. We paid about Rp 300,000 for two (there is no service charge, and the menu is halal), including an appetizer, four main courses, two shared desserts and nonalcoholic beverages, about standard for Jakarta mall eateries today. It's a new favorite dining spot to indulge in Balinese cuisine without heading all the way to the real Seminyak.
Pacific Place 5th Floor, Unit 3