These Chefs Created One of Asia's Best Restaurants in a Small Town in Bali

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These Chefs Created One of Asia's Best Restaurants in a Small Town in Bali

Three years ago, two young chefs launched Locavore with a mission to create a new restaurant paradigm for the town of Ubud in Bali.
July 11, 2016, 12:00pm

Lying in the heart of Bali, Ubud was once an untouched paradise, where Gamelan rhythms bounced off carved stone temples and steep volcanic ridges, while pure streams fed lush green rice terraces.

Or so they say.

You may still find that world somewhere else on the "Island of the Gods." But nowadays in Ubud, the temples are filled with package tourists looking for an exotic cultural experience, and the Gamelan orchestras playing for foreigners can barely be heard over the whining of gears from tour buses carrying hordes of Chinese travelers through the dense town center.

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Meanwhile, a generation of middle-aged Eat Pray Love tourists picks lazily at plates heaped with tofu and brown rice at the side-by-side, nearly identical cafes that line the streets.

Locavore_Ubud3

Photo by Rupert Singleton

Three years ago, two young chefs—one from a village in the Netherlands and another from Indonesia's heaving capital, Jakarta—launched Locavore with a mission to create a new restaurant paradigm for Ubud.

"We wanted to work with small growers, fishermen, and farmers, instead of the usual Bali restaurant wholesalers." explains Dutch co-owner and chef Eelke Plasmeijer. "And to use modern European cooking techniques to create our own simple, but original cuisine."

Locavore restaurant in Bali. Voted Best Restaurant in Indonesia 2016. 50 Best Restaurants in Asia at 49th.

Photo by Rupert Singleton

Sourcing local ingredients is the easy part. The Indonesian archipelago offers a vast variety of fresh produce, spices, and herbs, and in Bali alone you can find unique flavor profiles little known outside of the island.

"We import baking powder and some of our flours, but that's about it," says Eelke. "I don't understand this urge to bring French foie gras or German white asparagus to the tropics. Yet so many trendy restaurants in Asia tend to go in that direction."

Eeelke began working in restaurants in his village in the Netherlands at age 14, eventually training at Amsterdam's Michelin-starred Restaurant Vermeer.

LocavoreChefs

Photo by Rupert Singleton

Eelke's longtime friend, fellow chef, and Locavore partner Ray Adriansyah originally left his Jakarta birthplace to attend business school in New Zealand at his parents' insistence. Unable to shake a long-harbored passion for cooking, he switched to culinary studies and then worked in restaurants around Christchurch for nearly a decade before returning to Indonesia.

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Even without advertising of any kind, it didn't take long before a buzz developed around the 36-table restaurant. Last year Locavore made the annual Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list, squeezing in at number 49. Since then, the restaurant has been booked solid almost every day.

I manage to reserve a spot at the bar fronting Locavore's open kitchen on a Monday evening in Bali's low season. The air-conditioned, vaulted-ceiling dining room—decorated simply with neutral colors, polished wood furniture, and cement-tiled floors—is a welcome relief from the heat and humidity outside.

From my ringside seat, I watch the five-man kitchen crew meticulously assemble dishes along the droplight-illuminated chef's counter. Ray and Eelke work quietly alongside the staff, rather than supervising and barking orders.

Locavore_Ubud_mushrooms

Photo by Rupert Singleton.

The restaurant serves two unique tasting menus of either five or seven dishes: "Locavore," which includes meat and seafood, and "Herbivore," which is strictly vegan.

"We change one dish from both menus every Monday," says Eelke. "That means two new dishes every week. In a month, 75 percent of the menu has changed, and after two months pretty much the whole menu has changed."

My seven-course Locavore tasting turns out to be more like 15 plates, counting all the unlisted amuse bouches, served at a leisurely pace over the course of two hours. Placed on oversized local designer plates, servings may seem small at first, but they steadily add up to a serious gastronomic encounter. I doubt anyone leaves Locavore even slightly hungry.

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Before I reach the first official item on my tasting menu, large crisps of spinach tempura perched atop a chunk of gnarled wood arrive in a presentation that looks like one of the pastoral creations of three-Michelin-starred Azurmendi chef Eneko Atxa.

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Bloody mary sorbet. Photo by Joe Cummings. squid marinated in oyster juice, coconut water, and kaffir lime. Photo by Joe Cummings.

Next comes a deliciously salty, warm tomato and celery consommé poured over a cooling scoop of tomato sorbet. The Bloody Mary-like concoction is so comfortingly delicious, I struggle not to beg for seconds.

The first dish I recognize from my printed tasting menu is delicately sliced squid marinated in oyster juice, coconut water, and kaffir lime. It's plated with young coconut, pomelo, and chunks of poached cucamelon to produce clean, straightforward flavors mingling sea and jungle.

Free-range lamb from Wonosobo in central Java is served raw with pickled fennel, seaweed crème, fennel leaves and pollen, Lombok seaweed and local goat cheese. I find the raw meat to be a bit chewy, but it's the only hiccup in an evening that otherwise completely blew me away.

Mackerel from Bali's north coast arrives next. Brine-poached in mulberry juice, and served alongside a sorrel-potato puree, coarsely grated grilled beet, caramelized shallots, a wild berry compote, and fresh sorrel leaves. At this point in the evening the dishes begin to blur in memory, until one plate boldly grabs the spotlight. On the menu, it's called "Into the Sawah," a dish you could safely say represents everything Locavore is about.

Into the Sawah Locavore 1

Into the Sawah. Photo by Joe Cummings.

Sawah means 'rice field' in Indonesian, and the dish is based around a risotto-like mound of rice, redolent with the aroma of a great homemade bubur, the Balinese rice porridge found in every breakfast warung around the island. Instead of cooking the cheap, broken rice kernels usually reserved for bubur, Locavore uses high-grade, organic, sustainably farmed rice from central Bali's Jatih Luwih.

The naturally aromatic rice is pressure-cooked in garlic stock with snails collected from rice fields. Crowning the rice is a rich duck-egg yolk that has been slow-cooked to perfection, and then dusted with catfish abon (dried, finely shredded fish, sometimes unappetizingly called 'floss'), and topped off with fern tips and edible wildflowers.

Theoretically at least, everything could have come from one rice field, including the duck egg. It's a comforting yet bold set of flavors that almost defies description. I settle for 'Balinese risotto made for the gods.'