The roosters are still crowing as chef Nengah Suradnya rides through his village of Penestanan to the Ubud market. The Lombok-born, Australian-trained chef weaves in and around the already busy narrow streets and lanes, over clear flowing streams and past rice paddies at what seems breakneck speed.
‘We have to get there early as the stallholders are gone by 8.30,’ he shouts above the scream of the engine. I hold on tight as we cross the river by the waterfalls and head to the town centre. Ubud is a Balinese centre of art and culture. It was the place where European artists came in the 1920s and ’30s and taught Western styles of painting to the local Balinese. There’s a tranquil air about the rural villages, their narrow lanes lined with Hindu temples. The Ubud market, however, is a different affair. It’s loud, it smells of fish and durian and the air is heavy with smoke from the charcoal stoves cooking satays. That’s just the way Nengah loves it.
Known in his village as being a serious, hard-working and demanding chef, Nengah beams with a smile as he barters with the market stallholders. ‘There is nothing I love more than the market,’ he says buying a little sweet cake from an old woman. His normal dry, professional demeanour has given way to almost boyish excitement. He leads us through a crowded complex of dark alleyways lined with spice vendors, opening out to a central square where produce is displayed – green papaya, strings of flowers for the temples, baskets of dry fish, durian, jackfruit, passionfruit, pandan on banana leaves. He shows us around the market, naming all the fruits endemic to the region, past the coffee stall selling dark, thick Balinese coffee, to his favourite satay lady.
‘She is from Java so they are quite authentic,’ he says. They are superb, chargrilled chicken skewers with a creamy peanut sauce redolent of so many classic spices like clove and cinnamon that Indonesia is famous for.
Nengah was born on the island of Lombok, the island neighbouring Bali. As a boy he would catch fish with his father then cook them on the beach. His father taught him to make a fire on the sand and how to gather wild ginger and lemongrass that grew in the strip of green between the water’s edge and the forest. He remembers the aroma of the wild herbs and the freshness of the fish. ‘If you start with good produce like that,’ he says, ‘a chef’s job is half done.’
At an early age he travelled to Sydney and landed an apprenticeship as a chef. He trained in the classic French chef brigade system at the five-star Hyatt Hotel in Canberra where he was respected for his discipline. In the early 2000s he became chef at The Tryst, a popular restaurant in the Canberra suburb of Manuka, before opening his own restaurant, Element, in nearby Griffith in 2005. It was a popular restaurant for half a decade gaining acclaim from the local media and patronage from politicians and high-ranking public servants. Nengah next worked across Asia, consulting to high-level hotels and restaurants before deciding to settle in a place of his own in Penestanan, a five-minute scooter ride from the heart of Ubud.
For his new Penestanan restaurant he reprised the name Element. It’s perched on the edge of a bustling village road that leads to the road to Ubud. Apart from the new boutique hotel across the road and a motorbike taxi rank a few doors down, the scene is still quite bucolic with a small rice paddy about the size of a soccer pitch next door and farm workers making their way to work carrying woven baskets. Element is an indoor/outdoor affair with an under-cover dining area looking into the drama of the kitchen and an undercover patio opening onto the street.
Decked out with wooden tables and chairs on tiles and traditional thatched roof it captures the laid-back nature of Balinese life while avoiding cliché. His cooking reflects his discipline as a chef with finesse, as well as his understanding of seasoning and presentation. His menu is a blend of fine dining and casual Western dishes designed to keep visitors happy when they are tired of gado gado, nasi Bali (rice) and babi guling (roast piglet). Nengah is particular about his suppliers, ordering from the best and most reputable. While we visited him he rejected a delivery of fish: it wasn’t fresh enough. ‘It has to be the best for me,’ he says.
Nengah suggests you start the meal with a fresh ginger cocktail. For an entrée expect a beautifully presented dish of crisp fried prawns set on a bed of sweet fragrant watermelon with a piquant wasabi dressing and avocado salsa – a perfect dish to accompany an ice-cold Bintang lager. Hipster urbanites will be impressed with the stack-like burger loaded with fresh tomato, crisp lettuce, mayo and mustard, with chips served in a small metal pail. For your main course try the crisp-skinned salmon on a bed of risotto or the confit duck leg on silky smooth puréed potato and lipsmacking sticky reduced jus. It is beautifully plated and expertly cooked. What is even more delicious is the price: expect to save at least a third on what you’d pay in an Australian suburban bistro.
Element Restaurant and Bar
Jl. Penestanan Kelod, Ubud, Bali
Tel +62 361 4792062