To say that Bali Café is the top Indonesian restaurant in Miami is just as true, and misleading, as lauding Robert De Niro for being the finest actor in Meet the Parents. Both are better than that, and Bali is in fact the best restaurant in downtown Miami. Period. And that includes your fancy hotel dining establishments.
One can only marvel at how this humble little 30-seat eatery can so effortlessly create fresh, beautiful, authentic, delicious, steamy hot cuisine for under $10 per plate, when million-dollar restaurants overstaffed with pedigreed cooks charge three times as much and have difficulty just getting the "steamy hot" part down. We started with kacang kedelai, the Indonesian term for edamame, which is the Japanese name for steamed young soybeans in their pods. Their taste won't please everyone, but a bowl goes for just $2.95 -- a small price to gamble on a highly nutritious food. Chicken dumplings are a surer bet, topped with crisply fried shallots and fresh scallions, pooled in a piquant peanut-and-sweet-soy sauce. The same sauce sides Philippine-style egg rolls (lumpia) filled with mildly seasoned chicken, cabbage, and carrot, and is also the signature condiment to two Indo classics: grilled chicken satay and gado-gado, presented here as a combo of steamed vegetables, tofu, and sliced egg.
Cubes of beef rendang get cooked for hours in coconut milk and spices (mostly turmeric, coriander, and white peppercorns), as do chicken legs, called opor ayam. Each dish can be savored individually, or together in nasi goreng. Bali's version is centered by a mound of sweet and oniony fried rice (which is what nasi goreng translates to), and also encompasses steamed broccoli, bean sprouts, fried egg, garlicky rice crackers, and a pickled mix of carrot and cucumber. Great stuff, but we preferred lontong cap go meh, the same chicken and beef accompanied by steamed chayote in a sweet coconut broth yellowed with turmeric, spiked with chili oil, and garnished with an elegant Chinese chive flower.
Bali Cafe, 109 NE 2nd Ave, Miami
Open for lunch daily 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Call 305-358-5751
Fish of the day, stir-fried in mild chili sauce, is more often than not Norwegian mackerel, a fish-lover's fish because of its full, fatty flavor. I noticed numerous diners around us ordering this, and also saw that sometime later each of their plates contained fish skeletons picked so clean it appeared as though a cat had gotten to them.
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When the Dutch occupied Indonesia in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, they appropriated that country's meal of hot rice accompanied by up to twenty different side dishes and condiments; they called it rijsttafel, or "rice table." Bali Café's rijsttafel for two ($13.95 per person) isn't quite that extensive, but does include miso soup, salad, two appetizers, a few main course tastings, steamed rice, and a dessert of es sarang burung -- sweet gelatin with choice of lychee, longan, or rambutan.
Such desserts are salves for the tiramisu-weary among us. Two especially invigorating treats look like frappes put together by hyperactive children. One features a sundae glass filled with mixed fruit and Day-Glo gelatin over crushed ice, topped with coco syrup and scoops of mango, papaya, and avocado ice cream. The other, es campur, blends tropical fruit with avocado, crushed ice, and syrups made from coconut, pandan leaf, and sugar cane.
Half of Bali's menu comprises sushi offerings, but there were too many other temptations for me to tend to. I must say it looked mighty good going by our table, but, as my wife correctly pointed out, sushi always looks good. Still you can't always get three hand rolls of your choice, with soup or salad, for $7.95.
For a short time after opening last May, Bali Café was one of those secret little gems few knew about, but since then it has been discovered by a deluge of downtown workers and multitude of Miami-Dade Community College students (whose campus is just blocks away). I suggest arriving before noon if you want to be sure of securing a seat.