Spice world

Bali Indah opens on Lenox, plus reader feedback

"Oh, I do not think you want that," our server said.

"You know," I said, "when you tell me I don't want it, it makes me want it."

"But I am sure that you do not. Empek-empek Palembang, it is somewhat greasy. We Indonesians like it. But it is not for you. You will prefer the satay."

"Hey," I said, "I've made up my mind. I'm starting with the empek-empek."

"Well," our perpetually smiling waiter said, "it is no more."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"We do not have it. We are out of it."

"I'll have the satay," I said.

We were at Bali Indah (2257 Lenox Road, 404-321-3119), the first restaurant in Atlanta in many years to offer a significant menu of Indonesian cuisine. The staff is routinely nervous about offending the bland palate of people who wander into the restaurant, which was most recently home to Sea Siam. They fret and worry about whether the food is going to be too strange and too spicy. The owner, appearing in a white chef's apron, assured me that Indonesian food is "the very best of Southeast Asia" but admitted he was nervous. From Bali, he last operated a Chinese restaurant in Commerce. "It is all outlet malls. Chinese is the most they can take," he said.

Indonesian food is not easy to characterize. An archipelago of 13,000 islands that stretch from Thailand to Australia, it is home to the planet's fourth-largest population. Its nutmeg, clove and pepper crops attracted traders from India, China, Africa, the Arab world and Europe. It was later colonized by the Dutch, Portuguese and English. All of these influences combined with the indigenous cooking to produce a regionally diverse cuisine.

Nonetheless there are common characteristics among regions. Beverages, sauces, soups and rice are cooked with coconut milk. "The basic spices," according to cuisinenet.com, "are coriander, pepper and garlic. Added to those are turmeric, cassia (the local bark that is quite close in flavor to cinnamon), bay leaf, star anise, ginger, tamarind, galangal, cardamom, lemon, lemon grass, scallion, shallots, peanuts, dried anchovies and prawns. Even ghee finds its way into many recipes. Surprisingly, cloves and nutmeg, flavors at the very heart of the spice trade, play a marginal role, at best, in Indonesian cuisine. They are more commonly used in local medicine."

I've dined twice at New Bali and found the food mainly delicious, although a bit tamer than I've sampled in the Netherlands. The Dutch-invented rice table, with its banquet of grazing dishes, is not on the menu here but can be ordered by special arrangement.

The allegedly scary empek-empek, a kind of fish ball, was unavailable my second visit too, but I can vouch for the glossily grilled satay, available as lamb, chicken or beef. Its peanut sauce is zippier than the usual Thai sauce. The same sauce appears with a plate of pale, piping-hot cubes of fried tofu that don't seem a bit different from the Thai version. A more adventurous starter is pelecing kangkung, which is watercress cooked lightly and served with a sauce made of shrimp paste. It's the use of dried shrimps, quite pungent, that makes Indonesian food difficult for some people. But the palate usually acclimates in a few bites.

Among entrees, my favorite has been gule kambing — chunks of lamb cooked in coconut milk with potatoes and peppers. It's marvelously spiced, slightly sweet with all kinds of odd notes. Tender rings of squid are served in a Balinese sauce that I found less interesting than a similar shrimp dish in spices from another region. One dish I am anxious to try that has been recommended both visits and then turned out not to be available is duck roasted in a banana leaf.

I was disappointed that black-rice pudding wasn't available either visit either, but the brown sticky rice with cream, disconcertingly like oatmeal at first, is luscious after a few bites. There is much else to explore on the menu and Bali is open for lunch. It is very cool to have a strongly ethnic restaurant so close to town. This same location was, in fact, years ago home to a very good and authentic Vietnamese restaurant where I lunched several times a week.

Readers' recommendations

Carolyn Shepherd reports: "I just went to a new restaurant for lunch on Chamblee Tucker Road next to Big Lots called Mediterranean Bakery that was awesome and very reasonably priced. They even serve breakfast ... Had the chicken schwarma with tabouleh and fattoush and it was so good I had to come home and e-mail you. My only complaint is they had no high chairs to restrain my unruly toddler."

Longtime reader Meredith Bell files this report:

"Nam:: Went about a week ago and had a wonderful dinner. The shaken filet was soooo tender. The tofu was the best I have had.

"MF Sushi: I can't get enough of this place. Best sushi in town by far.

"Figo: Food just OK but for the price, not bad.

"Caffe Midtown: Filet was excellent and well priced. Swordfish thin and a bit fishy. Penne extremely salty.

"Top Spice on Piedmont Ave: Good if a bit inconsistent. But hey, they deliver!

"Agnes and Muriel's: How to ruin your Thanksgiving without really trying! We decided to not cook for the first time and made reservations here for 1:30 p.m. We got there to find a mob scene, as they had so massively overbooked that people were hovering outside with umbrellas, crammed into the bar, bumping into those trying to get to the buffet. We were told a half-hour wait and were seated 90 minutes later ... I asked if this was the first year they had done this and learned this was their seventh year! Unbelievable. We tried to think of somewhere else to go but everyone was booked. Warn your readers so they don't suffer next year as so many did this Thanksgiving ...

"Aria: Ending on a happy note, excellent meal recently. Gerry Klaskala is a master with slow-cooked meats. And the ravioli appetizer melted in my mouth."

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or email him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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