Date Night: Bali Nusa Indah
The United Nations might reside on Manhattan's east side, but its foodie equivalent rises up in the west, along Ninth Avenue. Starting in the high 30s and continuing up through 50th Street, this stretch of Ninth boasts Italian, Japanese, classic American, new American, diner American, Ethiopian, Afghan, Druze, Thai, South African, French, pub, Mexican, and Buddhist Vegetarian. These restaurants, as well as the many others in the area, put the "kitchen" in Hell's Kitchen. Bali Nusa Indah stands out for its cuisine (Indonesian), service (exceedingly friendly), and decor (art deco meets bona fide tribal).
As you can guess from the name, Dutch plantation owners in Indonesia invented rijsttafel ("rice table"), in order to try a wide sampling of indigenous dishes. At Bali Nusa Indah, rijsttafel ($27) comes with 11 in all. It's a great date option because (1) everyone's bound to like something and (2) tiny tastes of a lot of things provides an introduction without commitment, like speed dating for the palate.
To start, gado-gado, an exotic name for an unexotic course. We'd read that gado-gado is a national dish, but this super-cold salad featured iceberg lettuce and carrot shreds--foods not known for their inspirational or brag-worthy qualities. Only the peanut dressing made this salad worth more than a bite.
While an improvement over the first, our second course nevertheless disappointed. The soto madura (chicken broth with cellophane noodles and bean sprouts) tasted less flavorful than it looked, alas, although we appreciated the cook's boldest gesture: to float a lemon wedge in one of the bowls.
And then the motherlode arrived, six small bowls of different curries, balanced atop a miniature heating system, a buffet built for two. These dishes show the influence of other cooking cultures on Indonesia, including the lemongrass and coconut milk of Thailand, the complex spicing of India, the fish sauces of Vietnam, the flash-frying and presence of basil throughout Asia.
The rendang padang (beef curry, top row at left) and kari kambing (lamb curry, bottom row at right) looked nearly identical and both offered meaty boats sailing in a sea of coconut curry flecked with the seeds of chilis. The beef, however, wound up slightly more tender than the lamb, so won the day. Even better were the ayam asam manis (sweet-and-sour chicken, bottom row at left), strips of chewy chicken covered in a sticky-spicy sauce full of garlic and onion.
Broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots comprised the kari sayuran (vegetable curry, top row at right), along with a thick yet subdued sauce. The sambal goreng udang buncis (shrimp and green beans) upped the spice ante; its pungency provided a welcome contrast to the meal's overall lack of punch.
Granted, nobody asked us during our meal, but we'd like to propose that ikan pepes (broiled red snapper in lemongrass sauce, top row center) replace gado-gado as the national dish, at least at Bali Nusa Indah. The fish's flesh stayed firm, and held up well to the candied tang of the red and green pepper-filled sauce. Here is a dish to feed a nation.
We dipped the krupuk, or shrimp crackers, into pretty much everything. The satay ayam (chicken satay) looked like dry dark meat but wound up being moist white meat. Hooray! The peanut sauce came warm, and these skewers went fast. To finish, a bowl of sarikayo, coconut cream custard topped with caramel and redolent of coffee.
Near us was a photo from an earlier era, a woman seated with a servant by her side, blown up to just about blurriness. The food sometimes felt that way too, as if it had been muted for non-native palates. For the real(er) deal, purists will head to the parking lot behind Masjid Al-Hikmah, in Queens, home to the Indonesian Food Bazaar, held periodically throughout the summer. But when the train isn't running, or there's frost on the ground, or you'd rather sit at a table than stand sweaty on asphalt, or you'd like a meal that's different, but not too different, from the usual Thai-Vietnamese-Chinese trinity, we have Bali Nusa Indah, a fine runner up. It's best for: a mild date.
Bali Nusa Indah
About the authors: Jessica Allen and Garrett Ziegler have been eating out together since 2002 and writing We Heart New York since 2006.