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Warung Bintang: A taste trip to the Bali backstreets

by Robbie Swinnerton

With all the thousands of Japanese who visit Bali each year, enjoying its beguiling climate and culture, it’s a mystery why the island’s cuisine does not have more adherents here. Indonesian restaurants are so few and far between in Tokyo that any addition to their number is worthy of note. When it’s as nicely put together as Warung Bintang, we feel like shouting from the rooftops.

Not that Warung Bintang is in any way fancy; quite the opposite. But it’s the care and attention that have been invested in this little eatery on the far side of Shibuya that make it well worth searching out if you find yourself on that side of town.

If you approach by the meandering side street that leads toward Yoyogi-Koen, you know you’ve arrived when you spot the handsome wood-and-glass box-on-wheels standing by the steps leading up to Warung Bintang’s main entrance. It’s the genuine article, a gerobak (in Japanese, yatai) — the sort of cart you see being pulled along by food hawkers in Denpasar, Bali’s bustling capital city.

Like the name itself — “warung” signifies a basic roadside canteen rather than a full-fledged restaurant — this is an indication of the kind of cooking you can expect here: simple, straightforward street food. At the same time, it tells you that here is a place aiming for authenticity, without too much toning down of tastes in deference to Japanese palates.

It’s also a sign of the quirky depth of detail and design that has gone into producing Warung Bintang. This is a labor of love as much as a commercial venture. The young folk who run it have not only lived in Indonesia — Bali mostly, but also Java — they have fallen under its spell. Even before setting up Warung Bintang last autumn, they were already catering food from temporary stalls at summer music festivals around Japan. Now they have a focus for the other months of the year.

Just about everything in the entire premises has been shipped in: the posters decorating the walls; the plastic stools, table tops and colorful tablecloths; the packages of snack foods, noodles, instant coffee and cigarettes that fill the window separating the dining room from the kitchen; the cassettes of Indonesian pop music; even the air freshener in the restroom. Most important of all, though, they also brought over Indonesian chefs to handle the cooking duties.

Initially, there were two of them, one from Bali and the other from Java, sharing responsibilities with the menu (religious precepts meant one of them didn’t prepare beef and the other never touched pork). As of last month, though, it seems only the latter remains, so pork is now totally off the menu. To compensate, we found he is starting to introduce a wider range of Javanese food specialties.

For an overview of the kind of no-nonsense, wholesome food he’s cooking up, just put in an order for his nasi campur (pronounced “champur”). This set meal is the central pillar of all Indonesian cuisine, no matter which island. It consists of a mound of rice surrounded by tasters of whatever side dishes have been prepared that day. Think of it as the Indonesian version of a blue-plate special — except that here at Warung Bintang your platter is a contoured rectangle of green plastic shaped to evoke the bamboo leaves that used to serve as plates in bygone times.

Beside the rice, here nicely spiced up with a drizzle of green curry, there will also be some simmered meat or chicken; a small scattering of gado-gado salad; maybe a few chicken balls; a portion of mi goreng (fried noodles); perhaps half a hard-boiled egg; and always a puffy krupuk prawn cracker.

At midday, nasi campur is the main lunch option, alongside two types of curry, nasi goreng (fried rice) and mi goreng, none of which will take you over half an hour to eat or set you back more than ¥900. These are also served in the evening, complemented with a wide range of Indonesian standards, plus a number of local specialty foods.

A good place to start is the range of satay — skewers of grilled beef, chicken, mutton or prawn, all well slathered with sweet-savory sauce and served either individually or as a mixed plate (¥980). We were happy to find we could also order skewers of tempeh (¥530), the traditional Indonesian soyfood that is still surprisingly hard to lay hands on, even here in the land of natto and other fermented soybean products.

Another excellent recent addition to the menu is pepes ikan (¥840), a specialty of the Sunda region of west Java. The chef takes fillets of white fish, coats them with a thick paste of ground candlenut (a neutral-flavored nut similar to macadamia), spices them with lemongrass, chili and other aromatics, wraps them in bamboo leaf — real leaves here, not plastic — and grills them until they are tender.

I t’s all tasty, and rather more sophisticated than you’d expect for street-cart cuisine. Essentially, though, these dishes are intended as nibbles to accompany the drinks that form a more central part of the evening menu.

There is beer, of course, including the namesake Bintang, Indonesia’s best-known bottled brew (there is no formal affiliation; “bintang” just means “star”). If it’s heftier hooch you’re after, then arrack, Indonesia’s homegrown firewater, can hold its own against shochu or any other rocket fuel you care to consume.

And when you are done with drinking, you can close your meal in the proper style with a serving of deep-fried banana drizzled with syrup, accompanied by some thick, gritty Balinese coffee.

If we have one beef with Warung Bintang it is that, as in any backstreet eatery in Bali, smoking is permitted throughout — even pungent clove kretek cigarettes. In our book, that is taking authenticity a step too far. But it is a small price to pay for the rest of the package — one of the best-looking, most welcoming and affordable Indonesian eateries we know in all of Tokyo.