It’s an Anton Ego moment. The dish in front of me tastes foreign, yet entirely familiar. I am no longer in an ornately furnished restaurant in Bali, but back home, having a bowl of creamy Cantonese-style congee with my family, a Sunday tradition that has since been relegated to the past. But no component of the dish hints at Eastern inspiration. In fact, it is innately European, a modern interpretation of a classical European dish using only three ingredients: lobster, salsify, and caviar. It is simple yet elegant, luxuriously redolent with a creamy buttery fragrance, fresh sweetness from the lobster, and just a slight edge of welcome bitterness from the deep-fried salsify garnish. In that moment, I understand Chef Nic Vanderbeeken’s philosophy of “global cuisine” for Apéritif — distilling flavours common across cuisines around the world into a complex yet entirely approachable dish, an exercise which, when at its best, evokes a diner’s own gastronomic memories .
Apéritif is Viceroy Bali’s latest fine dining venture. Just a three minute walk from Viceroy Bali (voted by Condé Nast Traveler as the #1 luxury resort in 2018), the restaurant evokes Great Gatsby-esque vibes of the 1920s. Set in a Dutch colonial-style house overlooking lush padi fields, the restaurant comprises of a gorgeous art deco-inspired bar, and a main dining room that not only boasts a state-of-the-art wine cellar, but also allows guests an intimate view of the chefs in action in their sleek and spacious kitchen. Before dinner, guests are invited for complimentary apéritifs and canapés at the bar, a practice harking back to a bygone era where meals were meant to be enjoyed rather than rushed, an idea incidentally inspiring the restaurant’s name.
In this day and age, it feels almost politically incorrect for a non-native chef to helm a restaurant locally without serving up a range of elevated locavore-style cuisine. Yet Apéritif does exactly that. Scan the menu and you’ll see that Indonesian components play a supporting rather than starring role in dishes. Local ingredients or dishes are not strictly the main sources of inspiration in the kitchen. Rather, a free-spirited sense of creativity inspired by the chefs’ experiences working around the world, as well as their current interests (fermentation at the moment) drives the menu. “It’s all about flavour in the end”, shares Vanderbeeken, who heads the team at Apéritif. “If we think local ingredients will maximise the flavour for this particular idea we have, then we use it. If not we’ll just use something else that we think packs more flavour.”
Chef Nic is realistic about using local produce. He shares that the quality of meat in Bali, and Indonesia, is not always the best, which is why the restaurant would rather import quality produce than pigeonhole themselves by using only local produce. Vegetables are procured from Bedugul, an area north of Bali with a cooler climate and richer soil, but supplies are not always consistent due to unforeseen weather circumstances. To circumvent this problem, the restaurant has their own greenhouse where herbs and small root vegetables are grown.
When local ingredients are used however, they are played with and teased to their extremes. At the time of our visit, the team was working on their rendition of Ayam Betutu, which had been sitting in a rice cooker at 60 degrees for six weeks. Karedok, perhaps the most ostensibly Indonesian dish currently on the degustation menu, is also given an unexpected twist by the use of pickled vegetables and the addition of a tofu cream.
Clearly, the food at Apéritif does not adhere to any prescribed boundaries. Rather, the flavours transition seamlessly between different cultures, yet there is no risk of what appears as an eclectic combination of elements falling apart – everything is strung tightly together by the common thread running across the different components. Take the ceviche for example. It takes the anthropologically sound approach of examining the way cured fish is treated across the world such as in Mexican, Filipino and Japanese cuisines, and then distills each culture’s approach into a dish that combines cured parrotfish with wakame powder, house-made coconut milk, leche de tigre and kaffir lime oil. It is a fruity and complex dish, but yet nothing is out of place because of the similarities in the way cured fish is handled in these cultures. Somehow, the flavours also remind me of the Teochew-style steamed fish I eat at home.
The venison wellington, with its delicate puff pastry shell and fragrant filling of foie gras, truffle mashed potatoes and a mushroom rendang sauce also reminds me of a luxed up version of a karipap bai (Indian-style curry puffs). Foreign, yet all at once familiar, and incredibly exciting. This result is no least due to the dynamic collaboration between Chef Nic and Pastry Chef Alexander McKinstry who hail from Belgium and America respectively–, both of whom have chalked up experience working in kitchens around the world.
Will you always have a frame of reference for every dish at Apéritif? Not necessarily. When dessert arrives, it is a peanut butter and jelly inspired plated dessert accompanied by a cute sandwich bag with a literal peanut butter and jelly sandwich inside. As someone who hasn’t grown up with pb & j sandwiches, I struggle to think of an equivalent for this memory of paper bag lunches that Chef Alexander wishes to evoke. But that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the artistry behind each component of the dessert. The textures play wonderfully well against each other – mulberries from Kintamani nestle atop a peanut butter panna cotta coated with a smoky, fruity chocolate specially made by a chocolatier in Yogyakarta, while small cubes of cocoa cake, a dusting of peanut powder and meringue tie it all together. Paired with a glass of Pino de Bali (made from Muscat grown in Bali and matured in French oak for over five years), your last course is a perfect example of how the team at Apéritif manages to combine the local with the global in a way that makes you forget where one boundary begins and another ends. All you are left with are impeccable flavours, and really, isn’t that what food is all about at the end of the day?
If no man is an island entire of itself, then the same can be said of food, even when it comes from a restaurant in the idyllic island of Bali.
Viceroy Bali, Jln. Lanyahan, Br Nagi, Ubud, Bali 80571 Indonesia. Tel: +62 361 971 777. Website here.