Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Eat, pray... nah, stuff that, just EAT: Bali

In my travelling tummy experience often the best meal you’ll eat in a country is the simplest. Goo-y creamy mozzerella and you-can-still-taste-the-green-of-the-vine tomatoes in Rome, a bowl of steaming fresh mussels in white wine and skinny just-crisp-enough frites in Bruges, a so buttery-it’s-almost-melting warm croissant fresh from the boulangerie in Paris (not forgetting the Malboro Red on the side – there’s a reason why those French women are so skinny). Well, in Bali it was noodles, fried noodles. I was obsessed.

My new obsession ‘mie goreng’ literally means ‘fried noodles’- that’s it. Although, like its closely related counterpart ‘nasi goreng’ aka, you guessed it, ‘fried rice’, it was rather more than that. My Lonely Planet Bali and Lombok described it as ‘fried noodles with mixed goodies’ but like all the best recipes it depends on the chef. At the core is noodles fried in a piping hot wok with vegetables and a sweet soy spicy sauce, some warungs (roadside food stall-cum-restaurant) would add a fried egg or omelette on top and a variety of crackers – prawn, peanut, vegetable – on the side. Sometimes it’d be with pork, sometimes with chicken, sometimes just plain and simple but always great, and even better, less than £2. I’m sure there is usually shit-loads of MSG in it... uhum, sorry yes we’re calling it umami now. But who cares I was hooked.

We arrived in Bali at night after a long, long, long flight, thrust blinking into the humid darkness and then the bustle of the airport immigration hall. There was a small smiling Balinese man holding a sign with my and Choux Boy’s names, confused looking queues for visas and huge signs about the death penalty for drug dealers everywhere. Not that that was really an issue... I was there ‘officially’ to review some hotels and write about Eat, Pray, Love; unofficially, as always, I was there to eat, eat, eat.

First stop: Jimbaran Bay in South Bali and fortunately, given we hadn’t seen a bed in over 24 hours, only 15 minutes from the airport. Jimbaran Bay, I’d cribbed up from the Lonely Planet, which came to be known as ‘the bible’, is famous with locals and tourists alike for its string of seafood warungs that run the length of its golden arc. From lunchtime you can smell the smoky, salty smell of barbequing fish hauled from the colourful wooden fishing boats that dot the sea if you are up early enough to the ramshackle fish market at the north end of the bay. After sunset the tables stretch down the sand to replace the lapping waves as the tide retreats and candles ripple through the smoke.

The Boy turns from Choux Boy to Action Man on holidays. And he was a man with a plan for Bali – surfing, bodyboarding, sailing, snorkelling, scuba diving were all on our activity agenda. I was a little bit afraid. So day two and cooking school was perfect – an activity and I didn’t even need to get wet. Plus I get to ask a million questions about Balinese food, double win. This was the discovery of mie goreng, this was the start of the trip’s obsession. We start at 8am with a trip to the fish and produce market. The average Balinese day starts well before sunrise at around 4 or 5am with a trip to the market (which opens at 2am!) to get food for the day – no fridges equals daily trips. There was everything crabs, sardines, sharks, mullet all from the bay. Woven baskets full were bought and strung onto thick bamboo poles between two men to be run along the bay to a warung.

Most of Balinese cooking, we’re told, revolves around the key roots: galangal, turmeric and ginger which are on sale everywhere in the produce market along with chillis, Balinese limes (smaller and sweeter), bunches of Thai basil...

But on to the Mie Goreng...

Mie Goreng
courtesy of Wayan Suratha head chef of Warung Mie at Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay (and the Four Seasons Cooking School – hence the rather precise measurements and obsession with julienning)

100g boiled fresh noodles
5g chopped garlic cloves
10g red chilli – julienned
25g carrot – julienned
10g spring onions – julienned
40g chopped onion
10g Napa cabbage
8g sliced leeks
1 tsp fish sauce
1 tsp light soy sauce
1 tsp sweet soya sauce
3 tsp oyster sauce
1 tsp Chinese wine
½ tsp sesame oil
1 tsp chilli sauce
1 tsp white pepper

To garnish
25g of sliced omelette
5g fried shallots

Heat up the wok and pour in oil. Add garlic and fry for 3 seconds before adding onions, napa cabbage, leek, red chilli, carrot, spring onions. Pour in fish sauce, soy sauce, sweet soya sauce, oyster sauce, Chinese wine, chilli sauce and seasame oil. Add noodles and toss well. Check seasoning. Serve topped with omelette and shallots with crackers.

After Jimbaran Bay we travel round the coast and away from the crowd to East Bali and Amankila. And my second Balinese obsession ‘salak’ fruit (don’t worry I was acquiring, not cheating on my food obsessions, I was still having mie goreng for lunch almost every day). I was immediately drawn to it because of its skin. It looks and feel exactly like snakeskin (how long would it last fashioned into a bracelet before I started smelling of rotting fruit I wondered...) The skin is thin and easily peeled away in satisfying strips to reveal the knobbles of the three of four segments of fruit beneath. Good ones were sweet, not juicy but crunched a bit like an apple. The best one I eat was off the basket on the head of a Balinese woman during a hike near the small village of Wates. Our guide Kawit said they were the best in all of Bali...

Goodbye to the mountainous jungle of East Bali, a speedboat and it is replaced by the flat, sand-circled tiny paradise isles of the Gili Islands. Gili Meno, Gili Air and Gili Trawangen, our home in an unairconditioned beach shack for the next five days – which in turn was home to some of the best banana pancakes I have ever eaten, but maybe everything tastes better in the sunshine.

In an island that you can walk around in two hours it will come as no surprise that on this leg the obsession was fish. Fresh, simple, barbequed fish. Sat cross-legged in a thatched-roofed, cushioned balĂ©, large Bintang beer, grilled snapper – there’s not much else I could have asked for, well air-con in the beach shack...

Speedboat, minibus, Ubud. The cultural heart of Bali, but I was still thinking with my stomach. Across from our haven of a hotel, Uma Ubud, a smoking, tin shack with Nuri’s painted in huge white letters on the corregated roof.

(Inside Nuri's: Eat, Pray, Love - Tongue, in, cheek)

It looks slightly like it belongs in a war zone. The infamous Naughty Nuri’s. You’ve got to try the BBQ ribs, and lethal martinis.

Of course, we did. But they never quite beat...

(Nuri's Mie Goreng - me liking)

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Beanz Meanz Heinz

‘You work too hard, you are very tense’

Somehow I don’t think my spa therapist is right right now. I’m lying being scrubbed by sand flown in from St Barts in a treatment room that looks like the VIP room in a flashy nightclub: all low lighting, fibre-optic trim and mirrors, everywhere. Every time I open my eyes I catch sight of my semi-naked sandy flesh. I close my eyes, tight, well I supposed I did get up at 3.15am to meet four journalists I’d never met before and board an ash-free BA flight to Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport. Yes, I was back to Italy. And it was the lure of three Michelin-star dining that got me here.

The Rome Cavalieri is much like the rest of the inhabitants of the city of seven hills: good looking, a bit flash and swaggering with confidence. Oh and like the city itself there are artefacts everywhere. Perched on one of the hills overlooking the Vatican City, it is a church for the worships of beautiful things. Warhol’s, works of Italian masters and Louis XV furniture are crammed in every square inch of lobby, suites and corridors. Everything is superlative: the most expensive spa treatment (it involves a 600 euro pot of platinum), the most impressive views (well it does have one of the seven hills spots) and the best restaurant in Rome. Five week waiting lists (a year for the terrace in summer), a water menu longer than some wine lists and three Michelin stars. It’s the only three Michelin star restaurant in Italy, let alone Rome. According to the guide that means it is ‘worth a special journey’. We’ve made a special journey.

I have to pinch myself. For the second time in as many weeks I’m at the hungry end of a gourmet tasting menu. The previous twenty four hours have been equally surreal: sat on Karl Lagerfeld’s sofa (ok, so he sold it but it’s still his, his bottom has been there), coffee in the palatial apartment of an Italian princess, met a man who makes leather jackets for President Mugabe (in exchange for snakeskins it appears) and took a cracking swing at a polo lesson. I’m living someone else’s life. A very rich Roman’s life.

The restaurant in question, La Pergola, sits in all its opulent glory on the top of the Cavalieri presided over by German Heinz Beck. The neighbouring Penthouse suite, a favourite of George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Julia Roberts et al (she recently stayed for weeks while filming Eat Pray Love) has a secret back entrance and a pre-reserved private table (for 8,000 euros a night there isn’t a waiting list).

Very serious looking young men scurry about doing a dodging dance as they fluff napkins, swap cutlery and offer me a table for my bag the second it touches the ground. There’s a six course menu, bread appears, butter under a glass dome, the famous water menu (including a Swarovski incrusted number for a whopping 200 euros). One of the young scurriers appears with a trolley dedicated to salt – I opt for the black volcanic one from Hawaii.

Ding ding. Round one – a clam and celery amuse bouche with carrot foam. The carrot foam dissolves the second it touches my lips, it tastes like a carrot breathing into my mouth after a day on the beach. But it works. You knew it was going to work, don’t doubt a master.

Bouche amused, now it was time to really get going: a starter of duck liver terrine with smoked apples almonds and ameretti. Soft, smooth, rich with the kick of smoked apple puree and dusted crust of almonds and ameretti - it ticked every box.

A fresh kick came with the infusion of veal, herbs and Tonka beans with tuna tartare and green tea sorbet. I didn't know it at the time but this was possibly my favourite course, I am a sucker for perfect raw fish, but if the raw fish wasn't enough the little golden nugget of a veal dumpling that was nestling next to it sealed the deal. Plus the cold raw fish/ sorbet v.s hot broth and veal dumpling combo was enough to make my mouth want burst into song.

'Don't stop me now, I'm having such a good time, I'm having a ball...' In comes the pasta course, it's Italy it would be criminal to miss it: ricotta tortellini with pecorino and broad beans.

In at four was Cannolo of scampi and vegetables, olive sauce and tapioca with Campari. I know it is three Michelin star but is it wrong to compare them to the best spring rolls you could ever eat? Italian spring rolls if you will...

Into what could now be described as the 'main course' portion of the meal. It was a game of two parts: opening with black cod with marinated anchovy's vinaigrette and sweet chilli pepper. There was a lot of debate as to what our black shard consisted of - it was fine pastry no doubt but charcoal? Was that a hint of liquorice, a nod to things to come?

And after a short interval: liquorice flavoured shoulder of Iberian suckling pig with herbed potatoes. It tasted like it had been griddled on a pan made of liquorice - the lightest hint of flavour was all it took.

After that all the menu said was 'Grand Dessert'. Grand, n. 1. impressive in size, appearance or general effect 2. stately, majestic or dignified 3. highly ambitious or idealistic 4. magnificent or splendid 5. noble or reverved 6. highest, or very high, in rank 7. main or principal 8. of great importance, distinction or pretension 9. complete or comprehensive 10. pretending to grandeur 11. first rate, very good, splendid. It turns out it was pretty much all of them and it was only just beginning...

First out to set the scene: an amuse of coconut ice cream and mango with a shard of burnt sugar. We were into sweet gear. Then came the tower...

Filled with drawer upon drawer on all sides with petit fours. One between two, 12 drawers, three morsels a drawer - 18 petit fours each. Needless to say I didn't manage it (I could barely manage to pick it up), and especially when I was told the Grand Dessert hadn't even begun...

A flurry of tiny plates - they keep coming down in front of me.

Chocolate and coconut soup, liquorice souffle, baked raspberry almost brulee..

And more come flying over my shoulder.

Champagne jelly with strawberries, frozen coffee with coffee cream, whisky ice cream with crushed biscuits and a dark chocolate finger filled with mousse... I could barely think straight as my spoon dipped from each onto the next (or could that be from the dessert wine that was now flowing). It hit the spot - light and rich, warm and cold... every sensation, every texture, it was very very grand. And we were there... the end of the meal. What a meal. And, for a tasting menu, it was refreshingly light. The man himself came round from table to table as we drank our freshly snipped herbal tea.

The secret? 'Chefs who have secrets don't have creativity'. He revealed that he'd studied insulin oscillation, his was 'a light kitchen of Mediterranean flavours' - there was no reason that gourmet food couldn't be good for you. I'll eat to that Heinz.