Saturday, July 19, 2014

BARBACOA


Pristine beaches, oceans clear enough to see your toes, sprawling pools and care free living; for every positive aspect, tropical resort destinations (all-inclusive or not) are almost all fraught with the same disappointing negative - the food. Occasionally abysmal, frequently reasonable, and often good you'd never venture to call it great. While most of our travel plans begin with restaurant reservations, followed by flights, hotel accommodations and finally a mad scramble culminating in a premium fee for an urgent request to replace an expired passport, when you're destination is a beachfront resort, you're no longer playing by the same rules where celebrated restaurants oftentimes outnumber the days in your itinerary. On the resort, dish descriptions rarely translate the way you anticipate on the plate and in our experience, expat European chefs are frequently caught in some dejected time warp where terms like "deconstructed" have yet to be stricken from their vocabulary and reduced squiggles of cloyingly sweet,  cheap balsamic vinegar remain the go-to garnish. So you trust the resort employees to level with you and suggest a few good spots where they like to eat. It's a hit and miss strategy but with luck you might discover a spot that serves a refreshing conch salad, a fiery goat curry, seductively fatty, stewed ox tails or some terrific street tacos. For everyone else back at the resort, dinner is likely the promise of Caribbean spiny lobster... cooked to the consistency of a flip-flop.


Fortunately, Indonesia's island of Bali offers a handful of restaurants that are challenging this notion. While for the most part, humble home cooking and street food remain your best bet, for those who do their homework there are a few restaurants at the more upscale end of the spectrum worth planning your night around. A popular destination for lovestruck couples and thrill seeking surfers alike, Barbacoa recently opened amidst the heavy pedestrian foot traffic of Kerobokan, just minutes by cab from the oceanfront resorts of Jimbaran. A concept that was built around the idea of preparing food over open flame, the flavor was originally intended to be Mexican but the scope of ingredients and ideas rapidly expanded to broadly South American influence, eventually settling on a menu inspired by Spanish cultures and countries worldwide.

                                                                                 Photo - Barbacoabali.com

Crossing the threshold of the hulking, wooden front doors, we were welcomed warmly by chef and co-owner Adam Dundas-Taylor, who had been expecting our visit. Taylor used to work at Jamie Oliver's Fifteen in London with Derek Dammann of Montreal's Maison Publique. When we told Derek we were off to Bali for our honeymoon he insisted on putting us in contact with his former coworker, who subsequent to a successful catering venture in Australia, had dug his heels into the sand of Bali and never left. Having the chef expect our visit is contrary to the way we operate this blog, but on our honeymoon the offer of an introduction was too good to pass on in the interest of unsullied site content. Although we were not dining anonymously, our meal was in no part complimentary.

                                                                                 Photo - Barbacoabali.com

Formerly a garage, the immense space of Barbacoa has been completely reworked into a truly impressive looking dining room. Colorful mosaic tiled floors breathe a lively spirit into the chicly lit but otherwise neutral color palate of sandstone walls and red brick beams that stretch sky high to the wood clad ceiling. Tufted, brown leather upholstered banquets and rattan chairs with crossed backs surround antique sewing machines that have been repurposed into tables bases. A large banquet style table perfect for accommodating large groups and parties on the second floor mezzanine in the back of the restaurant makes way to a balcony overlooking a picturesque rice paddy. We were happy to receive a tour of the restaurant's focal point, the asado, where just beside cords of wood from the island's abundant coffee trees, whole pigs, or lamb (depending on the day) are sandwiched into cages that are loaded onto a circular track surrounding a hardwood fire pit. The meat cooks slowly as a dedicated team tend to the fire for up to 8 hours before the luscious flesh is ready to serve. The fire pit also provides fuel in the way of glowing red and white hot embers that feed the wood burning grills and ovens.

Grilled Chapa Bread, Roasted Garlic - 45,000 Rp

The menu is divided into smaller plates for sharing, items from the wood fire and side dishes, but also offers an enticing variety of fixed price tastings designed for groups who want to sample a well rounded selection of what Barbacoa has to offer. Our meal began with warm, pillowy, grilled chapa. A simple, no-bake Argentine flatbread, the chapa was lovely dipped in a ramekin of sweet roasted garlic swimming in a puddle of fruity olive oil. Invigorated nicely by the fresh acidity of a spoonful of chopped pico de gallo over top, profoundly flavored braised beef in a corn tortilla made for a pretty delicious taco. Cuban style sliders stuffed plentifully with vermillion-red pulled pork courtesy of the achiote in the rub came on a soft, lightly toasted sesame seed bun dressed with sharp pickled red onion and a dollop of creamy aioli.

Braised Beef Taco, Pico de Gallo - 35,000 Rp
Cuban Pulled Pork Slider, Pickled Red Onion, Aioli - 45,000 Rp

Peruvian style snapper ceviche in a fiery aji amarillo dressing was a let down. Definitely a case of style over substance, the snapper was clumsily cut into sloppy slices that were thicker than ideal. Conceptually, cooling cucumber spirals, shingles of sweet corn, biting radish, crunchy tortilla chips and heat from the chile sound like a match made to impress, but stumbled in light of their proportion to one another. The result, a dud of a dish far less delicate than it looked. The Baja style fried fish taco in a flour tortilla on the other hand, married an assertive combination of flavors and textures as lively as a fireworks display. Flakey white fish in a light, crisp but not oily batter loaded with crunchy slaw, creamy, smokey chipotle mayo and sweet mango kept us wanting more.

Imported alcohol is outrageously expensive on the island of Bali, but at Barbacoa we found the wine and cocktail lists to be comparatively well priced to many of the other restaurants we ate at. Contrary to the slushy, neon colored repugnant concoctions frequently associated with the cocktail, the house specialty margaritas were on the refined side, shaken over ice and poured in a glass with a partially salted rim. With a tolerable amount of heat, the jalapeno margarita lent itself particularly well to the climate, and the tacos, but unless you're brandishing a fake ID, there's really no other excuse to be buying chocolate flavored alcohol. No matter how much the waiter insists you try the chocolate margarita, please resist in favor of another, any other. 

Peruvian Snapper Ceviche, Aji Amarillo Dressing - 95,000 Rp
Battered Fish Taco, Slaw, Chiptole Mayo, Mango - 35,000 Rp

After all the buildup, the house specialty asado didn't disappoint. Milky white morsels of, succulent pork came chopped on a wooden board along with chips of seductively crispy skin, the fat perfectly rendered out. A cazuella of Argentine chimichurri was a classic accompaniment but objectively, an unnecessarily acidic distraction from the splendor of the pork. Every minute invested in preparing this pig was well worth the energy, we loved it on it's own and felt like dipping it in the chimichurri was a disservice to the pork.  

Pork Asado - 250,000 Rp

Nuggets of tender, charcoal grilled octopus were confidently spiced, served along with a drizzle of paprika oil and coins of smokey grilled chorizo that echoed the smoldering flavor of the grill. Cubes of creamy polenta with a crispy fried exterior brought textural contrast to the plate while a fresh herb and red onion salad gave it all some levity, refreshing your palate between bites.

Charcoal Grilled Octopus, Fried Polenta, Chorizo - 110,000 Rp

"Spanish Style" fried cubes of potato with garlic aioli were a loose riff on Spain's ubiquitous bravas. Without the mouth-puckering heat and vinegary bite of the second tomato based sauce though, they reminded us a lot more of late night shish taouk than tapas. Good but not ground breaking, fried potatoes are rarely all that disappointing.

 "Spanish Style" Fried Potatoes, Garlic Aioli - 55,000 Rp

In what was certainly the most pleasantly surprising dish of the night, the citrus-infused herbaceous punch from a handful of chopped parsley and curls of lemon zest triumphantly elevated and honored the humble carrot to a degree that has to be tasted to be believed. Glazed in a maple vinaigrette and grilled, the sweetness of the root vegetable is energized further by caramelized bits of maple syrup licked by the flames.

Burnt Carrots, Parsley, Lemon, Maple Vinaigrette - 55,000 Rp

A trio of desserts got off on the right foot with a silky smooth flan lacquered in a deep golden caramel. In the absence of a single air bubble suspended in the velvety custard it was evident that the low and slow three hour cook time described on the menu was to be credited with it's virtually flawless execution. The unpleasant eggy flavor that is all too commonly the demise of even the most promising renditions of this most typical of Spanish desserts was nonexistent. A cylindrical waffle tuile over top brought the texture the flan might be perceived to be bereft of had it been ordered individually, a nice touch. The ancho chile truffles were good enough but of no unusual execution or flavor worth going into much detail over. The finale, an ice cream sandwich studded with sweet, waxy bits of honeycomb and garnished with white chocolate and strawberries was splendid. A completely underutilized product, every time we're served honeycomb in a restaurant we're left wondering why we don't see it used more frequently.

3 Hour Flan, Chocolate & Ancho Chile Truffles, White Chocolate & Honeycomb Ice Cream Sandwich - 100,000 Rp

For the adventurous, a night at Barbacoa doesn't have to end with dessert. Guests are encouraged to partake in the shisha menu on the balcony at the back of the restaurant overlooking the rice paddy. It's a tradition that struck as being peculiarly out of place at the time, but once you consider that the Hindu island of Bali is an exception in predominantly Muslim Indonesia, it all makes a little more  sense. Vacations are all about trying new things, and for 40,000 Rp (about 4$) it's a fun way to wander outside of your comfort zone. Save for the tragic chocolate margarita recommendation by our waiter and the lackluster ceviche, our meal at Barbacoa was a real pleasure. Not just a gimmicky draw, the searing heat and smoke of hardwood fire has been adeptly harnessed to devise a menu worthy of praise. All told, a rather extensive dinner for two including alcohol came in at under 1,200,000 Rp ($120.00 CDN), which by Balinese standards is pretty pricey, but remains an impressive value by most Canadians' standards. It really all depends on which way you look at it. We're unable to make an objective assessment of the service since the majority of the dishes we had were delivered by chef Taylor himself, but the interactions we had with the staff were consistent with the level of kindness and hospitality for which Bali is renowned. Just lose the kitschy uniforms, overalls and neckerchiefs aren't a good look for anyone.


Barbacoa
14 Jalan Petitenget
Kerobokan (Bali), Indonesia
+62 0 361 739 233
www.barbacoabali.com

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