Restaurant Reviews

Bali Low

You can't please everyone, but try telling that to restaurateurs. It is just a matter of time before "sushi tapas" begin showing up on Spanish menus — or, for that matter, Japanese menus. Or Chinese. Or Thai. Or at Sushi Bali, an Indonesian-Japanese-sushi restaurant that, for good measure, also offers panang curry. As the menu explains, "It's the most popular red seasoning curry among Thai people." Which begs the question: When we're dining in a Japanese-Indonesian establishment in Coral Gables, why should we concern ourselves with what the wonderful inhabitants of Thailand like to eat?

Sushi Bali, located across the street from the Village at Merrick Park, has been in business for fifteen years — the past three under new ownership. Olive green walls in the 52-seater are adorned with a few framed photos of Indonesia, but what catches the eye is a rather unkempt sushi bar hashed with a hodgepodge of papers, containers, doodads, and whatnot. Above the bar are neon letters spelling Fresh Sushi, and another, tackier electric sign promoting free delivery. Although Sushi Bali is a low-key neighborhood joint occupied by informally attired locals, it might be time for a modest sprucing up just the same.

No such tinkering with attitude is required. The staff is extremely kind and accommodating, and Indonesian proprietor Roby Nurben is as amiable as can be. Although I cannot talk enough about the friendly vibe, there isn't much to say when it comes to praising the cuisine. The menu is a cluttered, difficult-to-read affair offering some 50 Japanese dishes, three dozen sushi/sashimi choices, and another 30 or so Indonesian picks — too large a selection for such a small establishment (and kitchen). There are ten soups alone, or approximately nine too many when you consider that miso broth is offered as one of three accompanying options to all Japanese entrées and sushi combos. A trio of main-course noodle soups is available as well, and if we judge by the shrimp tempura version, that's three too many.

I've never understood the concept of soaking tempura shrimp in a bowl of hot liquid — you get all the negative health implications of frying with none of the crunchily pleasurable positives. Be that as it may, beneath the waterlogged crusts were hefty, succulent crustaceans. Udon or soba are the noodles of choice, but because the kitchen was out of the former, we settled for soba. Regrettably, instead of the firm, dark brown, spaghettilike pasta made from buckwheat and wheat flour, our bowl brimmed with the sort of limp, mushy white squiggles that come in those cheap ramen soup packets. The chicken broth was weak and insipidly seasoned, a scattering of carrots and cabbage uninspiring.

A nasu dengaku appetizer proved only a little less of a letdown, the thin cylinders of Japanese eggplant horizontally halved and cooked to soft consistency but marred by a disagreeably sweet/vinegary miso sauce. Steak teriyaki fell short as well, first arriving too rare and rubbery, and then returning properly cooked but just as tough. In fact, of the Japanese selections we tasted, only an appetizer of creamy tofu cubes, lightly dusted with breading and crisply fried, meandered above the mundane.

Sushi/sashimi samplings were so-so. The fish was consistently fresh, but the rice leaned toward gummy, and the rolls were too loosely bound. A "crazy" roll of eel, salmon skin, cucumber, scallion, avocado, asparagus, and masago was infused with a powerful — and sweet — sauce. That's crazy; it should have been served on the side.

Indonesian fare was not arresting, either. The Bali high was gulai kambing, tender slices of sautéed lamb in a spicy, aromatic green curry sauce. Delicate dumplings of ground shrimp (shumai bandung) were tasty, too, but a chicken satay starter sported six skewers of dry, unseasoned breast with clumpy peanut sauce.

Nasi goreng was particularly disappointing. This classic Indonesian specialty translates to "fried rice" and, like its Chinese equivalent, is traditionally stocked with numerous components. These might include shrimp or other shellfish, meat, chicken, onions, chilies, garlic, cucumber, peanuts, bean sprouts, rice crackers, fried egg, and a wide array of seasonings. Sushi Bali's rendering offers either shrimp, chicken, or beef with the rice, and omits everything else excepting garlic, onions, and seasonings.

Because menu items are printed in such a cramped manner, I did not realize Indonesian beverages and desserts were available until I arrived home and perused the take-out menu. So we suffered through reheated Thai doughnuts drizzled with condensed milk, and a large scoop of ice-cream tempura that appeared to have been fried sometime earlier in the month, frozen, and then microwaved — the pale, battered crust slipped off the ice cream faster than Star Jones did from The View, and lay at the bottom of the ball like a wet blanket.

I suppose some consolation can be found in Sushi Bali's frugal final bill, for most main courses are just $12 to 15. Still, in trying to please everyone, oftentimes you end up pleasing no one.