Isle Be Seeing You

He was still there--but apparently hadn't learned anything--when we returned for a second visit. We came prepared for our meal to take a while, since we intended to try several courses this round, but we were amazed nonetheless at how very much time we spent waiting for things. And once we finally got our dishes, the waiter kept trying to take partially eaten items away, asking if we were done after he'd already started to remove the plate. I think he was trying to save time, but after the fourth or fifth grab at our food, I was plenty annoyed. And the water glasses were refilled only when the ever-hustling LaVelle noticed they were empty, which became increasingly rare as the restaurant got busier.

It was just LaVelle and the waiter against the world that night, and as each new group was seated, the wait between courses got longer and longer. We ordered three appetizers, and one--the stunning perkedel jagung ($3.95), four corn fritters that were pure vegetable candy--arrived fifteen minutes before the other two. The tardy lumpia semarang ($2.95) filled crispy wrappers with bamboo shoots and itsy bits of chicken; the exterior was luxuriously greasy but still soaked up the sugary dipping sauce. And the otak otak ($2.95), which looked like two white cigars rolled inside grilled banana leaves, were actually fish cakes made of seasoned ground fish pressed tightly and served with peanut sauce. The cakes were tasty, but the presentation was more interesting than the food.

Most of Bali Island's entrees arrived in less exotic arrangements. The rendang ($7.95), a stew of spiced beef cubes, had been ladled onto a lettuce leaf. More than any other dish, this one suffered from the kitchen's being overloaded. The meat had been microwaved to heat it up, which is not necessarily a bad thing--unless no one's paying attention and it dries out. That's what had happened here, and what should have been delectable pieces of super-tender meat were hard little chunks with a mere smear of sauce. Most of the flavor in rendang--like sate, one of Indonesia's best-known exports--comes from the spices in the coconut-milk sauce; since our portion had little sauce, all we could taste on the almost unchewable meat was the chile heat.

There was a lot going on in the busy lontong cap gomeh ($7.95), however. The dish's foundation was pressed rice cakes, on top of which sat several hunks of curried beef, sambal goreng (chile-saturated beef), green beans and carrots, homemade pickles, a piece of fried chicken that was supposed to have been chicken cooked in coconut milk but wasn't, and an egg that had been hard-boiled and then fried. Oh, yes, and an extra-large crispy shrimp cracker to top things off. A mishmash of sauces floated underneath it all, and while most of the components were impossible to distinguish from each other, they melded into one big, happy family of sweet, sour and spicy.

Given the heat of Indonesia's cuisine and its climate, desserts are usually chilled deals. The fantastic es cendol ($2.75) consisted of Day-Glo green bits that looked like Jell-O floating in an ice-filled glass of coconut milk, brown sugar and vanilla ice cream; it was so refreshing we could have consumed one after another. Instead we opted for the pisang goreng ($2.95), two fried banana fritters that were addictive but overpriced for what amounted to half a banana and some batter sprinkled with cinnamon.

Ten minutes separated the delivery of our two desserts. Realizing that service was careening out of control, I tried to flag down our waiter to ask for the check--but I couldn't get his attention. While LaVelle was literally running around trying to take care of everyone--including some morons who asked if she was from Indonesia and, when she said yes, asked if she knew one of their friends, as if all Indonesians know each other--I could see the waiter on the other side of the swinging door in the kitchen. He was dancing.

On my third try, I decided to skip the lousy service altogether and instead ordered the rendang for takeout. While I waited in the doorway, I watched the waiter talking on the phone to what was clearly a friend while LaVelle dashed about. What a waste. She's a warm, inviting hostess, and she tries to make up for the disorganization by talking to everyone, but she can't. She needs help, and the kitchen needs help.

Again, our rendang was as dry as a desert island--which this restaurant could become if Bali Island isn't careful.

Bali Island, 2637 West 26th Avenue, 455-1600. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5-10 p.m. Saturday.

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