Bali has many historic and cultural landmarks that regularly attract visiting tourists. Whilst many of these sites require a drive of a few hours, sadly only a few of them have a quality International restaurant in the vicinity. Normally there are only local warungs [and no matter how good they may be they are not always what the tourist is looking for], or worse still that infernal buffet, ten trays of re-heated [more than once] tasteless food being charged for at 'tourist price' that includes commissions for agent, guide and driver?.
Now, at last, at Karang Asem's famous Water Palace at Tirta Gangga, the two are combined, a venue reeking with history, and a quality restaurant where you can relax and absorb the atmosphere. The small villas that surround that of the King are now under English management, and their beautiful restaurant has had a total makeover.
The restaurant at Tirta Ayu is perfectly positioned, perched on the mountain ledge in front of the villas, overlooking the majestic Water Palace, with island sisters of Nusa Penida and Lembongan clearly visible in the background. As soon as you arrive at the restaurant you know that you have stepped over the threshold between Bali and International. Furthermore it is done without losing that wonderful naturalness of local Balinese service.
Start with an old favourite, Lumpia Semarang, bamboo shoots combined with chicken and prawn. Vietnamese Rice Paper Rolls are thinly shredded cucumber and carrot, combined with glass noodles, coriander leaves and prawn, then rolled in soft moistened rice paper. The accompanying dipping sauce is a tangy chilli that wakes you up. Even the normal Vegetarian Spring Rolls are above average, crunchy exterior stuffed with healthy things and a great sweet chilli sauce for immersion.
Among the soups is an unusual Chicken and Coconut. Sliced chicken breast is with galangal, lime leaf and lemongrass, very Asian. That Indonesian classic Soto Ayam is available; shredded chicken, bok choy, bean sprouts, boiled egg, glass noodles and fried shallots. For vegetarians a rich Tomato Bisque, roasted fresh tomatoes are blended with onion and a vegetable stock, served with croutons and julienne of basil.
As many visitors call in here for morning or afternoon snacks, as well as for a major meal, they are also catered for with an array of Salads [Mixed Seafood with squid and prawns tossed in a salad with a chilli coriander dressing], Snacks [Tortilla, filled with avocado, toasted bellpeppers, tomato cheese and greens],
Whilst impressed from first arrival at Tirta Ayu, it was the main courses that really surprised me. Not the quality [presentation and content] that you expect at a country tourist location, no matter how good! It is obvious that the chef has special credentials and a wealth of good experience.
A total surprise was the normal sounding Chicken Safriana Jingga, grilled young chicken with curry! The chicken is first marinated in yoghurt, peppers and lime juice, before being grilled. In the bowl to be pounded is ginger, galangal, onions, red chilli and turmeric, later to be combined with a little coconut milk. The grilled chicken is coated with this mixture, the final taste so full of wild flavours, the result a true Indonesian curry, so different from all others.
Other Indonesian mains include standard Mie and Nasi Gorengs plus a few twists. The Oriental Nasi Goreng has chopped bacon and sausage, onion, cabbage and carrots, unusually topped with a tangy oyster sauce. The Tirta Ayu special Mie Goreng is egg noodles wok fried with chicken and a tenggiri fish cake, topped with a fried egg. The Nasi Campur presents a selection of local specials, ayam betutu, fried tofu, crispy tempe with vegetable spring roll, urap and brochette.
Indonesian Curries are mild and fragrant. Chicken, beef or fish, simmered in coconut milk. Sate Udang is a brochette of alternate prawns and vegetables, the dipping sauce Chinese style sweet and sour.
Another shock was the Crispy Skin Salmon. A large slab of that cold water fish, grilled with garlic butter. The Salmon was firm and tender, the skin very crisp, perfect to be eaten. Yellow Fin Tuna is just pan seared with basil and chilli oil.
Other mains include an excellent Chicken Steak, the breast has been stuffed with slices of ham and mozzarella cheese, breaded then lightly fried, served with a mushroom sauce. The Pork Ribs go Balinese with a local sambal rather than the more normal American BBQ, plenty of taste here! Roasted Chicken is combined with a herb and garlic butter, the skin nice and crisp, the flesh very tender.
However Tirta Ayu in central Karang Asem also showcases the unique cuisine of East Bali, highlighted by their Megabung. This is a shared table for two or more diners and includes; minced fish sate, vegetable urab, prawn, chicken, pepes ikan, palem udang, babi kecap and rice. Other special Balinese dishes available include my favourite, Tum Ayam [minced chicken wrapped in a banana leaf with local spices then steamed] and a chicken dish with taste?Be Siap Mepanggang Base Kallas?grilled chicken in a coconut sauce. The local way to cook fish is to wrap it in a banana leaf and grill it over embers. Here they do that with Mahi-Mahi, Bali?s best local fish.
I can not understand people who dine in Bali on frozen imported fish that has been caught days/weeks before, thousands of miles away, and at often inflated prices, when the local product is so good, fresh and cheap!
Bali?s restaurant scene just keeps on getting better! Local food via a professional kitchen but at local prices!
Dine with the King, you will certainly feel like one!