The town of Ubud is unlike any other on Bali. Far from its famed beaches, the township is Bali’s cultural heartbeat and home to a plethora of heritage crafts: from stone carvings, woven works, and traditional performance arts. In place of sand, it is surrounded by small farms, idyllic padi fields and rich forests.
Naturally, Indonesia’s art and culture hub was destined to be the perfect incubator for a vibrant culinary scene. Alongside family-owned warungs dishing a spectrum of Indonesian fare, new-age cafes and restaurants have also come to embrace the local culture in innovative ways. It is one that is celebrated prominently with the Ubud Food Festival since 2015, which draws award-winning chefs and think tanks around the world for demonstrations and talks.
When it comes to fine-dining, Ubud is also successful in churning out a few bigwigs. It is the birthplace of Locavore which has become the best — and only — Indonesian restaurant on the Asia’s 50 Best List. International chefs, such as Room 4 Dessert’s Will Goldfarb of Netflix fame, have come to make Ubud home as well. But this isn’t enough, according to one restaurant that is taking Ubud’s fine-dining to the next level.
Enter Apéritif, the latest entrant in town by luxury hotelier Viceroy Bali. No expense was spared in the undertaking. Behind its resplendent, colonial Dutch-style building and interiors, Apéritif is armed with some of the most advanced cooking equipments: a full-induction kitchen, and gadgets tinkered by smartphone for precise temperature adjustments. The kitchen team, led by executive chef Nic Vanderbeeken, is also privy to both a greenhouse and hydroponics farm on hotel grounds.
“We aim to redefine the entire experience of luxury fine dining as we think about each guest’s enjoyment,” says Vanderbeeken. “From the space and décor, to the atmosphere and quality of produce — whether local or imported — used, we definitely value each and every little detail.”
Details, like the restaurant’s name, are not just hastily made decisions. It is a call back to European traditions of enjoying a drink, normally alcoholic, before dinner.
The restaurant brings the practice back to life: an apéritif is first offered to guests at a roaring Twenties-inspired bar complete with dimmed lights, plush leather armchairs and contemporary paintings. Cocktails by award-winning bartender Ran Van Ongevalle, sees Indonesian twists to classic cocktails such as Kemangi Cooler and Galangal Bubble Cocktail.
Here, diners get a first taste of what’s to come in the adjacent dining room: Lombok oyster with yoghurt whey; Betawi bullfrog leg with spicy coconut flakes; a crudo of locally-caught parrot fish and beetroot meringue with Balinese honey. The canapes are a stunning insight to Indonesia’s ingredients, but Vanderbeeken was careful to add: “quality comes first.” As much as possible, ingredients are sourced locally. Only when a quality alternative cannot be found do they look to importing them.
But the cuisine, not locavorism, is what will set the restaurant pummelling through the competition. Dubbed ‘eclectic, global cuisine,’ dishes are an amalgamation of various flavours and inspirations from different cultures. It’s also a reflection of the cultural diversity in Apéritif’s head honchos: the Belgian-born Vanderbeeken and American pastry chef Alexander McKinstry, both of whom had experience in Michelin-starred restaurants. Both had a part to play in building the 10-course menu narrative.
How does it all come together? Vanderbeeken tells us more about his thoughts on Ubud’s fine-dining scene, how Apéritif fits in, and using Indonesia’s produce.
How did the idea for Apéritif come about?
It was two years in the making. Previously, I had been executive chef at CasCades Restaurant for five years and Anthony Syrowatka (Viceroy Bali GM) was happy to support me in my future ambitions. We discussed, decided on fine-dining and we started small. Our chef de cuisine arrived last March and Alexander this January. So we had three chefs here, but the kitchen was not done yet. We stayed in CasCades and it was our playground then. We were devoted to our kitchen every time, worked everyday, making an evolution. Then, we experimented with all sort of spices and ingredients.
Many things fail, and sometimes we have success. The moment we have one success, we build from there. One example is our base with fermented koji. It started with our chef de cuisine making a ‘tasty paste’ for our duck dish, and we liked it very much. It became one of our basic techniques that we try to further improve on and keep consistent.
It improved our cuisine, and from there we progressed much faster. We come up with every item on the menu together, we taste and choose the best. We want to surprise people and serve good food, not just look nice.
What do you think of Bali’s fine-dining scene?
Fine dining restaurants in Bali are quite limited. There are amazing restaurants and chefs that are creative and innovative, but don’t necessarily fall into the “fine dining” category. To me, fine dining is about the entire experience – from beautiful food and a gorgeous space to the attention to detail in the service and, also, the selection of wines helped by a talented sommelier and team.
Many restaurants may choose to focus more on a concept, rather delivering a holistic fine dining product, but I believe that fine dining should be about the whole package. We are lucky that the Ubud dining scene as a whole is growing. There are many properties opening catering to different dining preferences, which I believe is good for the scene in general. This means that Ubud is a dining destination, and eventually, will be home to more fine dining restaurants of world-class calibre. This will help elevate Ubud, and Bali, as a whole.
How, in your opinion, is Apéritif different from these places?
Apéritif is a unique dining experience. From the moment guests step into the door, you are transported to another world and era. There is the gorgeous 1920s-inspired bar, where you are able to enjoy a pre-dinner drink or aperitif with snacks, prior to stepping into the grand dining room.
The food we offer is eclectic and takes inspiration from many different places in the world, which means that diners can connect even deeper to the food we offer, as there are little hints to flavours that are familiar to many diners.
That sounds like a lot on a plate. How does the team make it work on the menu then?
It’s about bringing a tiny bit of those inspirations they choose into one degustation menu. Sometimes, when we try to explain a concept or flavour and we don’t understand each other, we get angry. But, in the end, we realised we were trying to get to the same result. Why are we even arguing in the first place then?
The best example of this all comes together is the ceviche. I clean and cure my parrotfish like the Japanese do with sashimi, and then we wrap the fish in wakame. We also made a leche de tigre and combined it with housemade coconut milk so it become quite like kinilaw. On top of that, we have avocado and tomato salsa. So we have three countries, several techniques on one plate.
At Aperitif, you use both local and imported produce. How do these compare? What’s Indonesian produce like?
I’ve been here for six years now, and I have to say that the quality of vegetables have been improving. I’ve worked with a farm in Bedugul for five years and I noticed some ups and downs.
Sometimes, the produce doesn’t deliver and sometimes it’s okay. We use local vegetables and fish for our dishes. The only seafood we import is the lobster from Canada. Beef here isn’t as good, so we use Wagyu for tartare. Pork on the other hand is plenty in Bali. There’s a good farm up in Bali highlands which we will go several times to observe.
We also have our own greenhouse, and after many trials, we managed to grow herbs and flowers. It’s hard for the soil here to provide us the quality we need, and we use hydroponics to solve that.
How much does local flavour come up on the menu?
I use several sauces here, inspired from my wife’s cooking, such as bumbu (a local spice mix). The menu’s not Indonesia made fancy.Many dishes have hints of Indonesia, which is also about us respecting where we are and where we live, but is still international modern European cuisine.
That said, people are more interested to get our bumbu and gado gado recipes as well. We had some visiting chefs from Belgium and when they returned home they tell me that they miss these flavours. I think Southeast Asian flavours are trending abroad, like Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. Now, Filipino cuisine is coming up. I think it’s time for Indonesia to get on the global stage too.