Have food, will most certainly travel
Have food, will most certainly travel
- By Amanda Chai
- | Mar 21, 2019
We are a nation that will go the distance for food. While there’s plenty at home to plow through, the appeal of travelling to a foreign place—taking godforsaken boat rides to a secluded island, sitting hours in a cab—somehow makes the eventual meal taste all the better; the proverbial food of champions, if you will. And a formidable new player in the Southeast Asian dining scene seems set to make Ubud, Bali the next big destination.
Just hours away from Singapore, Aperitif peeks out above the rice paddies of the Indonesian archipelago, beckoning with a revolutionary eight-course degustation menu.
The restaurant is the second dining establishment from luxury hotelier Viceroy Bali. The honeymooners’ favourite first opened in 2005, a cosy family business whose launch coincided with that of international hospitality group Viceroy Hotel Group. Entirely unrelated, the Ubud property was named after the verdant valley it sits in—the Valley of the Kings; a nod to Indonesia’s Dutch colonial history.
For nine years, a single restaurant CasCades serviced the 10 villas on-site, dishing out breakfast, lunch and dinner under the skilled hand of Belgian Chef Nic Vanderbeeken. When 14 more opened in 2014, his load doubled; even today the estate continues its gradual expansion. It became clear a new addition to the dining portfolio was in order.
So enter Aperitif, a fine-dining restaurant on an entirely new level. In a stunning colonial-style space, chandeliers hang above gleaming checkered floors and wicker-backed chairs. On one end, a spacious open kitchen gives you full view of the shenanigans behind your meal; on the other, an enviable wine cellar of over 180 labels. Outside, the restaurant is bookended by views of rolling terraced rice paddies and the unspoiled leafy jungle.
Chef Nic Vanderbeeken
Ahead of its opening late last year, Chef Vanderbeeken was plucked from his lead role at CasCades and tasked to head this daring new venture. Given free rein to design the menu, the widely travelled Executive Chef chose to incorporate flavours he’d come across from all around the world, so that “everyone can experience themselves in the menu”.
While he does use Indonesian ingredients—both imported and foraged from the greenhouse on hotel grounds—the menu at Aperitif is less about highlighting local produce. It’s an especially important distinction, given the popularity of Locavore, Indonesia’s only entrant on the Asia’s 50 Best List, a stone’s throw away. While Locavore built its fame on locally sourced ingredients, Aperitif is a love song instead to the spices of the world, modern European cooking techniques, and Chef Vanderbeeken’s globally inquisitive palate.
There is just one menu on offer, an eight-course degustation whittled down from 60 initial dishes—and affordably priced at about $130 (Rp. 1,350,000), with optional wine pairing.
After a welcome cocktail in the adjoining ‘20s-inspired bar (hence the name Aperitif), you’ll start with canapes—most memorably the Oysters from Lombok, accented with spirulina seaweed and yogurt, and served in a dramatic spectacle of dry ice. Acid-forward flavours feature in the parrot-fish Ceviche, where lemon basil kemangi swirls beautifully into coconut milk; the kemangi is grown in the greenhouse too, and understandably becomes a running theme threading many of the dishes and drinks together.
The Kemangi Cooler at Aperitif Bar is a refreshing must
The plates come swiftly and bold in flavour, though the menu is never overwhelming. Fly through sous vide Butterfish or Canadian Lobster, the latter a comforting fail-safe in milky emulsion foam; beautifully charred Iberico Pork, whose flavour cuts right through the fat; Venison Wellington with foie gras and meaty mushroom rendang; and Duck Magret—inspired from traditional Balinese betutu, but elevated with a deceptively thin duck consomme layered in flavour.
Still, it’s Chef Vanderbeeken’s twists on Indonesian classics you’ll be craving for days after. The Karedok, a pickled cousin of gado gado, refreshes the humble salad with a burst of citrus and peanut sauce (mixed with that omnipresent kemangi). And the Papua Crab—a crisp shell of kohlrabi hiding sweet poached crab, then finished with Indonesian gulai-spiced bisque—is testament to his sheer innovative genius.
He estimates the patronage at Aperitif to be 70 percent visitors and 30 percent hotel guests—an exact reversal from the clientele at CasCades. It keeps him encouraged. “At Aperitif, I feel like I can be myself again,” he said.
Constantly experimenting, Chef Vanderbeeken already has a few new tricks up his sleeve for returning customers hankering for more. The sole Classic Degustation menu remains, but soon you’ll also be able to taste more explicit Indonesian flavours, treated with the same adventurous hand. There’s the Pindang Ikan, a delicate ring of cured and pickled mackerel in a citrusy river of sambal oelek emulsion. A sort of antithesis to that, the Tuna Tataki cured in Balinese miso gives a richer, meatier taste thanks to generous shavings of frozen foie gras scattered atop.
And fingers crossed you turn up when Chef’s Beef Rendang lands on the menu. It may seem Indonesian in essence, but actually reinvents a dish he used to present in Belgium—beef cheek on mushroom risotto, but swapping out the latter for yellow Arborio rice perfumed with turmeric. Finished with a deceptively pungent Kha Kai coconut curry foam, the tender beef cheek slathered in traditional rendang spices is one of the homeliest dishes on Aperitif’s elegant menu.
Dessert is no less stylish an affair. Chef Alexander McKinstry, who’s had his stints in Singapore at Unlisted Collection’s Pollen, commandeers the pastry corner. Nostalgia figuring largely into his creations, the American chef presents plates like PB & J, a peanut butter panna cotta coated with chocolate made exclusively for the restaurant, by a Belgian chocolatier in Yogyakarta. Another chocolate-heavy treat with a twist, the upcoming Banana combines roasted banana cream with the Aperitif chocolate, hints of turmeric jamu gel hidden on the plate.
His signature Goat Cheese dessert, a laborious creation encasing a heart of burrata inside milk skin—achieved by boiling milk on low heat for 45 minutes—has even earned him the nickname ‘Mr. Milk Skin’. Served with cheese sponge cake and brown butter ice cream, it’s the dreamiest send-off to conclude so decadent a meal.
If you’re lucky enough to be a guest at the hotel, there’s the comforts of your private villa and 350-thread count sheets to return to after. And even if you’re not, the taxi ride back to the centre of Ubud is well worth the heady stupor you're guaranteed to fall into. It’s not often a restaurant outshines the glamorous property it sits on, but Aperitif does so with poise; a newly inducted insider of destination dining.