Bali Kitchen Hits the Jackpot with Indonesian Treats in the East Village

The refrigerated case at Bali Kitchen in the East Village is the size of a casino slot machine and bears virtually as many exciting fruity combinations. Under fluorescent lights, usual-suspect American sodas sit alongside custom-bottled soft drinks flavored with pineapple and ginger, juice box cartons of jasmine or cinnamon-tinged Indonesian teas, and what look like more sodas but are actually cans of “milk peanut soup,” a sugary legume potage. Better still are the sealed plastic cups of house-made fruit drinks ($3-$7): floral lychee and magenta-hued rambutan iced teas crowded with pulpy flesh and whole fruit; creamy avocado stained with swirls of chocolate syrup; and a frothy durian juice, equal parts stinky and sweet.

Bali Kitchen

Cendol ($6) blurs the lines between drink and dessert. If you like the gummi worm concoction known as dirt pudding, you’ll no doubt enjoy digging through this refreshing mess of coconut milk zapped with palm sugar and brimming with strands of rice-flour jelly tinted green from vanilla-like pandan leaf. Other chilled sweets ($4-$5) peek out from disposable ramekins, like multicolored, mildly tart jackfruit custards (vegan and non-) topped with cubes of coconut jelly. Klappertaart, a gooey, raisin-studded coconut cake that harks back to Indonesia’s Dutch colonial past, is a mainstay. And if you’re so inclined, it’s recently been joined by a similar cake that swaps out coconut for durian, the pungent fruit mellowing as it bakes. There are prepared tofu salads ($7.95) in the cold case, too, mosh pits of firm bean curd with diced long beans and shredded coconut or a swarm of pineapple, hard-boiled eggs, and crunchy, slightly bitter emping — deep-fried chips made from the seeds of the melinjo plant — waiting to be tossed with jalapeño and peanut dressings.

Hungrier folk will want to seek out the sprawling picture menu that stretches across half of the wall, or consult with the smaller chalkboard menu next to it that lists the full rundown plus a few seasonal specials, like sayur lodeh ($4.95), a heavenly coconut milk and root vegetable stew suffused with lemongrass, lime leaves, candlenuts, and the maritime funk of dried shrimp. It can be ordered with chunks of tempeh, though chopped sweet shrimp more soulfully speak to the soup’s already briny, citrusy punch.

Jazz P. Souisay, head chef and co-owner of Bali Kitchen

The eight-seat restaurant, which takes up a whitewashed sliver of a storefront on East Fourth Street, comes from spouses David Prettyman, an erstwhile aid worker who coordinates City Harvest’s Greenmarket food rescues, and Jazz P. Souisay, an artist and fashion designer from eastern Java who is also the head chef here. They opened Bali Kitchen just shy of a year ago with an eye toward takeout and delivery. Everything is served in compostable containers and with eco-friendly flatware. Vegetarian alternatives abound. It’s a boon not only to the neighborhood, but to a city that, despite its wide-ranging dining options, only has about a dozen or so restaurants devoted to Indonesian cuisine.

While Bali is where the couple met more than two decades ago, Souisay’s menu hopscotches around the Indonesian archipelago, paying tribute to the diverse cooking traditions spread throughout the country’s 13,000-plus islands. Soto ayam Ambengan ($11.95) hails from Surabaya, the city where he grew up. The turmeric-spiked chicken noodle soup is as comforting a bowl as you could hope for, full of rice cakes, fragrant fried garlic, half a boiled egg, and the plump, Dutch-influenced potato fritter called perkedel. A squeeze of lime bolsters the gently sour lemongrass broth.

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Two kinds of Indonesia’s staggering number of regional grilled sate skewers are offered. Both are excellent. Served as an entrée with chewy coconut rice cakes and spicy pickled mango, sate Makassar ($13.95), named for a city on the southern coast of Sulawesi, finds lightly charred chicken reveling in a glaze of peanut dressing and a tart sauce made with bilimbi, a cousin of the starfruit. Balinese sate lilit ($6.95), meanwhile, is a ginger-and-turmeric–packed appetizer of chicken, swai fish, or mushrooms ground with shredded coconut and formed around pronged sticks like oblong meatballs. Dip them into Bali’s sambal matah, a raw shallot-lemongrass relish that delivers a feisty kick.

Lawar Tahu Salad

Noodle and rice dishes make up the heartiest meals. Souisay’s beef rendang ($13.95) is worth the trip alone. The glorious flood of saucy brisket is cooked down for six to eight hours in coconut milk fortified with, among other things, galangal, star anise, and makrut lime, until the sauce thickens and the meat relaxes in a fork-tender heap. Ladled next to sautéed greens and a spoonful of sambal, it’s sensationally aromatic and filling. There are also fried egg and garlic cracker-topped stir fries of wheat or cellophane noodles ($10.95) and dabu dabu ($14.95), chicken or fish smothered in a vibrant mango-pineapple salsa that feels summer appropriate. Bali Kitchen’s nasi goreng ($10.95), a nationally beloved fried rice, is liberally laced with the Indonesian sweet soy sauce kecap manis, though the condiment fades into the background in nasi goreng kampung ($11.95), which adds shrimp paste, bitter beans, and an abundance of dried krill and baby anchovies to the equation for an eye-opening rush of concentrated fermented oceanic salinity. Sate lilit reappears in the nasi campur bali ($14.95), joining gingery simmered chicken breast, tempeh strips, diced long beans, and sambal-covered hard-boiled eggs, all placed around a mound of jasmine rice. For nasi kuning ($12.95), a vegetarian version, the rice is turmeric and stewed mushrooms are the star.

Lapis Legit Cake

One of the cooks, David Silva, is in charge of all of the desserts. His greatest achievement isn’t found in the refrigerated case, but instead hangs out by the register among the assorted fried snacks under glass domes. Called lapis legit ($4.50) or spekkoek in Dutch, the dense and buttery layer cake is another vestige of colonialism. With more than twenty layers, it takes hours to make. The end result is as precious as a piece of jewelry, redolent of pandan and cinnamon and doled out in diminutive striped slices. Like Bali Kitchen, it’s a brief taste of Indonesia that speaks volumes.

Bali Kitchen
128 East 4th Street


Pho, Banh Mi, and Long-Simmered Love at Em in Brooklyn

Lucky us that the city’s Vietnamese restaurant renaissance shows no signs of slowing. In the last decade or so, New Yorkers have reveled in Hanoi House’s rich northern-style beef pho, welcomed the concise and dedicated chicken obsession of Bep Ga, and celebrated the relocation of a modern classic at the bigger, badder Bunker (after the owners decamped from Ridgewood to Bushwick).

Enter Em, which opened along the border of Bensonhurst and Bath Beach earlier this year. The airy, brightly lit café is run by 27-year-old chef Ly Nguyen, a native of Vietnam’s South Central Coast, and her husband, Patrick Lin, 33, born in San Francisco to Vietnamese-Chinese refugees who settled in south Brooklyn. Theirs is a restaurant rooted in long-distance love (their courtship began four years ago in Ho Chi Minh City, when Lin was in town for his family’s fruit-importing business) and fostered by countless bowls of hu tieu Nam Vang ($8.50), the Chinese-influenced Khmer noodle soup popular throughout Cambodia and southern Vietnam that was the first thing Nguyen ever cooked for her spouse-to-be, as a nod to his heritage.

Hu Tieu Em and Mien Ga soups_Chef Ly and Patrick Lin

To make it, she boils down ham bones and pork spareribs in a stockpot with preserved squid and tiny, ossified dried shrimp, balancing the savory, briny broth with a smidgen of rock sugar. Eight hours later, the murky brew (with a fall-apart tender rib in tow) is ladled over admirably sturdy rice noodles, luscious ground pork, soft-boiled quail eggs, and snappy, just-cooked shrimp. For an extra charge, you can toss in pleasantly rubbery fish balls or sweet shredded crab meat, edging this surf-and-turf bowl in the ocean’s favor (I’d recommend springing for both). Garnished liberally with crispy garlic, chopped cilantro, and ribbons of chives and scallions, Nguyen’s recipe is ineffably memorable. Move over, engagement chicken.

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Just two other soups are offered, but Lin tells me that off-menu specials, like bun ca Nha Trang, a fish noodle soup from Nguyen’s neck of the woods, are on the way. Pho bo ($12) is sensational, as immaculate a rendition as I’ve tasted anywhere, with a broth bearing the earthy sweetness of coriander and fennel seeds, plus a pronounced meatiness from simmering beef neck bones, knuckles, and Flinstonian femurs for just shy of 24 hours. Its intensity recalls northern-style pho, but, on the side, Nguyen adds the cornucopia of herbs, bean sprouts, and verdant fresh chiles that’s prevalent in the south — a best-of-both-worlds approach that nearly transcends this one. Around the bowl sits a butcher shop’s worth of beef cuts: taut meatballs, pudgy slices of brisket that barely put up a fight, and thinner ones of still-pink rib eye and filet mignon, so soft that they practically dissolve when chewed. Add a substantial bone-in short rib for $5 more. The meat is braised until it easily succumbs to chopsticks.

Mien ga ($8.50), meanwhile, calls for whole New Jersey birds to be simmered and shredded, the hash of light and dark meat chicken added back to the broth alongside Vietnamese coriander, an astringent herb also known as rau ram that imbues the clean-tasting poultry broth with an almost grassy piquancy. It too comes mobbed with scallions, cilantro, and chives. At the bottom of the bowl lurks a pellucid nest of thin and floppy cellophane noodles made from the starch of canna lilies. All but flavorless, they’re perfect for this soup’s milder character, though pho ga ($8.50), which swaps out the glass noodles (mien) for rice noodles, is also available upon request.

Em, Pork Rolls and Summer rolls, Strawberry Fields Smoothie

Noodles also make their way into all three appetizers ($6), bulking up fresh rice paper summer rolls stuffed with shrimp or griddle-kissed slabs of pork sausage and joining a welcomingly assertive filling of ground shrimp, pork, and mushrooms inside the golden-brown casings of spring rolls. Cradle the deep-fried bundles in lettuce leaves with pickled vegetables, then dip into garlicky, citrusy nuoc cham sauce.

Em’s terrific banh mi ($6–$9) are constructed around robustly crusty and pliant custom-baked rolls sourced from an Italian bakery nearby, and all but one of them (a vegetarian number with soy sauce–doused eggs) come paved with house-made pâté, the velvety spread of chicken and pork livers suffusing each bite with an undercurrent of earthy savor. Nguyen’s signature version is standard but wonderfully balanced, cramming in spongy slices of pork roll steamed in banana leaves; fatty, mortadella-esque cold cuts; pickled carrots and daikon; cucumbers; and, optionally, hot green chiles. Two others pit scrambled eggs against pork products, including a bacon, egg, and cheese (in this case, provolone), though the most compelling Americana riff is Em’s banh mi burger, anchored by a duo of nicely browned Black Angus patties winningly laced with fish sauce and smothered in melted provolone. Heartiest of all, banh mi bo is like a New Orleans po’boy, but with lime-lashed, stock-braised beef replacing the Big Easy’s roast beef soaked in “debris” gravy.

Mollify your indefatigable taste buds with drinks ($3–$6) like hot or cold ginger tea, iced slow-drip coffee steeped from Vietnamese beans, and sparkling limeade with or without chanh muối, muddled salt-cured limes that lend a brilliant pickled tanginess. There’s eminently refreshing pineapple-mint slush, and a tart juice that stans hard for Adele (the “Aloe, It’s Me,” which blends the holistic plant with lemons and lychees). Best of all, though, are Em’s smoothies. Some, like the Strawberry Fields, incorporate house-made Vietnamese yogurt. Others are sweetened with condensed milk. The best of these transforms watermelon into a creamy frozen treat packed with all the lighthearted fun and dewy sugariness of the best frosty summertime novelties. Gulped down to quell the heat of chiles, it’s better than striking gold at the ice cream truck.

1702 86th Street, Brooklyn