Back in the 80’s, in what expats assure us were the glory days of Bali, long before super clubs sprung up on Jalan Legian, and beanbags became de riguer for every warung and bar on the beach, Club Gado Gado was the islands hottest party spot. It’s been more than ten years since the sound system was switched off and the venue matured into a classy restaurant, but it remains one of the island’s greatest icons. Now known as Chez Gado Gado the restaurant’s ongoing success can be attributed to a number of reasons. The glorious beach front setting for starters, but it has also managed to stay ahead of the crowd with an ever evolving concept; from cool club, to French bistro, to its present incarnation as a chic fine dining and function venue. Through all its various reinventions, the soul of Gado Gado has remained intact – balmy tropical nights blended with the warmth of friendly staff, and a whisper of island magic.
Last years renovations expanded the restaurant and added a glossy sheen, but the original wantilan building remains, a majestic pagoda-like structure with a soaring roof dangling with shimmering chandeliers. The upper tier has comfortable sofas with wonderful views over the main dining floor – an opulent setting where dark varnished wood meets smooth marble floors. Balinese design features include a traditional ‘aling aling’ wall located just inside the grand entrance, intended to keep out potentially troublesome spirits (they can only move in straight lines, so bounce off.) And then there are the magnificent old camplung tanduk trees, around which the expansive deck has been built; their gnarled and twisted limbs are so sacred that Balinese priests need to perform special ceremonies before so much as a branch can be removed.
In its days as a fashionable club days these beautiful trees were part of the dance floor, now they make a picturesque setting for a sun downer, and my Mojito proves to be a perfect balance of lemon and mint with just a hint of sparkle. The incoming tide sends huge sets of waves barrelling onto the shore and as darkness descends the soft glow of lanterns creates a romantic, sensual allure. I toy with the idea of following up with a Lychee Martini, I hear they are excellent, but there is something about this view that calls for Champagne, and I opt instead for a sparkling Peach Bellini. Gado Gado is also well known for its distinctive wine list with a sommelier on hand to make suggestions, and to pair wines with each course of the degustation menu.
Chef Quirijn Rademake (Quib) joins me for a chat, he is obviously in his element here, and tells me that when he arrived on the deck of Gado Gado four years ago, his first thought was, “This is awesome, this is beautiful.” Dutch born, but world inspired, Quib is a master of innovation, for him the kitchen is a culinary laboratory where he is given free reign to experiment with flavours, textures and ingredients, creating ever changing degustation menus and a la carte variations. When the restaurant closed for renovations last year he took the opportunity to revamp the menu; glancing through I detect Mediterranean and French influences, but he tells me that the focus isn’t so much on a particular type of cuisine, but rather on achieving consistency and acquiring quality local produce. It was his idea to start La Plaga, a 9000 sq meter farm in the verdant hills of Tabanan which supplies the restaurant. He happily spends one day a week at the farm, where vegetables ripening on the vine and the herbs and salads flourishing in the greenhouse provide inspiration for his five course degustation menu. “An a la carte menu is straight forward,” he tells me, “A degustation menu can be more adventurous, a chance to show off.”
Tonight’s tasting menu starts with tuna tartar, delicate morsels of fish with a sublime combination of Thai yoghurt, avruga caviar and sweet and sour cucumber (fresh from the farm and bursting with sweetness.) In a lovely Quib touch, dainty little coriander flowers provide a softer flavour than the more commonly used seeds and leaves. Slipper lobster is next, with crispy mushrooms, and a mild sweet corn creme infused with a hint of komangi (Balinese lemon basil) oil to create a soft and wondrously fragrant flavour. The springy garden cress has been grown from seeds that Quib brought from Holland – it’s the tiny details that creates the magic! Grilled tenderloin with spinach puree, potato croutons and veal jus reduction is up next, but Quib is aware of my preference for vegetarian food and has concocted my 3rd course on the spot. Pumpkin soup with curry spices, crunchy slivers of almonds, cubes of sweet beetroot and tart apple. He is smiling when he brings it out – he knows it is good. In fact, it is absolutely divine, it almost seems wrong for a soup to taste this good.
I have made sure to save space for dessert – Gado gado’s classic chocolate melted cake has been on the menu for ten years and has a legendary reputation. Also on the degustation menu tonight is Quib’s own creation, Valrhona chocolate coulant with vanilla ice cream. He wants me to try both! Ahhhh, two desserts….. the life of a restaurant critic is a tough one. I start with the classic melted cake, the gushing fountain of milky rich chocolate sauce combines beautifully with sweet mango sorbet and tart passion fruit sauce. The coulant is a darker, pure chocolate blend with almonds. One is not better than the other, they are just different. The same could be said of Gado Gado itself, it was fabulous as a club, and equally iconic as a restaurant, what’s important is that the legend lives on.