Nasi Bali isn’t the first Indonesian restaurant to open at Kenwick Village shopping centre. First there was Selera Nusantara, a restaurant serving dishes from across the Indonesian archipelago that’s since switched to a pre-order and pick-up system. Then came Indonesian Delights, another cafe serving lesser-seen Indonesian dishes. (Sadly Covid-19 led to its closure, but the business has, pleasingly, since resurfaced in Bentley). As of August, the space next to the Kenwick Village Fish & Chip Shop has been home to Nasi Bali, a cosy family-run restaurant championing the spice- and chilli-forward flavours of Bali.
The opening of Nasi Bali has, understandably, been a big deal for husband-and-wife owners, Dewi and Made (pronounced mah-deh) Arsana. For the past five years, the couple has been privately cooking Balinese food for homesick friends and neighbours fiending for the flavours of Bali (Dewi is from the area of Tabanan in Bali’s west; Made, the chef, is from Jimbaran in the island’s south). When a shop close to home became available, they jumped at the chance to take over, eager to create somewhere their buddies and the Balinese community could come together.
Nasi Bali isn’t what you’d call a big restaurant. Depending on how its dozen-or-so tables are configured, you could probably fit around 22 people here. A basin in the corner is available for guests to wash their hands pre- or post-meal, and an ornate shrine sits behind the counter, holding the day’s banten: the daily offering made by Balinese Hindus. It’s a plain, simple aesthetic that chimes with Nasi Bali’s warung – the Indonesian word for a small, family-run shop or business – aspirations.
The cooking, however, is neither plain or simple. Nor is it meek or bland. Balinese food – like most Indonesian cooking – bangs with flavour, and Made’s high-definition dishes will trigger instant flashbacks among those who’ve eaten their way around Bali. The pleasurable sting of the sambal matah, Bali’s famous chilli, lemongrass and shallot relish. The richness of the Bali-style rendang, spicier and wetter than the drier Padang-style rendang found throughout Indonesia. Most impressive of all is the nasi babi guling: the roast suckling pig rice.
Traditionally served at major Balinese ceremonies and celebrations, the Anthony Bourdain-endorsed babi guling has become one of Bali’s signature dishes, with enthusiasts eagerly debating who does the island’s best version. (Ibu Oka, Pak Malem and Chandra are the big three usually name-checked in the discussion). I’m confident the version served at Nasi Bali could hold its own back on the Island of the Gods. The well-spiced uratan (pork sausage) is house-made, as is the tum (steamed pork). The roast pork belly is juicy and its skin nicely lacquered, while turmeric and ginger are a warming, constant presence in both the lawar (mixed vegetables with shredded coconut) and soup. It’s porky, certainly, but not overwhelming.
The secret – or at least one of them – to the food’s flavour? The house bumbu, a potent, fragrant spice mix starring ginger, turmeric, onions, lemongrass, shrimp paste and a good many spices, all slowly cooked for four hours. It’s the foundation for almost all the dishes on the menu and is cooked each week.
“Once you go to Bali, you know the real taste [of this food],” says Made. “I can’t cheat when I make my bumbu. No powders, no shortcuts.”
The compact menu includes many of the island’s other favourite dishes, including betutu bebek (braised duck) and sate manis (pork skewers) served with a sweet and spicy sambal. It might be a while before Australians can travel to Bali again; until then, Nasi Bali can help keep our flavour memories of the island alive.
There’s just one catch. Both Made and Dewi work full-time at a busy suburban tavern – he’s the sous chef, she’s the bar manager – so running Nasi Bali as a daily operation would be impossible. Their solution: open as a part-time restaurant three days a week (and since one of those three days is a two-hour dinner service on Fridays, it’s really more like two-and-a-quarter days a week). Unusual? Perhaps. But if unusual trading hours are what diners – and businesses – have to deal with in these post-Covid times, so be it. It’s a small price to pay for cooking this sharp.
2/69 Belmont Rd, Kenwick
0431 418 074