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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.

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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