Best restaurant lists usually provoke equal parts envy and ennui. I’d love to enjoy some top-notch gourmet experiences, but decorated eateries tend to be upmarket joints where dishes bear little resemblance to what real people eat and are served with sides of high prices and attitude. Moreover, my taste runs more toward dai pai dong jok (congee from a street stall) and vegetarian “meats” from wet markets.
While working on the Lovely Planet Indonesia guide and the inaugural edition of the Borneo guide, I steered travelers away from Samarinda’s purported best burgers toward authentic local foods ikan bakar lalapan (barbecued fish served with fragrant kemangi leaves) and soto banjar. That’s territory where best restaurant reviewers are rare.
But on the recently released Miele Asia’s Top 20 list, I found a restaurant that fits my taste, one that I’ve sampled, enjoyed and perhaps even influenced.
Sarong has been a mainstay at the top of Bali’s food chain for several years. It debuted at number 18 on the Miele Asia list last year and rose to 13th place this year. Friends have come back from Bali raving about Sarong, and I’ve passed the word to others on their way to Bali, many returning with their own glowing reviews. When asked to work on the Fodors.com guide to Bali, I put Sarong on my restaurant list and was lucky enough to sample it, along with some of the island’s other stars including Bumbu Bali and Naughty Nuri’s.
As noted in my Fodors.com review of Sarong, the menu captures the flavors of Asian street food and family cooking, served in elegant settings and paired with creative cocktails and fine wines. Leaving Sarong, I ran into chef Will Meyrick, and we began talking about the restaurant and the just completed meal. While the scallop appetizer, curry and roast lamb were overwhelmingly delicious, my wife (who is Indonesian) and I focused on the Acehnese specialty burung puyuh sembunyi (hidden quail) – a bird chopped into parts and buried in a mound of greens that in Aceh would be marijuana. We noted that the leaves seemed to overly indulge the Indonesian passion for deep frying. Meyrick defended the dish as capturing the essence of its Acehnese model.
A few nights later at Mama San, Sarong’s more casual sister restaurant, we ran into Meyrick again. After we thanked him for another memorable meal, he said, “A few of us tried the burung puyuh and you had a point. So we tweaked it a bit. Thanks for letting us know.” We gained new respect for Meyrick for giving credence to our opinions.
Now we’ll be happy to lend our thoughts to Robuchon Au Dome in Macau at the top of Miele Asia list or its Hong Kong cousin, L’Atelier de Robuchon, at number three. Please send an email to arrange a booking.
Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.