Rebecca Anne Milford tracks down the hidden gems of the tropical paradise that is Bali. Here, she finds inventive and outstanding food in the beautifully bespoke restaurant, Cuca.
Made with love
As soon as one crosses the wooden walkway into the coconut grove where Cuca is located, it becomes obvious there’s a special kind of magic in the air. The glow of lamplight leads the way, and as you step from the soft shadows, you’re welcomed by the lilting, evocative chords of jazz that float into the night, combined with happy laughter of the guests sipping cocktails on the lawn. There’s a frisson of excitement in the air that is intangible yet deeply seductive.
No doubt this is partly down to the love that went into creating Cuca – the baby of Virginia and Kevin, who opened it in July 2013. The title refers to the pet nickname that Virginia’s mother used to call her, and the restaurant showcases a real passion for the cuisine and culture of Indonesia, given some truly inspired twists. 100% local ingredients mix with the concept of casual Western, tapas-style dining, together with delicious cocktails and desserts. On top of that, every individual item of the place has some link to the island. From the chopsticks, which are made from Balinese wood, to the stone that makes the bowls, right on through to specially sourced honey – a feeling of respect and adoration for the natural beauty of the country shines through.
A theatre for food
The layout of the restaurant has been given as much thought as the menu, and is cleverly arranged so there is a space for everything, depending on your reason to visit. An outside garden glows like a fairy-grove from Midsummer’s Night Dream, while inside there is a large, elegantly lit room for group meals or romance (the seating is not too packed, and there are gauzy curtains that can be pulled across for privacy.) Dessert can be taken on one of the low couches outside, or an open air cocktail can be enjoyed at the al fresco bar. Whether it’s for romance, a friendly catch-up, or a group celebration, Cuca has thought of it all, and the overall sensation is chic, glamorous and stylishly modern.
But for real foodies, the treat is to take a front-row seat for an extraordinary kitchen experience. Sit at the bar and watch the chefs in action, preparing all kinds of fascinating dishes.
The concept is a simple yet refreshing one – rather than decide on a menu and then source produce, Chef Kevin has put the ingredients first. By finding key Indonesian food items and then shaping unique dishes around them, he has managed to present a menu that showcases the vey best of Indonesian bounty.
Although you can order a la carte, I can’t recommend the tasting menu enough. We perched at the kitchen bar, watching in fascination as the chefs whipped, stirred and poured the ingredients to create some of Cuca’s best-loved dishes for us. They are a mixture of playful innovation and seriously adept technique – in one impressive dish the sweetness of honey-baked pumpkin is combined with the crunch of seeded granola, anchored to its savoury roots with a dose of tarragon leaves.
The sensory surprises begin immediately, and set the tone for Cuca’s teasing and cheeky nature – a puff of candy-floss dissipates in the tongue, leaving only the faintest taste (I won’t spoil the surprise and tell you, lest your caught-on-camera reaction be compromised). After that each dish delights and intrigues.
We absolutely adore the smoked butterfish; its impossibly silky texture is given substance by its smoky flavour, and the vibrant whipped beetroot seems so light it evaporates on our tongue leaving the most wonderful sensation of fresh gardens. Then there us that marvelous dish of honey baked pumpkin salad, that merges the crunch of granola with slightly caramalised root vegetables. William, our charming and knowledgeable host of the evening, explained that at Cuca the entire sensory experience is accounted for, and aesthetics and texture all play their part. Each plate of food certainly looks beautiful.
Crispy fried chicken with sesame dust and Asian basil is the ultimate gourmet comfort food, and one of my favourite dishes has to be the octopus. There is not the slightest hint of chewiness to the seafood, and the vivid green Asian gazpacho, merged with the sweet crunch of apple, is such a massive burst of flavour it seems cleanse my palate like rainfall.
To finish, dessert is fun and teasing – a ‘Balinese breakfast’ that appears to be a fried egg in a bowl, golden yolk bobbing in a sea of snowy white. This white is of course coconut, and the yolk mango – break through its skin and it seeps out in tropical glory, to the frozen yogurt and fruit below.
The whole menu is so very carefully thought through – it is like witnessing a cleverly choreographed show that encompasses foods, flavours, culture, technique and, most of all, a deep-rooted respect for this adopted home in Bali.
Somehow Cuca has done the extraordinary, by merging a multitude of things that seem too good to be true. The dishes are vibrant with authentic Balinese flavours made from local produce – but are served in a distinct and unique fashion. It is a fine-dining concept that is affordable and, what’s more, completely accessible (the hospitality is so charming you feel comfortable at once). It is set in a space that encourages romantic dinners, lively chatter, and foodie heaven. There is something modern and fresh about Cuca, and yet it also wholly embraces the traditions, culture and crafts of Bali.
All this has been created by Virginia, Kevin and their team, and it is wonderful to see such a place flourishing. If ever in Bali, this is a destination restaurant that I could not recommend highly enough – you won’t regret it for a moment.
Visit Cuca at the website, or follow them on Instagram @Cucaflavor