Isle Be Seeing You

When the food is spectacular, bad service can be forgiven and forgotten--once. Maybe twice. But three strikes and you're out, baby, because few diners have either the time or the patience to spend two hours on a meal that should take one, no matter how good the food is.

And the food at Bali Island is some kind of wonderful, until the Indonesian restaurant--Denver's only one--gets busier than its staff can handle. After that, the tropical-isle treats are few and far between, and a diner starts to feel marooned.

Bali Island is badly in need of rescue--from its own success. Soon after it opened four months ago in a quaint Victorian bungalow in a north Denver neighborhood that's been dying for decent eats at this site (the original La Loma was its best-known occupant, but there have been at least four others in as many years), the fetching eatery snagged rave reviews from Denver's dailies, whose critics fell in love with it. Crowds soon flocked to Bali Island--exacerbating the service problems the two reviewers had noted even as they swooned over Bali Island's intriguing cuisine.

Anything remotely Asian is hot these days--and ingredients native to Indonesia play starring roles in the cuisines of many nearby countries. They appear in Indian curries, Chinese stir-fries, Middle Eastern soups and Thai sauces, not to mention any other preparations that require ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, tamarind, black pepper and allspice. Hey, these weren't called the "Spice Islands" for nothing. (Geography lesson alert: Indonesia consists of Bali and coffee kings Sumatra and Java, along with three other big islands most people have never heard of and two massive collections of tiny islands no one's ever heard of, either.) But despite the shared seasonings and recipes that originated in the islands and are now imitated elsewhere, true Indonesian cuisine remains unique.

After having eaten scads of Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai, Korean and Filipino meals, I was ready for something new, and I got it at Bali Island. I assumed that I, too, would fall for the place. And in spite of the slow service, in the beginning I was at least seriously infatuated.

The affair started with a simple sate. One of the more common Indonesian offerings, this skewer of marinated, then grilled meats is also popular in Thailand (satay) and Vietnam (thit nuong). The Indonesian version is better, though, because it uses the spicy peanut sauce as a condiment rather than as part of the main event, so the meat stands out. Bali Island's sate ayam ($7.95) put sweet-and-spicy chicken strips on sticks and grilled them until the edges of the meat were caramelized but the centers still soft and chewy. The accompanying sauce was a well-balanced combination of red chiles, brown sugar, lime juice and peanuts, more reminiscent of a Vietnamese nuoc cham than of the peanut-buttery mess some Thai places serve.

Bali Island is owned by Rose LaVelle's family, who are from West Java, and the recipes come courtesy of her parents. They also do all the cooking, although LaVelle has tried to hire others. "It's hard to get people who know what they're doing with this food," she says. "They say they have experience, but, well, that hasn't been the case." I can't say I'm eager for her to get anyone to replace Mom and Dad, though, because they're responsible for turning out such great dishes as kwee tiauw goreng ($9.95), a colorful array of amazingly succulent shrimp sparked by shredded chiles, garlic, scallion tops and bits of chicken, all over jumbo rice noodles. The chiles provided much of the flavor here, as they do in a lot of Indonesian cookery. (Interestingly, chile peppers aren't indigenous to the islands--they were brought in by Portuguese traders traveling from India in the sixteenth century. But Indonesians embraced the peppers so strongly that the country is now their third-largest producer--behind India and Mexico--and among the islands, there are nearly a hundred words for "chile.")

Chiles also were responsible for the success of Bali Island's nasi gudeg ($7.95). The dish, available only on the weekends, contained fiery cubes of tempeh, a product made from soybeans and fermented rice. These little packages turned every other bite into a tastebud tickler; they offered an excellent counterpart to the sweet, mildly spicy, coconut-milk-based broth that coated chicken and hard-boiled egg halves. Our two entrees were worth the wait--barely. We'd waited ten minutes for the table, half an hour for our food (which we ate in half an hour) and another twenty minutes to get the check. Total time for two entrees and two Cokes (Bali Island has no liquor license yet): one and a half hours.

And that, I later learned, was one of the restaurant's faster times. During peak weekend hours, a forty-minute wait for a table is not uncommon. Apparently the extra waitstaff LaVelle hired after the first rave last November hasn't helped a whole lot, and while her parents try--and often fail--to keep up with things in the kitchen, LaVelle runs around the small dining rooms like the proverbial chicken. She needs to start clucking a little louder at her ineffectual employees; the only waiter I saw that first visit clearly had no experience at all.

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