Gentle Balinese breezes blow through the alleys of Itaewon

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Gentle Balinese breezes blow through the alleys of Itaewon

Until recently, Indonesia -- specifically Bali -- was a dream destination for travelers. There are volcanic craters, majestic temples, rice paddies carved into emerald hillsides and endless expanses of white beaches.

There also is a superb indigenous cuisine that celebrates the archipelago's bounty. Indonesian food is simpler and less spicy than Thai cuisine; more complex and refreshing than Filipino food.

Although Indonesian pastes, sauces and relishes require extensive preparation, many of the dishes are grilled or stir-fried in a matter of minutes retaining their natural flavors. (Notable exceptions: kalio and rendang, traditional Sumatran beef dishes.)

Alas, the further one strays from the equator, the harder it is to find authentic Indonesian food.

Here, in Seoul, we're lucky enough to have Bali, a quaint Itaewon restaurant founded a few months ago by a Korean native who went to college in Indonesia and fell in love with its people and their food. Bali's menu is more Indonesian than Balinese; indeed, its chefs are from Java, and there is no pork on the menu.

Regardless of its geographic orientation, Bali's food is a welcome addition to Seoul's culinary offerings. Its traditional dishes are the real thing, the decor is attractive and its service is attentive. (The Western and Korean pop, however, should be dumped in favor of traditional music.)

Indonesians generally have soup to carry them through a meal. Bali's chicken soup, or soto ayam (6,000 won, $5), is up to task. The broth is richly flavored, yellow with turmeric and spiked with a squeeze of lemon. Chunks of chicken, simmered on the bone, cover a mound of thin rice vermicelli. Around them are fresh cabbage, tomato, potato and hard-boiled egg. The soup, alone, is worth the trip to the restaurant.

The chicken and beef satay combination (11,000 won) is served with the classic peanut sauce. It is among the most popular items on the menu, although I generally opt for the gado-gado (5,000 won), a salad of parboiled vegetables, fried tofu and potato, also topped with a peanut sauce. Alas, on recent visits the peanut sauce has lacked assertiveness.

A good alternative is the cap cay (12,000 won), a mixture of cabbage, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, carrots, dried shrimp, chicken and fish cake, swimming in a soothing chicken-based broth that is best spooned over rice.

Indonesians usually eat three servings of rice daily. Bali's stir-fried rice, or nasi goreng (6,000 won), is a spicy mix with chicken, shrimp, egg and shallots, topped with a giant shrimp cracker. The rice is perfectly prepared; each grain still moist yet dry enough that it doesn't stick to the others.

I'm partial to mie goreng, or stir-fried egg noodles (7,000 won), which Bali makes particularly well. The noodles are delivered steaming and slippery with just the right amount of oil and sweet soy sauce. Chunks of chicken, cabbage, fried egg and thinly sliced scallions abound.

Beef entrees include the rendang padang (9,000 won), a spicy stew made with hunks of tender meat simmered in a garlic, ginger, turmeric and coconut milk sauce. Chicken dishes include ayam rica-rica (8,000 won), or sauteed chicken with garlic and lemon grass.

The king prawns with tamarind sauce, raja saus padang (24,000 won), a house specialty, is luscious: four mammoth shrimp bathed in a sweet and spicy sauce flavored with garlic, lemon, green pepper and leeks.

Bali serves bottled Indonesian fruit drinks as well as soft drinks, wine and beer.

So, after a few brews and a hearty meal, you can almost imagine Itaewon taking on the allure of Ubud, Bali's arts-and-crafts center. Storefronts hawking T-shirts, baseball caps and leather jackets suddenly become crafts shops selling jewelry, carved wood and paintings. Bali's food has that magic.

by Hal Lipper

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